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Embracing a Smart City System-of-Systems Approach

March 20, 2020


Watching time-lapse videos of city life is always fascinating. They help viewers understand the pulse of life unique to each urban environment. Charles Towers-Clark (@ctowersclark), founder and Chairman of Pod Group, observes, “To untangle the complexities of a city, first you must understand the people that live there. Gathering data around local population changes, demographics, economic growth and decline, and political and social allegiances is essential when planning a city or making small changes that affect the whole.”[1] He adds, “Getting a well-rounded view of a city is becoming more important as cities grow far larger and more influential than ever intended (especially true in Europe), and smart technologies may be one way to ensure that urban populations are served appropriately and in a sustainable way.” A “well-rounded view” of a city includes understanding the systems essential for metro-living.


IBM believes “people” are one of six core systems smart cities must optimize and integrate. The other five systems are: business; transport; communication; water; and energy. I would add a seventh system — waste management (which includes both trash and sanitation). The ecosystem that will optimize and integrate these diverse systems involves sensors, the Internet of Things (IoT), and cognitive computing. Sensors will generate data which will be transmitted via the IoT to a cognitive computing platform where it will be integrated and analyzed resulting in insights and actions. At least that’s the idealized version of how smart cities could work. Many analysts believe this system-of-systems approach is essential to make a city truly smart.


Building the smart city nervous system


“Smart cities are no longer a utopian dream of the future,” writes the editorial staff of IT-Online. “Thanks to a slew of innovative and game-changing technologies, they are already active and growing quickly. Smart cities could be described as the junction between three main areas, namely digital transformation, environmental sustainability and economic performance. They can be described as a framework made up of connected technologies, designed to address the challenges of rapid urbanization and promote more sustainable, smarter practices.”[2] The term “connected technologies” refers to the Internet of Things ecosystem described above. The staff notes, “An explosion of internet of things devices, sensors, quantum computers, artificial intelligence, and green solutions, cities are rapidly turning into living, breathing organisms, that adapt and respond to the way citizens live and communicate.” Fred Saayman, Huawei brand executive at Pinnacle, told IT-Online, “These solutions can sense, process and deliver informed decisions that better the environment for all citizens. They employ the latest technologies to build a central nervous system for smart cities, by employing real-time situation reporting and analysis that unites the powers of cloud computing, AI, IoT and big data.”


Journalist Nick Huber (@nickahuber) reports, “Our cities are becoming more connected by the day. Around the world, cities are using the Internet of Things, fifth generation mobile networks and artificial intelligence technologies to cut traffic congestion, improve public safety and protect the environment. IoT devices monitor sewers, air quality and rubbish. Smart street lamps save energy by tracking pedestrian volumes, while sensors on roads and bridges monitor vibration and humidity for damage.”[3] James Carlini (@JAMESCARLINI), an intelligent infrastructure strategist and President of Carlini and Associates, insists cities must turn to smart infrastructure to prosper. He explains, “All municipalities around the country need to be concerned with this as it is a matter of economic survival and extending their viability into the 21st century. It is not a frill issue or one specific to one region. As we move forward, municipalities need to compete with one another to entice corporations and other organizations to develop new facilities and create jobs for their region. The one thing they need to have is a solid and smart infrastructure which includes adequate and redundant power and broadband connectivity so there is no single-point-of-failure.”[4] 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.”[5]


Embracing the system-of-systems approach


Broadband connectivity and an IoT ecosystem form the nervous system of a truly smart city. The next step is making all the pieces (i.e., the systems) work in harmony. W. Jarrett Campbell, Global Industry Marketing Director at AVEVA, writes, “Infrastructure provides a critical connection to businesses, communities, people and quality of life on a global scale. It drives economies across the world. In order to stay competitive, every nation must move people, goods and data efficiently while delivering energy and water resources in a safe, reliable and sustainable manner.”[6] In order to achieve those desired goals, 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.”


Tech journalist Carly Minsky (@carlyminsky) reports one way to help integrate systems and make a city smarter is to leverage digital twin technology. She explains, “The dynamic nature of digital twins offers urban planners, policymakers, resource managers and asset owners more tools and information than static data models. In construction, engineering, manufacturing and automotive industries, digital twins of individual assets are used for real-time monitoring, remote control of systems, scenario-testing and strategic planning. Digital twins can also allow citizens to explore the impact of different planning projects directly: visual simulations or derived data could tell them how a planning proposal would change the view from their apartment, or traffic congestion on their commute, for example.”[7] One of the challenges facing the system-of-system approach is integrating systems monitored by different vendors. To overcome this challenge, researchers from Boston University recommend a Smart-city Cloud-based Open Platform and Ecosystem (SCOPE). BU researchers have created “a cloud platform that exposes the digital pulse of the city for innovators to develop smart-city services. … The Open Cloud eXchange (OCX), a plug-and-play architecture, allows many partners, not just a single provider, to compete and cooperate on the same infrastructure, effectively creating an multi-sided cloud marketplace where innovation can flourish in support of new applications, currently under-served by prevailing [public] cloud operators.”[8]


Concluding thoughts


Campbell concludes, “A transformative integration approach is required to span across various applications, including facilities management, utilities, telecommunication, transportation, health and e-governance. The most effective approach, then, is to not just connect all these disparate functions but to collect, analyze and then act on unified and holistic intelligence with the help of real-time data.” Piecemeal approaches to smart city projects will never achieve the grand goals urban futurists envision. A system-of-systems approach the best way forward.


[1] Charles Towers-Clark, “Planning Better Cities With AI And Big Data—Part One,” Forbes, 27 November 2019.
[2] Staff, “Building a ‘nervous system’ for smart cities,” IT-Online, 16 October 2019.
[3] Nick Huber, “Internet of Things: Smart cities pick up the pace,” Financial Times, 29 January 2020.
[4] James Carlini, “Smart Cities Require Smart Infrastructure,” International Policy Digest, 15 December 2019.
[5] Adie Tomer and Rob Puentes, “Here’s the Right Way to Build the Futuristic Cities of Our Dreams,” Wired, 23 April 2014.
[6] W. Jarrett Campbell, “A ‘system of systems’ approach to breaking down smart city silos,” SmartCitiesWorld, 17 January 2020.
[7] Carly Minsky, “Digital twins give urban planners virtual edge,” Financial Times, 29 January 2020.
[8] Staff, “SCOPE Research Project,” Boston University Hariri Institute for Computing.

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