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Five trends for smarter cities in 2019

We have 12 years to save the planet, calculate scientists in the starkest warning yet that our chances of tackling climate change and averting disaster are slipping away. After 2030, its future is a gamble, relying on untested technologies and techniques, and the environmental outlook is unreliable, and bleaker than ever.

This is the conclusion of a landmark state-of-the-planet report by the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from late 2018. “The next few years are probably the most important in our history,” said the UN. Limiting global warming will require “rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented” changes in all aspects of society, the UN says.

2019 will see cities, often apart from federal governments, take on this challenge with renewed vigour, on the back of a year in which momentum in the market accelerated. But the work will remain pragmatic, and focused largely on laying the groundwork for innovation. Beyond this, the market will remain in experimentational mode.

Here, we consider five concrete factors for the market’s development in 2019.

1 | Civic innovation gets easier

Easy is a hard word, especially when attached to money. But the smart cities space appears, at last, to be getting to grips with the challenge, re-working the financing to suit various parties and expedite ambitious projects, even as the the market at large recognises new funding models must be found.

As it stands, however, the old cap-ex and op-ex models, where the city either pays for the solution outright or rents it as-a-service, still serve; cities are starting to mix the two as well, by buying in hardware and leasing the software and support.

2018 was marked for the collaboration between public and private entities in the civic-tech arena, as well as the digital market at large. Long recognised by policy makers as the only way to twin brains and money, cities have started to work productively as playgrounds for digital solutions.

While Europe and Asia have depended more heavily on federal hand-outs for civic innovation, US cities, pursuing a green agenda independently of their federal government, have made excellent usage of ‘public-private partnership’ (PPP / P3) vehicles to fund large-scale smart city projects.

2 | Lighting remains the brightest idea

The re-engineering of smart-city funding, within multi-party arrangements, has been smartest with street lighting, which was (re)confirmed in 2018 as the poster child and the gateway application for the whole market.

Energy savings contracts, which make the investment retrospective, hinging on the impact of the deployment, have enabled cities to deploy smart street lighting and get a first foothold in digital services.

Smart street lighting presents a business case which is impossible for cities to say no to: the final return is clear, and the first investment is zero. These contracts have been applied to other applications too, notably waste collection and parking.

But smart street lighting is the best of then all. The cost savings, generalised at 50 per cent for the bulbs and 20-25 per cent for the controls, are well understood; the return comes in three-to-five years.

Its status as a smart-city staple has gained credence as well because it establishes a platform from which to hang additional sensors and applications. Lighting networks have kicked open the doors for cities to trial all kinds of new technologies. Street lighting will remain the go-to application for wannabe smart cities in 2019, too.

3 | Combined deployments with 5G

In certain cities, PPP set-ups are already delivering the goods on a grand scale. Apart from street lighting, the clearest value-exchange for cities is in the trade of site access for telecoms gear. This negotiation will become a focal point for smart cities in 2019.

The principle is straightforward: civic access and fees are lowered in exchange for goods and services. It works for 4G and fibre, as well, but the clamour for 5G is at fever pitch already, and will inform every mainstream negotiation with telcos in 2019.

Indeed, for the biggest US network operators, AT&T and Verizon, this swap deal will underpin their work in cities in the US in the medium term, whether they engage around 5G networks or IoT services in the first instance.

It makes sense 5G is part of the smart cities conversation: it will come to underpin certain civic services, and it requires access to the same light-poles, streets, and permitting processes.

In the end, tech vendors stand to get first bite at the big contracts, and cities stand to get smarter more cheaply, and the services stand to go live for everyone more quickly. This value exchange has been well mapped out during the second half of 208, and smart city building will be faster in 2019 as a result.

4 | Smart towns, states and regions

One consequence of these developing trends – the partnership approaches, the ‘no-brainer’ lighting contracts, the new 5G value exchange – is urban smartness is not confined to big cities.

In truth, it never was, strictly. Barcelona, the European archetype of a smart city, only ever presented parochial district ‘smarts’, plus a city-wide fibre network. London’s celebrated ‘smartness’ comprises a mixed-quality patchwork of digital boroughs, plus a unique transport system.

The point is most of this stuff has thrived in smaller enclaves; it is just the city-brands and city-funds have tended to take attention. 2019 will be different, as smart towns and smart regions – whether they are called counties, or states, or provinces – emerge more fully formed.

There are two ways for cities to acquire intelligence; to train their sights on singular targets, or shoot for the moon. Most RFPs from US cities at the end of 2019 request proposals for smaller-scale starter solutions, such as smart lighting, with smart accoutrements.

In the smart city space, it makes sense to start small. In 2019, civic authorities will act on this knowledge.

5 | Infrastructure over intelligence

All of which sounds remarkably progressive. The problem is, however, the whole smart cities market remains propped up by the hard maths of street lighting. None of the parallel applications, often hung from street lighting infrastructure, guarantee returns, yet.

The ‘soft’ returns from smart city applications are problematic for bean counters. Safer, friendlier lighting might register on a ballot paper, but it will not register easily on a spreadsheet. International and government agencies are writing papers to quantify this value, but the market in 2019 will remain stuck on an infrastructure kick.

Novel intelligence and transformative innovation are future scenarios, still. The market in 2019 will continue to lay the technological foundation, as a springboard for city systems wholly animated by data and intelligence.

This infrastructure rollout is critical. As well as super fast fibre and mobile networks, and their various low-power wide area equivalents, a centralised platform is required to for cities to untangle this ball of snakes, and bring it under control.

One way is to establish a centralised data platform. This is what the big tech providers would have, and the wisdom is plain: to create order and future proof systems. Even if cities start with point solutions, they can layer in new applications, efficiently and cost-effectively, so long as they have already invested in an open platform architecture.

Such a platform, whether it is pegged to the lighting network or integrated into in a central control room, is the ultimate goal, according to the prevalent thinking in the market. If a city wants to be certified as ‘smart’, clever lighting alone win’t cut it. 2019 will see cities adopt common platforms to unite existing and future systems.

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