CommunicAsia is back again, and if you’re attending this year, you’re going to be hearing a lot about smart cities and smart nations – not least because you’ll be smack in the middle of one, as the Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA) will no doubt be reminding you at various times during the event.
Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative is arguably the most ambitious and most advanced of smart-city projects in Asia, if not the world. If nothing else, it’s helped put Singapore at the top of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Asian Digital Transformation Index. One interesting aspect of all this is that much of the Smart City stuff is not just obvious things like ride-hailing kiosks at hotels (which my hotel has had installed since my last visit to CommunicAsia) but logistics apps like managing deliveries to shopping arcades.
A lot of the focus on smart cities is inevitably and understandably on the technology – particularly IoT. You’ll be seeing a whole lot of IoT this year, particularly if you go to Level 5 in the venue, where numerous companies will be showcasing all kinds of IoT-related smart city apps and demos.
However, there’s a lot more to smart cities than the technology itself. A smart city isn’t an app, or even a piece of legislation. It’s a complex ecosystem brought about by a sheer act of will between cooperating parties that are all on the same page. And this raises a whole raft of questions for cities that haven’t yet embarked on their own smart city initiatives.
How to get started? Where do we start? Who do we partner with, and how? How much will it cost, and where are we going to get the money to pay for it? How will we know if we’re doing it right?
Obviously the answers will vary by market and jurisdiction. The one thing we’re sure of is that it has to be a partnership between public and private stakeholders. Governments need to take the lead, but they can’t do it themselves, and neither can telcos – it’s just too complex a task requiring cooperation and collaboration on too many levels. Even something as simple as rights of way to install small cells, sensors and other necessary infrastructure can get thorny, especially in a smart-nation scenario with multiple deployment in different municipalities whose regulations and requirements may vary widely. A lot of work has to be done just to get everyone on the same page (and that’s assuming you don’t have any major corruption issues to deal with).
At the same time, we also need standards for the technologies and platforms enabling smart cities – not just wireless connectivity standards like NB-IoT, Sigfox and LoRa, but implementation standards for things like, say, context information management systems. A smart city project built on proprietary technologies is doomed – it has to be built on open standards technologies and solutions for maximum efficiency. We’re assured the standards are coming, but it’s early days.
One of the big question marks for smart cities is how to know when your investment is paying off, because it won’t necessarily be measured in revenues. For example, Huawei estimates in its Global Connectivity Index that by 2025, every additional $1 invested in ICT could result in a $5 increase in GDP. But of course that’s not guaranteed by any means.
The smart-city payoff could also be measured in things like reduced carbon footprints. According to a recent Gartner report, the combination of ride-sharing, electrification of public transportation, the support infrastructure for e-vehicles and congestion charging for combustion engines can drive cleaner air, produce fewer GHG emissions and save energy, while improving noise levels and ambience on city streets. Gartner estimates that half of all smart city objectives by 2020 will include climate change, resilience and sustainability KPIs.
And so on and etc and things of that nature generally.
So while smart-city tech demos are all good fun and (when done well) inspiring, the technology is arguably the least challenging aspect – with the possible exception of security, which is going to be of absolute paramount importance for any smart-city initiative.
To pick a contemporary example, last week’s WannaCry ransomware worm demanded payment just for people to unlock files on their hard drives – imagine an attack that turns off the city’s intelligent streetlight system and demands the government pay $1 million in bitcoins to turn them back on. Current trends suggest it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing the likes of Mirai and WannaCry set their sights on smart-city apps.
Here’s hoping the discussions on smart cities at CommunicAsia this week focus as much on these issues as they do on the whiz-bang tech.