HomeBuildingsA ‘thin-layer’ OS is the only way to disruptive change in smart cities, says Siemens

A ‘thin-layer’ OS is the only way to disruptive change in smart cities, says Siemens

Tearing down departmental data silos in cities remains the dream for smart cities, and yet it is still out of reach. German industrial giant Siemens told Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona this week it is the only way to deliver disruptive transformation, and it can be achieved with a ‘thin-layer’ smart-city operating system, if only other barriers can be overcome.

It is a simplistic interpretation of a keynote from Roland Busch, the company’s deputy chief executive and chief technology officer. But Busch told a packed house in Barcelona revolutionary change, as prescribed in the German government’s original Industrie 4.0 manifesto, will only come with such cross-fertilization of city data, and the unknowable innovation that will come when developers plug into it.

“Another, more disruptive way is to tear down silos, of energy, traffic, buildings — to make them talk to each other [via an] IoT platform to come to a better system,” he said, having already run through a series of live-action examples of siloed IoT, geared towards “incremental improvements”, where Siemens is making a difference for industrial sectors in isolation.

He said smart cities, with sufficient will and the correct over-the-top platform, can unite myriad data sets, gleaned variously from infrastructure in the energy sector, in buildings management, from mobility and transportation, and from such functions as air quality monitoring. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, he said. 

Roland Busch – speaking at Smart City Expo World Congress

Cities can achieve this vision by “going for an operating system for infrastructure, to bring this together,” he said. “The combination of different data in different silos, [hither-to] not talking to each other, is one of biggest levers for smart cities.” 

He said: “We want to mobilise an ecosystem as big as it can be. But you need a thin layer in the technology stack to bring this all together — which allows you to connect, and bring data to any cloud. That’s it; it does not lock you into more than that. You can choose applications [to go on top].”

Siemens’ MindSphere IoT platform — a white-labelled version of Software AG’s Cumulocity IoT platform, with certain Siemens domain widgets — will do the trick, he implied. 

The idea is this circular data model for cities will wrap in other elements, too, importantly. Citizens, recast as prosumers, in the energy market at least, will be able to feed off the new data gumbo, and developers will be filled with innovation, bringing new services and efficiencies.

Busch described the rise of giga-cities, citing Beijing’s sprawl in China, encroaching on the urban centres of Tianjin and Hebei, which has seen high-speed trains ferrying workers between. “By 2030, there will be 43 cities with more than 10 million people,” he said, observing at the same time the most rapid growth is in cities with fewer than 500,000 residents. 

Either way, urban living must be redesigned, to make greener living spaces, where work and home are not a cross-town commute apart, and where the air is clean — or cleaner at least, so authorities are not fined for breaching CO2 limits and residents do not wish to escape. But certain things must be put right. 

He listed six challenges for the new digital age: urban mobility, (cyber) security, micro-climate and water, infrastructure spending, energy supply and distribution, and work-life balance. 

Siemens, said Busch, is providing a single IoT platform — a city operating system, just running in a silo — to address each of these. He repeated a line aired earlier this month at IoT Solutions World Congress, also in Barcelona, that 70-80 per cent of the work is standardised across city functions, even if the rest requires tweaking and configuration. 

“It is about IoT and digitalization in the broader sense. And there are two ways to do that, and to deploy technologies,” he said, referencing both siloed and integrated approaches to city data. 

Siemens is working on a predictive maintenance programme on the railways in Russia, he explained. “The biggest headache [for train companies] is doors, followed by gearboxes. The company’s partner in Russia has eliminated downtime — reliability is at 99.9 per cent he said; one train (or train company?) went 13 million kilometres without a hiccup. 

Busch talked about “flexible drives for compressors” in a shopping mall in Finland, “macro and micro climate” measurements at intersections in another city, and kerb side monitoring for public service vehicles elsewhere. Some cities are looking to monetize the kerb and pavement, he suggested — although politicians are mindful of losing votes in the short-term , he noted. 

Examples of multi discipline, multi departmental projects seem rarer, and tend to occur in green-field ventures, or else in single-layer political systems. Siemens is working on such projects for the World Expo 2020 in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, as well as in Hong Kong. 

The former project involves 200,000 data points, from 130 connected buildings, covering management of energy, water, lighting, doors, and surveillance, among other things. It is integrated in a data lake, “with MindSphere and apps on top,” he said. “Third parties can develop apps based on the data we are providing — without even having to know where data is coming from.”

The latter, in Hong Kong, is geared around Siemens’ City Box hardware solution, which can be loaded onto street-lighting, or other municipal infrastructure. 

Hong Kong is home to 7.4 million inhabitants, on a territory of about 1,100 square kilometres, he noted. Its requirements are more complex than anywhere else and, by implication, solutions that work in Hong Kong will also work in any other city. “It is a combined platform, and it is getting trained — so the longer it operates, the better goes, and the more use cases it will find.”

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