Can Cities Talk ?

Can cities talk ?

It has been a couple of months since my last post – but I think I have a good reason. As many of you know I recently took on the CEO role at a company called Streetline Inc. Going into any new company takes its time and effort and hence the delayed posts. But here I am again – for better or worse !

So lets get to it. My “Right Question”. Can cities talk ?  Well first what do I mean by that.  I am talking about the exciting world of sensors aka “internet of things”, aka “smart grid”, aka “rfid tags” and the list goes on.  Sensor are a normal part of our every day existence.  We have sensors in cars, washing machines, phones, planes, elevators, machinery etc.  Sensors provide a pretty basic service – they “sense”.  What they sense can vary – it can be movement, temperature, magnetic level, pollution, and again the list goes on.

Over the years sensors have become more sophisticated and have had a significant impact on how we work and live.  In the 1990’s a movement began called the “Internet of Things”.  Started by the Auto ID Center (originally based in MIT) the idea was to create a network of objects that can talk to each other and to the internet.  This concept and its offshoots have continued to gain speed.  Originally there was a lot of excitement around RFID tags that could project object information and could be tracked through the supply chain, into supermarkets and even into your home.   So it is clear that we are now living in a world where objects are talking to each other and to us.

However, over these past years the proliferation of sensor technology has had its ups and downs – technology challenges, adoption issues, some times privacy concerns and many times a lack of focus on creating true economic value for stakeholders. Over the last 3-5 years though there has been a resurgence of sensor based technology popping up in areas where its potential impact is massive.

One area area that has gotten a lot of attention recently is the “Smart Grid”.  Essentially utility companies with the help of innovative start ups are starting to deploy sensors at electricity and gas meters, along the grid and even down to your appliances in your kitchen.  The primary purpose of this investment is to generate data or information. This information can then be used by consumers, utilities and companies to manage a “smarter grid”.  There are some exciting companies in this space – here are just a few you can look at for more information: Silver Spring Networks, eMeter, Tendril etc.

So now lets talk about cities – and specifically “Smart Cities”.  Well first question is how does a city become a “smart city”.  As usual when in doubt go to Wikipedia (I do it more so that we don’t have to waste time on definitions !)

“Smart cities can be identified (and ranked) along six main axes or dimensions. These axes are: a smart economy; smart mobility; a smart environment; smart people; smart living; and, finally, smart governance. These six axes connect with traditional regional and neoclassical theories of urban growth and development. In particular, the axes are based – respectively – on theories of regional competitiveness, transport and ICT economics, natural resources, human and social capital, quality of life, and participation of citizens in the governance of cities.

A city can be defined as ‘smart’ when investments in human and social capital and traditional (transport) and modern (ICT) communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic development and a high quality of life, with a wise management of natural resources, through participatory governance”

That is a long and somewhat complicated definition – but does capture the essence of a “smart city”.   So here is the rub.  For any of the six dimensions we need one vital component – data/information.  How do you know if you have smart mobility or a smart environment if you cannot measure it and gather data.

So many of the smart city activities depends on two vital components – new sources of data that inform us and software that collects this data and allows us to make smarter, quicker and more informed decisions.

There is some great information and thought leadership from IBM on this topic. I have found IBM to have the most comprehensive vision and plan around their  Smart City initiatives – it leverages the use of sensors (both human and electronic), data and software to bring amazing new solutions to bear on the parts of the world that are growing the fastest and will pose the biggest challenge of our time – our cities.

So in order for a city to be smarter – it has to talk to us – it has to provide us new types of data so that we can better manage it. Let me use Streetline as a great example of a new technology that is helping cities talk to us (yes I know I am promoting my own company – but I know its technology and can talk about it in context).

Not smart parking !

Streetline is the leader in deploying ultra low power mesh sensor networks.  The idea is that these mesh networks can deploy sensors that allow a city to provide amazing new sources of data and information.  Our first focus area has been around smart parking.  Over 3o% of the traffic in a city is caused by people looking for parking – I am sure you have personally experienced this.  Streetline has developed a parking sensor that gets installed at every parking spot. Together with meter sensors we now have real time access to both parking payment information and vehicle presence information.  This is just the first step – in the future we hope to deploy sensors to monitor traffic, water pressure in fire hydrants, and to keep a real time track of if street lamps are working (when you have 50,000 + street lamps the saving potential is significant). All of these sensors provide real time data that can change the way a city operates.  This video by Good illustrates this concept much better than I can.

I will be writing more about this topic in the weeks ahead. We are entering a new phase of the “internet of things” where the technology is getting cheaper and better and the software (both web and mobile) is getting more sophisticated and easy to use.  I predict we will see a revolution in smart city technology over the next 5-10 years.

S0 yes I do think cities can talk and they can give us amazing new types of information that will change how we work and live.

As always your thoughtful comments and input are welcome.

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