HomeChannelsNewsThe smart cities interview (pt1): “Cities don’t have magic beans; we need a new model,” says Cisco

The smart cities interview (pt1): “Cities don’t have magic beans; we need a new model,” says Cisco

At the end of last summer, Enterprise IoT Insights compiled a state-of-the-market report on smart cities, considering the entire sector through the lens of four unique approaches to smart-city building. These varied approaches were brought to life in Gaudalajara in Mexico, Barcelona in Spain, San Diego in the US, and Manchester in the UK. The headers of each chapter in the report – ‘a blank canvas’, ‘the original blueprint’, ‘a new model’, and the ‘last pilot’ – made clear the strategy of each.

The message from Manchester, where the ground-breaking CityVerve project was just starting to swing, was clear: a combination of public and private money would provide the ultimate proof that smart cities work, bringing efficiencies to every corner of civic operations, and providing a springboard for new innovation. That project, run by the city council as part of a 20-strong alliance, which included BT, Cisco, and Siemens among smart-city familiars and various local academic talent besides, has just wound up.

Cisco, the lead technology partner in the enterprise, says it has delivered on the promise it made 10 months ago. “We wanted something other cities could replicate, and that has been achieved. We have something that can be deployed in any city,” explains Nick Chrissos, project director of CityVerve and director of innovation for Cisco in Europe.

At the heart of the CityVerve project is Cisco’s so-called ‘platform-of-platforms’, developed with key ingredients from BT, Ordnance Survey and Asset Mapping. This ‘platform-of-platforms’ has created a means for cities to accommodate all of their organisational disarray in a single layer. Its wizardry has been to map every network asset in the city in a common geo-spatial language in order to create the illusion they are part of the same city network.

On top, the project team has connected a hyper-catalogue of around a thousand data sets, exposed via a single API, which can be modified to obey case specific usage terms and privacy regulations. The platform works with both legacy systems, and new networks. Public and private partners have been able to plug their infrastructure in; developers have been able to innovate around the data. This crossover of systems is essential to the market’s grander vision of ‘optimised’ smart cities, and where CityVerve has claimed to be different.

The project has set out around 130 uses cases, loosely bucketed under themes of transport and travel, culture and the public realm, health and social care, and energy and environment. The final output from CityVerve is a blueprint, rather than a product in its own right. “There is not a single Cisco sku,” says Chrissos. Nevertheless, other cities can copy the model by re-assembling its component parts, with or without Cisco itself.

Nevertheless, Cisco will run the workings back through its own development engine to offer a commercial proposition to city authorities around the globe. It will also, with the project’s other stakeholders, including Innovate UK and the council itself, pick through the bones of the pilot to share its successes and failures.

But the jury is out on its immediate legacy, despite this notion the platform is already available from any decent technology integrator. Its record remains unclear, and under review. CityVerve is just 10 months old in real terms, with 14 months of the original 24-month schedule taken with planning. Its use cases have not been sufficiently developed, nor validated, whether united as a single project or divided as single instances, to make a business case for expansion.

CityVerve might be replicable, and it may be procurable, but its commercial logic is unclear.

No city is going to buy the platform, Chrisos acknowledges, openly. “Can it be rebuilt somewhere else? Yes, it can. But you will end up paying for every part, and buying it in a very traditional way – which makes it hard to justify. You can’t just say to a city: ‘Invest £10 million for all these components, get a platform like this, and deploy anything you want on top’. Because they will just respond: ‘We don’t have magic beans’.”

Risk and reward

Cities will not take a punt on a city-wide solution, even one that will be poured over and may yet be proven. Cities are spoilt, reckons Chrissos. “At the moment, what they want is a way to buy without cap-ex and without op-ex. They want someone else to take the risk. They need someone like Cisco to come with an offer, rather than a price – to say, ’I’ll build it for you and show you the benefits before you spend even a penny. And there is a huge appetite from the industry to do that, which means cities expect it. That’s where we’re stuck.”

But Cisco doesn’t want to do that, surely? CityVerve was to be ‘the last pilot’, afterall; it was to precipitate commercial deployment of a definitive smart-city platform. “No it doesn’t. The headline is right. Cisco is not interested in another smart city pilot. We’ve done it – we’ve done it in Barcelona, we’ve done it in Hamburg, and now we’ve done it in Manchester.”

As an aside, and to provide some context, CityVerve stands apart among Cisco’s trio of city pilots as the only one with substantial government funding. The others were industry proofs, essentially, run by loose-knit confederations of smart-city prospectors. The other difference has been the scale and ambition of the Manchester pilot.

“If you compared the projects purely on what they delivered, Manchester is 10 times bigger than anything we have done in any other city. For Cisco, CityVerve is beyond anything we have done anywhere else in the world,” says Chrissos.

To stray a little further from the main narrative, just to paint in the backdrop some more, it is worth considering the profile of the project within Cisco circles. The company is a fixture in the broad IoT space, and yet mention of the ‘platform-of-platforms’ is generally lost in most discussions with the firm, even in the context of its closely-related Kinetic industrial IoT platform. Most Cisco execs do not appear to know much about it. Why so? It sounds like either a niche innovation project, or an internal comms failure.

Chrissos rewinds, and explains Cisco’s developing product development strategy. The company has four ways to bring products to market, he says. In general, it seeks to build solutions from scratch, or else to invest in smaller firms and partner with bigger ones. If these options fail, it will seek to buy in the expertise. “We don’t buy competitors, we buy people, capabilities and technology,” says Chrissos.

But there has been a shift in strategy at Cisco, too; a start-up culture of open collaboration has taken root. “In the last couple of years, we have introduced this fifth pillar to bring new tech to the market – around co-creation, co-innovation, co-development. It is an acknowledgement, almost, the next best idea, the next thing, will not come from California.”

Is that approach to innovation closer to the received wisdom in Europe, than in the US, if we are taking a cockeyed glance at the market? Because a subtext for the industrial strategy being set out in markets like Germany and France, notably, and in funding clauses in the European Commission’s innovation Horizon 2020 innovation programme, is that collaboration begets cultural change, and faster economic transformation in the end.

Cisco runs 10 innovation centres around the globe; five are in Europe, and just one is in North America – in Toronto, in Canada, where the thinking on digital strategy is arguably closer to the European dialogue. “Yes, perhaps there’s a conflict of belief about where the ideas are coming from,” says Chrissos.

Like selling paint

The idea behind Cisco’s innovation centres, and the founding principle of the CityVerve project in Manchester, is that innovation flows better between groups, and that groups have become more varied in their profile as computing has become cheaper and more accessible. “Today, you can create products without the backing of a giant,” says Chrissos. “It means more people are bringing interesting solutions.”

He adds: “There is still huge value for a company like Cisco – with its pedigree and capability and resources, and its experience and network and channel – to play a major role in this. But there’s energy and ideas coming from elsewhere, too – and not just from SMEs and start-ups, but from universities, and city councils and hospitals. Cisco can help to provide the engine to bring all of this together.”

But while collaboration on the ground appears to have solved some of the challenges of technical and cultural interoperability in Manchester, which have limited the grander visions of city-wide technology, it has not solved the ultimate challenge of buying and deploying smart city solutions. “Yes, that is the next hurdle,” he says. “For technology, we are done; we have more capabilities in terms of the tech than we can even talk about. There is no issue anymore getting hold of the data; we can do amazing stuff with it.”

Sweeping statements about security are wrongheaded, of course; battle is never finished. But the extant challenges of privacy and compliance are in hand, at least, even if Europe’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has tested the checks and balances CityVerve has put in place. Chrissos zooms out to reflect upon the almost halting complexity of the GDPR ruling for tech innovators, at large, and the necessary light it shines upon a wilderness of data.

“It’s almost like a war is happening. It feels like our ability to innovate has been constrained, like we have to stop connecting the unconnected – that we have to stop producing these amazing solutions. But there is an understanding, as well, that this is right, and it will bring value.”

Much of the initial CityVerve work, before the systems went live at the end of last summer, was to make the project compliant with the incoming GDPR terms. An information governor from Manchester City Council was employed to oversee and audit every application on the platform.

“We passed all the use cases through the process, so we didn’t build them in a way they become immediately non-compliant. So everything works with the new GDPR rules. Have we mastered it? We have considered everything, but we will also find things as we go forward.”

Right. But what, then, about this challenge of procurability? Should city councils in the UK, and everywhere, go mob-handed to acquire this ‘platform-of-platforms’? Has CityVerve team been able to justify the business case, or is that old-fashioned thinking? Even as the commercial engines whirr within Cisco, and its platform is picked off and developed as a saleable product, does its work within innovation centres and council meeting rooms have to come up with the a new way to bill for a smart city?

Does the industry need to find the smart-city equivalent of selling paint to home-owners for civic authorities to invest in technology to solve society’s most profound challenges? Will that be the way this stuff is paid for, in the end?

“I think so. I agree much more with what you are describing in the second instance. The per-metre analogy of selling paint really works because it doesn’t just say we need to come up with a new business model, it says we need to come up with a model the city actually wants, and understands.”

The smart cities interview (pt2): “Those offers are hard for cities to refuse”, says Cisco

The smart cities interview (pt3): “This is the nirvana for smart cities,” says Cisco

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