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Smart Cities Begin with Connectivity

September 11, 2015


“Federal and local governments around the world are expected to spend $475.5 bn technology products and services by 2019,” reports Kevin Chen, Vice President of Analytics and Chief Scientist for Experian’s North American DataLab. “From New York to Chicago to Rio de Janeiro, metropolitan centers around the world are looking for new ways to be ‘smart’ — to become more sustainable, improve the efficiency of public services and citizens’ quality of life.”[1] Unstated, but underlying all of Chen’s assertions, is the fact that smart cities rely on broadband connectivity to become smart. Chen goes on to write, “Forward-thinking civic and business leaders are experimenting with massive amounts of data — and the tools and technologies to compile and examine it — in order to improve how efficiently and effectively cities are managed.” Brookings’ analysts, Adie Tomer (@AdieTomer) and Rob Puentes (@rpuentes), 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.”[2] Although broadband connectivity is the sine qua non of smart cities, connectivity alone is insufficient to make them smart. Chen explains:

“So-called, ‘smart cities’ require more than data alone — they require technologies to collect and analyze huge amounts of information and they require cross-sector solutions that can be scaled to size. ‘Smart cities’ require leaders to use Big Data for good — to make better decisions, drive smart growth and benefit society as a whole.”

Broadband connectivity allows for the flow of data; but, without a way to collect, analyze, and act upon that data, connectivity is like a river that carries water to ocean. Fortunately, most organizations understand that data is a valuable and exploitable resource. In fact, the World Economic Forum has declared data an asset as valuable as oil or gold. P.C. Kiran (@pckirank), AVP of Engineering at Impetus, asserts, “Information and Communication Technology has become a foremost importance in every sphere of progress and development.”[3] He continues:

“The role Big Data is fundamental in smart cities. Management of public amenities and services in such cities requires a strong technology infrastructure. Big Data will enable implementing a number of systems and features that will support the ‘smart’ aspects of these cities.”

Nevertheless, data lying fallow in a database is as useless as gold buried deep in the ground. To unleash its power, data must be analyzed for actionable insights. Admittedly, that’s nothing new. People have been analyzing data for millennia. What is different today is that much more massive data sets can be analyzed much more quickly with modern technologies. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) have been especially important; particularly, the development of cognitive computing technologies that analyze both structured and unstructured data looking for relationships and insights. As Chen notes, real breakthroughs occur when cross-sector solutions can be found. Although no one denies that gathering and analyzing data from urban systems is critical to make them run more efficiently, the “system” that is most important to understand is the urban population. Amado de Jesus insists, “The core of the smart city concept is the collection and analysis of data from the physical environment and data provided directly by citizens. Citizens are the city’s end-users so their behavior [must be] intelligently analyzed to arrive at efficient and sustainable solutions. … A sustainable, efficient city is citizen-centered, where the government encourages citizens to report issues and suggest improvements to public authorities using modern communications technology.”[4] De Jesus offers a few examples where governments and citizens are collaborating to make life better:

“Millions of Hong Kong inhabitants have a ‘Smart Card’ used for public transport, access to public buildings, shopping, parking and other services. The city of Boston has started real-time monitoring of personal waste in sewage for signs of impending influenza epidemics and gastrointestinal illnesses and the spread of antibiotics. Rio de Janeiro youth living in favelas, or low-income neighborhoods, identify risk factors such as large accumulation of waste and rainwater and other damage in the neighborhood through smart phones provided by the project. Vejle, a city in southern Denmark at the base of a fjord surrounded by hills and threatened by frequent flooding, seeks to improve its climate change resiliency and has joined a network of facilities in the Rockefeller Foundation International network of 100 Resilient Cities.”

Chen adds:

“The true smart cities will use Big Data to enable the preemption and prediction of urban issues, improving efficiency and quality of city services from healthcare to traffic management. If used properly, and in conjunction with tools that deliver actionable insights, smart cities will transform the lives of urban residents.”

Although some of the connectivity discussed above is provided via the World Wide Web or mobile phone systems, the network that is predicted to have the greatest effect on cities in the future is the Internet of Things (IoT). Some analysts believe that IoT, which is primarily a machine-to-machine network will eventually merge with the World Wide Web to create an Internet of Everything. John Chambers and Wim Elfrink (@WimElfrink) explain, “As much as the Internet has already changed the world, it is the Web’s next phase that will bring the biggest opportunities, revolutionizing the way we live, work, play, and learn. That next phase, which some call the Internet of Things and which we call the Internet of Everything, is the intelligent connection of people, processes, data, and things. Although it once seemed like a far-off idea, it is becoming a reality for businesses, governments, and academic institutions worldwide.”[5] They continue:

“Perhaps surprisingly, the public sector has been the most effective and innovative early adopter when it comes to making use of the Internet of Everything, especially in major metropolitan areas. New and innovative solutions are already transforming green fields and rundown urban centers into what we call Smart + Connected Communities, or Smart Cities.”

Chambers and Elfrink discuss how installing smart infrastructure systems can help cash-strapped metropolitan areas save money in the years ahead. Below are a few examples:


  • Technology could provide a simple fix [to energy-related costs] by updating aging street lighting systems. That would also improve citizen safety and create a more favorable environment for business investments.
  • By placing networked sensors in water mains and underground pipe systems as they are repaired and replaced, cities could more effectively monitor and better anticipate future leaks and other potential problems as the infrastructure is upgraded.
  • Sensors in residential and commercial garbage containers could alert a city waste management system when they are full. Each morning, the drivers would receive their optimized route to empty the full containers. Compared to today’s fixed-route system, the new system could save millions of dollars by increasing efficiencies and worker productivity.
  • Buildings outfitted with intelligent sensors and networked management systems can collect and analyze energy-use data. Such technologies have the potential to reduce energy consumption and cut costs by $100 billion globally over the next decade.
  • Incredibly, drivers looking for a parking space cause 30 percent of urban congestion, not to mention pollution. To overcome this problem, the city of San Carlos, California has embedded networked sensors into parking spaces that relay to drivers real-time information about — and directions to — available spots. This program has helped reduce congestion, pollution, and fuel consumption.
  • Cities can also integrate sensors that collect and share real-time data about public transportation systems to improve traffic flow and better monitor the use of buses and trains, giving them the ability to adjust route times and frequency of stops based on changing needs. This alone will cut costs and bring new efficiencies. Mobile apps that aggregate the information, meanwhile, can help citizens track delays or check pick-up times for a more seamless commute.


De Jesus concludes, “A sustainable, efficient city is citizen-centered, where the government encourages citizens to report issues and suggest improvements to public authorities using modern communications technology.” Although I agree that a smart city is citizen-centered, it must also have a system focus. That’s why I agree with Chambers and Elfrink that the greatest leaps ahead will occur once the Internet of Everything matures. Smart cities begin with connectivity.


[1] Kevin Chen, “Smart cities of the future,” The Hill, 10 August 2015.
[2] Adie Tomer and Rob Puentes, “Here’s the Right Way to Build the Futuristic Cities of Our Dreams,” Wired, 23 April 2014.
[3] P.C. Kiran, “The Road to Smart Cities: Big Data,” iamwire, 14 August 2015.
[4] Amado de Jesus, “Connectivity the secret of smart cities,” Inquirer.net, 8 August 2015.
[5] John Chambers and Wim Elfrink, “The Future of Cities,” Foreign Affairs, 31 October 2014.

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