Cities must get Connected before they get Smart

Stephen DeAngelis

December 27, 2018

Big visions are wonderful guides to the future. But every journey begins with a first step and the path to a smart city begins with connectivity. Adie Tomer (@AdieTomer), a fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Rob Puentes (@rpuentes), President & CEO of EnoTrans, bluntly state, “No industry or household in the world, will reach their future potential without access to broadband, it is the electricity of the 21st century.”[1] Peter Murray (@dense_networks), Executive Director of Dense Networks, agrees. He writes, “Getting to be a Smart City first requires getting connected. A Connected City is a city or community that has the network infrastructure (fiber optics, wi fi, small cell, towers) that allows for the efficient exchange and collection of information (voice, data, video) via a variety of devices both public and private (sensors, cameras, phones, traffic signals).”[2]


5G telecommunications, fiber, and the IoT


Most analysts now believe fifth generation (5G) telecommunications technology, along with fiber-optic cables, will provide the backbone connectivity utilized by the Internet of Things (IoT) in a smart city environment. As Murray noted above, there are lots of things needing to be connected. Anyone old enough to remember dial-up Internet connections understands the necessity for fiber-optic cable connectivity. But not everything can be connected by cable. That’s where 5G technology comes into play. Why use 5G? Kalyan Parbat explains, “5G or ‘fifth-generation’ is a fast, wireless broadband technology that will transcend smartphones and connect anything from cars, machines and home appliances at speeds 50-to-100 times faster than present 4G networks. It will offer lower lag times when transferring data.”[3] Connecting everything that needs connecting will require more bandwidth, faster speeds, and ubiquitous availability. 5G technology can provide all that. Rhymer Rigby (@rhymerrigby) explains, “In the so-called smart cities of the future, urban infrastructure will be interconnected; networked devices will be everywhere, from buses and cars to streetlamps, all linked to networks via the internet of things. Roads themselves will be online. Water and power grids will have smart sensors. All this should make our urban spaces more efficient and convenient, less polluted, safer and more livable.”[4]


Other technologies will also play important roles in connecting smart cities. John Hicklin, an IoT expert at PA Consulting, told Rigby, “In smart cities, no one solution meets all requirements.” As a result, Rigby notes, “Technological considerations such as range, cost, power consumption, bandwidth and latency (the delay in transferring data) will all inform which solutions are the most appropriate for any given task.” Jenna Bensoussan (@jennabensoussan) notes, “A number of cities are developing elaborate enterprise systems that accumulate, aggregate and evaluate data from a wide range of sources. Various city objects are retrofitted with technological features to enable the collection of data. The data is centrally stored in a single hub where it is analyzed by humans and algorithms. Based on this data, cities can develop a more incisive perspective of their inhabitants including behavior, needs and decisions. They can, therefore, better plan their development and manage unexpected events.”[5] She discusses several tasks that can be accomplished in a smart, connected city. They are:


  • Intelligent Traffic Management. “Traffic management is one of every large city’s biggest headaches. Vehicle congestion wastes millions of man-hours each year. Technology can help cities develop more efficient traffic management and ensure a smoother flow of vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians.”
  • Public Safety Digitization. “It’s inevitable that large cities will be faced with various emergencies on a daily basis. The city’s ability to quickly and accurately respond to such emergencies and disasters is crucial. Public safety vehicles such as ambulances can be incorporated into an IoT network that ensures real-time sharing of data.”
  • Citizen Interaction. “City administrations are in place to deliver services to residents. With most adults now owning a smartphone, the deployment of mobile … apps has proved useful in bringing city services within easy reach of citizens.” Colin Wood notes, however, that getting citizens engaged may be more challenging than people think. He explains, “Government agencies are increasingly adapting their services for mobile platforms, but recent industry research shows that just a third of citizens consider mobile devices their preferred mode of doing business with government, citing privacy and security as major barriers.”[6]
  • Autonomous Vehicles Data. Bensoussan writes, “Cities can deploy autonomous vehicles to automatically gather data without relying on human intervention. These cars rely on sophisticated sensors to continuously capture information that is fed to a central database via wireless internet. Some of the data these vehicles can pick up include compliance to building codes, degree of air pollution, refuse management, unauthorized signage, foot traffic, vehicle traffic, road accidents and looming dangers.”
  • Smart City Municipal Codes. “Over time, cities will require that certain smart city features are incorporated by developers. These include minimum standards for internet bandwidth, security, access and linkage.”
  • Atmosphere Control. “Some cities are installing motion, lighting and temperature sensors in interchanges and buildings. This allows the city’s lighting to be automatically adjusted in order to maximize energy savings, improve security and enhance safety.” Phil Goldstein (@philgoldstein) adds, “As cities add more ‘green’ buildings that are energy efficient, they should also be thinking of how technology can improve the environment more broadly.” This technology, Goldstein explains, “applies to everything from sensors to detect water leaks, just-in-time waste collection and energy distribution. It can also apply to how cities are constructed.”[7]


That list of tasks is not exhaustive; but, it does provide a good idea of what connectivity can bring to a city. Murray notes, “Telecommunications is a core pillar of Smart City Infrastructure and requires an ecosystem of public private cooperation to maximize its impact. Cities that actively engage in creating a Connectivity friendly environment and develop a Broadband Strategy deliver significant benefits to its citizens.”


Concluding thoughts


“It is no longer necessary to convince Cities that Connectivity is vital,” Murray writes. He also notes, “The challenge is in funding and executing.” This is true in both developed and developing countries. If developing countries can find the funding, Rigby notes, “They will be the ones that experience the greatest transformations — and may even be able to leapfrog the legacy technologies that in many cases hold back the developed world.” The benefits of a connected city can only be maximized when cognitive technologies are leveraged. Sensors will gather data and it will be transmitted via the IoT. Where the data goes and how it’s used is where the “smart” part of the ecosystem comes into play. For most cities, connectivity will include cognitive technologies that gather, integrate, and analyze data to automate systems and/or provide decision makers with actionable insights. The data, however, will never get to the brain if there is no connectivity.


[1] Adie Tomer and Rob Puentes, “Here’s the Right Way to Build the Futuristic Cities of Our Dreams,” Wired, 23 April 2014.
[2] Peter Murray, “How To Build A Connected City,” Smart & Resilient Cities, 17 October 2018.
[3] Kalyan Parbat, “How 5G technology can play crucial role in agricultural growth and smart cities initiative,” Gadgets Now, 7 April 2018.
[4] Rhymer Rigby, “Which technologies will underpin the smart cities of the future?Financial Times, 9 September 2018 (subscription required).
[5] Jenna Bensoussan, “7 Ways Technology is Making Cities Smarter,” ACED Magazine, 31 August 2018.
[6] Colin Wood, “Most people don’t want to access government services with their mobile devices,” StateScoop, 17 October 2018.
[7] Phil Goldstein, “The 7 Things That Become ‘Smart’ in a Smart City,” StateTech, 7 November 2018.