For the trend of smart cities to move beyond a buzzword and into becoming a market, the emerging sector needs to be less fragmented and more focused on interoperability, say several European leaders who will be hosting the Connected Smart Cities Conference in Brussels, this Thursday, 21 January.
Martin Brynskov, Chair of the Open and Agile Smart Cities Initiative which is hosting the conference (to be held at Square – Brussels Meeting Centre) this Thursday, says the event has already reached capacity and now has a waiting list of attendance of city representatives, businesses and startups who want to hear how Europe will work collaboratively to clear the obstacles of individually focused solutions and create a common platform for new technological projects.
The move comes as new consortiums around the globe attempt to address a similar pressure point. In the US, telco AT&T announced earlier this month they will be partnering with key vendors including Cisco, IBM, Intel and others to form a smart cities consortium aimed at agreeing on a common infrastructure framework for smart cities technologies.
There, the consortium will work on pilot projects in several US cities focusing on city issues like energy efficiency and water consumption, and on public safety enhancements.
“Open and Agile Smart Cities is built on the stuff that people are doing already and finding what works,” says Brynskov. “We are asking: what is the minimum common ground that is needed to get smart cities projects shared across different cities?”
Brynskov says one of the biggest barriers to smart city adoption has been that solutions must take into account the deeply complex roots of individual cities, where cultural and political forces mean that a solution cannot be transported wholesale from another location and expected to work the same.
Juan José Hierro, Chief Architect at FIWARE, a technology platform for smart cities infrastructure and one of the co-organizers of the conference, points to a recent example where a startup has built a GPS navigation tool in Porto, Portugal that lets drivers not only route their mapping journey, but also end it by driving directly to a vacant car parking space that is discovered in realtime as the car gets closer to its destination.
Hierro says that solution is now being applied in Spain’s northern city of Santander. “The two cities own rather different system for managing their parking slots. They have different providers with different systems,” says Hierro. “But the two cities are exporting the relevant city context information in a common way. We learnt that some cities may provide very precise geo-location information about parking slots because they have a sensor in the road detecting when there is a car on top (this is the case of Porto), while other cities can only provide an approximation based on data of the parking meters: they can infer how many slots might be available in the zone based on parking tickets emitted by the parking-meter of that zone (as occurs in the city of Santander). This way, we enhanced the common adopted model when Santander joined to add this ratio-zone instead of precise location.”
Hierro says this a is a typical problem when trying to scale smart city solutions from one city to another and is why conferences like this week’s Connected Smart Cities are important to help people share experiences. “The idea is to create showcases of what is possible and govern the curation of data models and the publication of them. You may need to work on them for the first 2-3 cities but you will reach a point in which data models are stable and then growth can be exponential. New cities simply adopt the model published and new apps also rely on them.”
Globally, analysts are placing a lot of expectations on the idea of “smart cities”, the notion that mobile, sensor technology and data can be harnessed to make cities more responsive, engaging, sustainable and efficient. But while some analysts predict the smart cities market to grow to $1.38 billion by 2020 (with half of that in Europe), those closer to the sector say that can’t be realised until the current fragmentation is overcome.
To address the fragmentation, the European Commission has been encouraging the creation of the Association for Internet of Things Innovation (AIOTI). This association, like the AT&T model in the US and involving several of the same global tech companies (like Cisco and IBM), aims to encourage the tech companies that may be involved in rolling out large sensor and realtime data technologies across a city or region to agree on that that minimum common ground that Brynskov believes is necessary.
“The commission is going to invest 15 million Euros in projects that will be deployed in several cities in Europe,” says AIOTI Chair, Sergio Gomez. “Our association has asked, what are the needs for the cities? Who should be owners of the data? The infrastructure? How can we encourage innovative ecosystems? What should be the business models?”
Gomez says the difficulty with the commission is similar for Europe as in the US – that the association is made up of individual private companies who on the one hand need to work together, but are also competing for that same funding pool of pilot project investment. Like Brynskov, Gomez is hopeful that the projects being funded will not prescribe any particular technological approach but instead, be able to surface what are the minimum common smart city components so that a solution can be replicated in multiple regions. “We are starting to provide generic frameworks and identify the points of interoperability. But its not about specifying the specific technology you should use,” said Gomez. The AIOTI will showcase their progress and discuss the pilot projects at the Connected Smart Cities Conference this week.
“We are having to go step by step. The smart cities market is not boosting at the moment because there is a lack of standards and a lack of interoperability. The European Commission wants to promote a single digital market, and one of the key principles for this is standardisation in the IT domain. And smart cities is one of their priorities. They are promoting very much interoperability and pushing European companies to define standards.”
Gomez, Brynskov and Hierro are hoping that this week’s event will bring this conversation together and help push forward the smart cities potential across Europe.