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Analyst Angle: A phased approach to building smart cities

Cities across the world face significant challenges stemming from urbanization, demographic change, changing lifestyles and climate change. These challenges, which have ushered in a focus on smart cities and enabling technologies, are illustrated in the UN-Habitat’s World Cities Report for 2016[1]:

  • Urbanization: The urban population worldwide amounts currently to approx. 3.7 billion people and is expected to double by 2050. This leads to resource depletion, while providing fertile ground for increased exclusion, inequality and a wave of rising insecurity.
  • Demographic changes: The number of seniors aged over 60 is the fastest growing segment of the population at a rate of 3.26%, which asks for novel assistive services for ageing well. Also, the decline in infant mortality and the high fertility have led to a proliferation of the younger population, who seek for employment opportunities.
  • Changing lifestyles: Cities are nowadays characterized by changes in family patterns, as well as new habits in work and mobility (e.g., increased tele-working; expanding sharing and renting of vehicles).
  • Climate change: Urban governance in modern cities has to account for climate changes and global warning, through the implementation of policies for efficient use of resources (such as water and energy), along with measures for sustainable growth.

The development of smart city infrastructures and services is a strategic, expensive and long- term target, which takes into account the demographics, the morphology and the specific urbanization challenges of each city. Hence, the development of smart city infrastructures and project does not happen overnight, but rather over a period of several years. It usually follows a progressive approach based on one or more of the following phases:

  • An infrastructure establishment phase, which deals with the deployment of the initial infrastructure of the smart city, including broadband connectivity, mobile and wireless computing infrastructures, sensors, actuators and more. The role of Wi-Fi deployment is instrumental in this phase, as it provides an easy and mainstream way for ensuring citizens’ and authorities’ wireless access to services. As part of this phase, cities tend to deploy and evaluate their first pilot projects, which serve as a guide for more extensive deployments.
  • An infrastructure expansion and up-scaling phase, which grows the established infrastructure in a way that ensures its scalability and extensibility as needed in order to cope with the anticipated demand for urban services. In this phase, infrastructures are appropriately dimensioned in order to ensure support for demanding applications with a considerable number of users. For example, Wi-Fi infrastructures providing a consistent quality of service throughout the city are deployed, including infrastructures that support applications beyond simple data transfer (such as audio and video applications). This phase is characterized by scalable, longer term deployments, which in several cases expand early deployments of the previous phase.
  • A maturity phase, which involves the blending of smart city projects and infrastructures in the city’s urban development plan. As part of this phase, scalable smart city infrastructures are used to support the delivery of high-quality services to citizens, while at the same time supporting services that meet operational goals (e.g., sustainability goals in terms of CO2 emissions) in-line with the city’s urban development planning. The maturity phase is usually characterized by the deployment of production smart city projects in vertical areas (e.g., energy, transport, healthcare, public safety), which are benchmarked against specific KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).
  • A city transformation phase, which exploits smart city infrastructures and established projects in vertical areas in order to completely transform the city operations and to achieve strategic goals (e.g., a new urban mobility strategy). This phase is characterized by interoperability across the different infrastructures and services of the city, including interoperability between legacy infrastructures and (vertical) services that have been deployed independently. Moreover, it emphasizes citizens’ and communities’ engagement as a means of exploiting human capital and additional innovation resources. At the infrastructure level, citizen engagement is empowered by Wi-Fi deployments, which are constantly replacing access via fixed lines and copper cables.

The vast majority of existing smart cities fall in the scope of the first three phases, while the “smartest” cities are gradually preparing for the fourth “transformational” phase. Prominent examples can be found in the winners of national and international smart city contexts e.g., Austin, San Francisco, Portland, Pittsburgh, Denver, Columbus, and Cansas City which were the finalists of the $40 million smart city challenge[2] of the U.S Department of Transportation, as well as  Amsterdam (The Netherlands), Berlin (Germany), Eindhoven (The Netherlands), Glasgow (UK), Milano (Italy), Oxford (UK),  Paris (France), Torino (Italy) and Vienna (Austria) which were the finalists of the 2016 European Innovation Capital Award[3].

Smart city projects span various spatial scales (e.g., homes, buildings, neighborhoods, communities or whole cities), while operating across various timescales (e.g., from real-time traffic rerouting to strategic-level transportation planning). As cities move to the transformation phase, the boundaries between vertical deployments will gradually start to become blurred, since interoperability will enable services across spatial scales, time scales and functional areas. The best in urban development is still to come.

[1] United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), “Urbanization and Development: Emerging Futures”, World Cities Report, 2016.

[2] https://www.transportation.gov/smartcity

[3] http://ec.europa.eu/research/innovation-union/index_en.cfm?section=icapital

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