Laying the foundation of a smart city

The term “smart city,” like the term “smart grid,” is amorphous. It grows. It changes. It engulfs other ideas through a type of groupthink osmosis.  But, within our brains, that fuzzy little smart city concept revolves around more intelligent technology working together across traditionally disparate industries that “touch” under a municipal umbrella: power, water, transport, lighting.

The problem is: It’s tough to grasp what is truly necessary to make a city “smart.” Do you simply need a smart metering program? Can you jump on the bandwagon with just that? Do you also need to talk about efficiency? Should there be a green element to the label? Should you be incorporating more social aspects such as policy and “better living”? (China alone has almost 200 smart cities under a development plan, though definitions of what makes each a smart one are vague.)
Overall, though, here are five areas that seem to be on the forefront of smart city planning (and problems).

1.) Sustainability is the buzzword.
When we say “sustainable,” we mean an idea with three arms:

  • it’s green/efficient,
  • it’s a new technology that solves an old problem,
  • it’s a popular part of the “smart city” overview for municipalities, consultants, academics and pie-in-the-sky thinkers alike.

So, this area covers everything from efficiency measures to water osmosis to solar-powered lighting at bus stops. But, the biggest concepts here are microgrids and electric vehicles (if we’re talking number of blueprints that involve the tech in the plans).

Amsterdam’s smart city planning has multiple electric vehicle concepts, including the in-infant-stages ReloadIT program with electric fleet planning that starts at the beginning—namely where “car parks” are needed in relation to where connections to renewables are options—and a charging system program that looks at how to sweat the details: keeping your car from overcharging when you plug it in at work.

As for that microgrid evolution, look no farther than the Grid4EU program, a project involving six separate demo sites supported by six separate system operators (RWE, Vattenfall, ERDF, CEZ Group, Enel, Iberdrola) and 27 industry partners. The main objective: Get this smart grid stuff to work. Their R&D challenges include figuring out how to utilize microgrids.

But, figuring out the technology isn’t the only smart city challenge. You can find the perfect time to charge your electric car and solve the math of microgrid use within Vattenfall’s regional territory, but you’re still left with one area that could topple your plans: Do your city’s citizens care?

2.) Citizen buy-in is the backbone.
It doesn’t seem like an important question, really: Do your city’s citizens care? But, it can make or break your project. After all that planning and investment and research, what if there’s a backlash?

I have two words of caution for you: Boulder, Colorado. I remember when it was set to be the shining example of the first steps of smart city planning in the U.S. It was well on its way to showing up Amsterdam, Dubai, and Masdar as what could be done with some quick first steps that would open the door to this idea in America. Now that experiment is over, and I think all concerned would admit it ended badly. One major issue: The citizens really didn’t believe.  They weren’t willing to experiment, especially if it meant costs, problems or even simply perceived problems.

A smart city needs to have involved citizens in a well-informed and happy way. And, that’s honestly not as simple as it sounds. In hindsight, it seems that many of the happiest smart cities don’t start on the tech-down end of things. They start on the consumer-up end.

Take Australia’s Smart Grid, Smart City Ausgrid example.  They’ve got 30,000 homes in trials of everything from large battery use to energy savings, all wrapped up with an easy-to-read, easy-to-navigate website that’s regularly updated with information and insights.

While it may be impossible to plan for every possible negative customer reaction, starting with the customer, listening and actively working on citizen buy-in is a lesson every smart city should learn.

And every smart city team has one major component: the power utility.

3.) Power is the first step.
No one builds a better bus transport network and then decides from there it can build a smart city. It always begins on the power side of the equation—the one ubiquitous utility need that feeds all the others. Sure, you may want a large EV fleet, but you’re going to need the utility’s help to charge it. Sure, you may want to set up a test pilot for energy storage on a major street of businesses in your urban center, but you’ll need the utility’s help to figure that into the grid.

Unfortunately, this often means that power companies pick up a lion’s share of work when building a smart city, but it also makes them leaders in the field.

Wien Energie, Vienna’s city-owned energy provider, is part of Smart City Wien, recently named the #1 smart city in the world by an American climate strategist recently. (That is a varied title depending on source. Rio de Janeiro won it at the World Expo.)

But, back to Vienna. Wien Energie is working up to 50 percent renewables by 2030 and part of that is a program where the customer becomes a generator through solar panels. They call them “citizen solar plants,” and the first two events saw solar panels sold out within a week. Yes, the company has to manage the project, which includes renting the panels from citizens and buying the panels back after the life cycle ends, but the project is considered a great success by citizens and city alike.

So, yes, the weight of the smart city will be on your shoulders, power companies. It will be a lot of responsibility, but it may offer opportunities as well.

4.) Privacy is the problem.
All those news stories on phone companies, the NSA and metadata. Metadata issues have nothing on what you’re dealing with inside the smart city; there it morphs from meta to mega. What citizens share to make energy efficiency and energy management programs work is a thousand times more detailed than metadata. And keeping that information private while using it to create better working, smarter programs is going to be a constant issue. It will take lots of citizen input, lots of evaluations and there will never be an end because, as more data is gathered and more data is used, those issues will continue to grow.

Advice on how to tackle this issue is plentiful but vague. Most includes building a better something: better architecture, better security, better comm, better counsel. In the end, though, there are two starting points: what are your customers’ concerns, and what does the law say (in your state, region, city or country) about what you have to protect and how to do so?

Then, multiply what’s required by at least five to stay ahead of the evolving privacy curve for the next few years.

5.) Real-time is the key.
In the end, no matter what you’re connecting together to make a smart city—power to water, water to transport, transport to building management—it all comes down to the single item that really makes it a smart city. Now, many will tell you that single item is data.

It’s not. It’s timing.

If you have efficiency data from three weeks ago, yes, you can predict, within a margin of error, how to react today. But, that’s modeling. We’ve been doing modeling for a century. The real difference here isn’t so much the introduction of data as it is the exit of massive predictive modeling. If you get data this second that’s happening this second (or 15 seconds ago), you can react today on today’s data. No more predicting. No more guessing. No more estimating.

And getting all of this to function smoothly will require that level of sophisticated communication with today at the center of everything from weather information to traffic congestion to market fluctuations to a customer looking up all of those bits of information to plan how to program his thermostat while he’s gone to Vienna on business.

So, to get smart cities to a reality, let’s talk less about terabytes and more about timing.

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