The four layers of a smart city
Municipal leaders across the U.S. are quickly aligning around the concept of how to elevate their city to be a smart city. In its most basic form this means leveraging technology to make cities more effective, efficient and sustainable. Around the world, urban areas like Beijing, Amsterdam and Barcelona have been steadily putting these pieces in place. In the U.S., cities have been slower to adapt.
But that is all about to change. Inspired by the recent U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) Smart City Challenge, more than 87 cities across the country submitted proposals for a $40-plus million grant, plus another $10 million in private investment from Vulcan. Columbus, Ohio, was announced as the winner in June of this year. All eyes will be focused on Columbus in the coming months to see how they mobilize to create smart solutions in transportation.
As more cities are working to see how they can become more future ready, there are lots of questions: What is the framework or model? Who are the people that need to be a the table? What are the metrics for success? Where do we start?
In a paper titled, “The development of smart cities in China”, Yongling Li, Yanliu Lin and Stan Geertman provide a schema in the form of a graphic that makes a lot of sense and helps municipal leaders and planners begin to answer these questions. They assert that there are four layers to a smart city: the sensor layer, the network layer, the platform layer and the application layer.
In the current news surrounding smart cities, the layers that get the most attention are the application layer and the sensor layer. This makes sense as these are “physical things” that people can see, touch and understand. When you download an app that helps you schedule your transportation route, you are experiencing the application layer. When you see a camera or a sensor mounted to a light pole, you are experiencing the sensor layer. They may not be intrusive but if you look hard enough (or know what to look for) you can find them.
The network layer and the platform layer are more behind the scenes, but are perhaps even more important. This is the “invisible” layer on which everything else depends. The network layer refers to the internet, the TV network, the power grid and millions of miles of backhaul connecting all of these things. The platform layer is the management of this network layer and refers to information processing, coordination, management, storage, security and control.
So if you look at these layers as a pyramid, the network layer is the base. When city leaders and staff begin to explore what they can do to propel their city into this next smart city phase, they are wise to examine their network capacity. It is the foundation on which everything else runs. You can have the greatest app in the world, tied to an unlimited number of sensors collecting massive amounts of data that is then all managed, stored and secured, but if the pipes that enable this level of connectivity are not robust enough, the system has limited potential.
Today, cities run on 4G networks and are scrambling to boost that capacity with small cell technology in densely populated areas, for example a downtown or business district. Small cells affix to street-level real estate such as light poles, sides of buildings or even within boxes set on the sidewalks. Small cells offload traffic from the wireless network so everything runs faster – and smarter.
The next evolution of the network will be 5G, which some industry experts believe will be in place in the next four years. Private sector providers have been developing this technology and network providers are working feverishly with city leaders to ready urban areas. The capabilities of 5G are expected to drastically increase the speed of connectivity, seamlessly connecting “things” in the sensor layer and the application layer while incredible amounts of data will be collected and managed in the platform layer. All of these things at work to make citizens’ lives more connected, more convenient, safer and more secure. It’s a bright future, indeed.
But this future depends on local leaders and policymakers working together with private sector experts to ready their cities. Smart cities depend on smart policy that looks beyond the “shiny objects” and invests in the right infrastructure to make it all run. It’s like building the highways before the traffic jams instead of waiting until everyone is in gridlocked traffic. Our economy and our livelihoods are too important to risk an “information traffic jam.” We can’t afford to experiment or hesitate to build the capacity that our cities demand.