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The Need for a Smart City Nervous System


One of a smart city control center’s most useful features is its ability to serve as an Early Warning System (EWS) and quickly act on its own EWS recommendations.

The idea of a smart city control center is too important to ignore. The smart control center (SCC) should be the nucleus of smart cities, a central control system that collects data from devices and sensors, analyzes the data, and, when needed, sends orders to the devices connected to the smart city’s infrastructure.

By connecting disparate thousands or millions of devices together, the SCC can track and predict what every device is doing and make adjustments accordingly. For example, since devices in a smart city’s waste system would track how much trash is present in its connected dumpsters and what connected trucks are ready to empty loads, the SCC could identify the closest available dumpsters to each truck to accelerate waste disposal. If a smart city does not organize the connected devices, then numerous applications will proliferate, and at best duplicate, the same processes or, at worst, make the system more sluggish and inefficient.  Right now, Berlin, Germany, has at least five different parking applications, each of them asking for one’s User ID and Login- all of whom risk having incompatible data. A SCC can cut through all this, streamline the apps’ access to the data, and make our cities truly smart.

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One of the SCC’s most useful features is its ability to serve as an Early Warning System (EWS) and quickly act on its own EWS recommendations. For example, it could warn of imminent energy outages while automatically rerouting energy where needed. The SCC could also analyze hospital usage and medical equipment inventory to sense an incoming medical crisis and immediately serve as an EWS to hospitals while requesting more medical supplies and personnel. Where traffic jams proliferate, the SCC could alter traffic light schedules to favor emergency equipment. The SCC’s ability to detect emergency situations, send out warnings, and act on the warnings is what makes a smart city smart.

A function that is not generally associated with smart cities but that could be very important is the ability for the SCC to interact with applications entering the system. For example, smart cities could regulate and control some connected vehicle functions in order to maximize traffic flow and parking distribution. The SCC would facilitate city attempts to control traffic in historic districts and during celebrations. The feature would take advantage of city cultural differences, which may not always be available to an unconnected vehicle. For instance, in Puerto Montt, Chile, there are some roads where the center lane changes direction depending on the hour of the day, and those times are not well marked. Only the locals know, and my parents avoid the lane at all costs. The value of SCCs are undeniable, and we should do what we can to make them happen.

It is important to ask what makes a city “smart.” Is a SCC required, or is it enough to have applications such as ParkMobile and PayByPhone available for paying for parking spaces without a central operating system? As I wrote in a previous blog, “smart city apps” are already on the market but are not always compatible with each other. As a result, you may find a parking space in one app and not the other. To solve this issue, cities could adopt standards, build a SCC on its own, or adopt a preexisting smart city operating system such as the one offered by the FIWARE Foundation.

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If a city chooses to have a SCC, the question remains as to who should run the SCC. If a corporation runs the SCC and owns other SCCs as well, one might ask if the corporation will favor upgrading and maintaining the SCCs in some cities over others. If the city runs the SCC, the city will have to consider who will be responsible for its development and maintenance. It could be run by an expert committee, an elected official, or a non-governmental organization. The governance question gets more complicated when one considers that SCCs will be required to interact with SCCs in other cities and states in cases such as regional energy grids. It is possible that national governments may be involved in regulating, mandating, and even distributing SCCs. SCCs will be difficult to organize at a governmental level, and they face questions regarding privacy and cyber security.

People need to feel data will be private and secure within the SCCs. The more data the SCC has, the better it can function, but how much of that data should be considered private? Medical data, when aggregated, can be used to predict medical crises, but personal health data needs to be protected. Anonymization of data would help protect privacy, but data needs to be anonymized before the SCC processes it. Furthermore, given stories about town water supplies being poisoned through cyber attacks, one can forgive citizens for worrying about centralized control.

The technology for designing and running smart cities exist today; the challenge lies in figuring out the governmental, administrative, and social implications of smart cities. Cities that are built “smart” have the opportunity to try different models. Perhaps more established cities could start by making different neighborhoods smart, or the SCCs could start by running only one aspect of the city at first because having a new SCC that simultaneously takes over the energy grid, medical services, and traffic infrastructure on day one is inviting technical disaster. As the technical kinks are worked out, smart city champions should learn about people’s preferences concerning what services a SCC should supply, how the SCC should be governed and run, and how much privacy they are willing to give in return for improved services. Ultimately, how smart cities are received and how people tolerate the growing pains will decide whether the smart city will be successful, and they should be.

Alexander Soley

About Alexander Soley

Alexander Soley is an Independent Consultant who specializes in strategy and analysis in technology innovation from a commercial and regulatory perspective. He has a special interest in autonomous and connected vehicles and how they will affect society. He has experience with enterprise storage, cloud-native applications, digital twins, and regulating the Internet of Health. He has a background in international relations and business and has experience with both start-ups and a Fortune 500 company.

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