Connectivity is the Sine Qua Non of Smart Cities

Stephen DeAngelis

September 18, 2020

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has some people questioning the future of urban living, cities have always been important and will remain so. The current push is to make cities smarter about how they support residents and businesses; however, the fact of the matter is, cities must get connected to get smarter. 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] The same truism applies to cities. Jamie Hayes, Mobile Network Operators Director at BT Wholesale, writes, “When it comes to smart cities, you’re only as good as your connectivity.”[2] There are only two ways to get connected — fiber and wireless. Both methods have a role to play. W. Jarrett Campbell, Global Industry Marketing Director at AVEVA, adds, “Infrastructure provides a critical connection to businesses, communities, people and quality of life on a global scale. It drives economies across the world.”[3]


Fiber and 5G wireless technologies


Stuart Large (@Stuart_Fotech), Product Line Director & Business Development at Fotech, notes, “Fiber broadband has been the foundation of innovation in modern times, driving communication, knowledge and the sharing of ideas at high speed.”[4] When most people think about broadband connectivity, they think about fiber. Large notes, however, that many countries have a problem when it come to fiber connectivity. He explains:


Only nine Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development members have high speed fiber accounting for more than half their broadband connections. Korea leads the way with 82 per cent and Japan in second place with 79 per cent of total connections. The Nordic region fares particularly well, with four countries in the top 10. At the other end of the scale, some large economies’ fiber provision is less impressive. France has only 20 per cent penetration, Australian 19 per cent, and the United States 16 per cent. Germany and the United Kingdom’s performances are even less impressive, at four per cent and two per cent respectively. This matters in the connectivity age. Not only does robust fiber infrastructure support the fixed line needs of citizens and businesses, but it also provides the necessary backhaul capacity for mobile broadband networks.”


If connectivity truly is the electricity of the twenty-first century, most countries need to beef up their fiber networks. When it comes to broadband connectivity, urban areas are generally better off than rural areas. They are also better off when it comes to wireless broadband networks. The cutting edge of wireless networks is fifth generation (or 5G) technology. Journalist Dene Moore (@ByDeneMoore) predicts 5G wireless technology will power smart city development. She explains:


Imagine a city where autonomous vehicles communicate with traffic lights and on-the-ground sensors to clear traffic jams. … Or imagine a city where firefighters can arrive at the scene of a fire without waiting to track down building plans. Instead, they navigate through the structure using real-time virtual reality (VR) technology that cuts through the smoke and flames. These are just some of the potential solutions that could come from the advancement of 5G, the next generation of cellular technology. With each new generation comes new possibilities. … 5G technology is expected to be 100 times faster than the existing 4G networks, with a much lower latency rate, or lag, when sending and receiving data in real-time. It will also be able to handle a much larger number of connected devices than current networks, enabling them to speak to one another. Powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning, the potential of smart cities and the Internet of Things will be unleashed.”[5]


Although broadband connectivity is the sine qua non of a smart city, how cities use that connectivity is what makes them smart.


Smart city system-of-systems approach


In order to achieve the goals most cities are pursuing, Campbell insists, “There is now a greater need than ever for: Seamless integration between systems, sites, people and assets; improved operational efficiency and reduced energy cost; adherence to various security, cybersecurity, safety and regulatory compliance; [and,] not just delivering on service-level agreements, but exceeding expectations. To accomplish this, infrastructure operators must extend their sights beyond traditional key performance indicators (KPIs) and monitoring real-time operations. They must leverage the latest technological advancements in data, analytics, advanced visualization and workflow management capabilities to ensure sustainable innovation through digitalization. … A system of systems integration approach can break down data silos, promote cross-functional collaboration and optimize the ability of cities to make faster, more informed decisions and speed crisis response.” Making better decisions lies at the heart of smart city operations. In the business world, explain Bain analysts, Michael C. Mankins and Lori Sherer (), “The best way to understand any company’s operations is to view them as a series of decisions.”[6]


Cities, like businesses, are organizations that can benefit from better decision-making. Mankins and Sherer note, “We know from extensive research that decisions matter — a lot. Companies that make better decisions, make them faster and execute them more effectively than rivals nearly always turn in better financial performance. Not surprisingly, companies that employ advanced analytics to improve decision making and execution have the results to show for it.” It’s not a stretch to conclude cities that employ advanced analytics to improve decision-making will also have results to show for it. Decisions begin with data; and, gathering data depends on connectivity. Hayes concludes, “Technology has developed leaps and bounds in the last few decades. Where residents once relied on dial-up internet and the quandary of a decision between making a phone call or surfing the web, now everything in our homes and on the street can be consistently connected; that’s what a smart city means, a fully, always-on, connected urban area. By using technology to optimize the city or town, authorities will see benefits across a range of different aspects — from better transport and eased congestion to smart refuse and recycling points and saving electricity. Therefore consistent connectivity is absolutely vital to the functioning of smart cities.”


[1] Adie Tomer and Rob Puentes, “Here’s the Right Way to Build the Futuristic Cities of Our Dreams,” Wired, 23 April 2014.
[2] Jamie Hayes, “Smart cities are only as good as their connectivity,” Smart Cities World, 10 August 2020.
[3] W. Jarrett Campbell, “A ‘system of systems’ approach to breaking down smart city silos,” Smart Cities World, 17 January 2020.
[4] Stuart Large, “Fibre can transform society but only if governments are prepared to give a helping hand,” Smart Cities World, 27 July 2020.
[5] Dene Moore, “How 5G will power smart cities of the future,” The Globe and Mail, 19 May 2020.
[6] Michael C. Mankins and Lori Sherer, “Creating value through advanced analytics,” Bain Brief, 11 February 2015.