Power in Partnership

Jul 8, 2020
Power in Partnership

Smart cities are not just about technology. Collaboration between the public and private sectors is the key to launching a successful initiative

By Chris Davis

Power in PartnershipCities are home to more than half the world’s population and, according to the United Nations, are expected to add 2.5 billion new residents by 2050. In anticipation of this growth, cities are turning to smart-city approaches to improve operations and quality of life for citizens, and to generate economic development.

Let us define the term “smart cities.” According to the Smart Cities Council, “a smart city uses information and communications technology (ICT) to enhance its livability, workability and sustainability.” There are three parts to that focus. First, a smart city collects information about itself through sensors and devices such as controls and existing systems. Next, it communicates that data using wired or wireless infrastructures. Third, it “crunches” (analyzes) that data to understand what’s happening now and what’s likely to happen in the future. Cloud-based and mobile applications then present these analyses to individuals who can best act on it.

“Smart cities” is a broad concept, with each city’s realization being unique. The so-called “smart cities movement” is real, with global initiatives focused on transforming cities into more livable, workable and sustainable urban areas. To carry out these initiatives, cities are tapping into old urban infrastructures, legacy IT systems and public data sources, and instrumenting their diverse, outdoor physical assets with Internet of Things sensors, instruments and controls.

Embedding intelligence into a city’s physical assets can collect and liberate previously unavailable data from assets across the urban landscape. The data provides real-time situational awareness; then, cities can utilize that aggregated data to drive efficiencies and improve asset performance. And experience has shown that smart-city partnerships between the public and private sectors must be put into place to deliver smart-city outcomes.

Figure 1. The architecture and benefits of smart street lighting.
Figure 1. The architecture and benefits of smart street lighting.

LED streetlighting provides an easy, cost-effective way for cities to start their smart-city initiatives. By adding intelligent controls, cities can realize significant energy savings and better asset management of the lighting infrastructure (Figure 1). Streetlight poles are valuable, vertical real estate that can be monetized by its owner (city, utility or telco). Pole attachment and other fees can be charged for hosting smart-city applications: sensor platforms, video surveillance, digital signage, LTE/5G small cells and public Wi-Fi. Figure 2 highlights typical smart-city applications sited on outdoor lighting.

Figure 2. Smart-city applications hosted by smart street lighting.
Figure 2. Smart-city applications hosted by smart street lighting.

Monetization of these applications is achieved by machine-to-machine (M2M) and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, which include metered power, edge processing, device management, cybersecurity and data communications provided by smart data hubs mounted on the smart lighting infrastructure.

Smart cities also play a part in formulating public policy. Mayors and other city officials often look to smart-city applications to address their “top of mind” concerns. These can range from resident services and quality of life, to economic growth, energy efficiency, sustainability, operational efficiencies and new revenue sources. But transforming cities can be politically challenging, as cities must confront a preference for the status quo, entrenched interests, and risk-averse politicians and city workers.

At present, most cities are in the evaluation or “innovator/early adopter” stage of smart-city adoption and find it difficult to fully understand the many products and technologies that can comprise an actual deployment. As can be seen in Figure 3, the Internet of Things is comprised of many elements.

Cities, especially those tier two and tier three in size, unfortunately cannot afford to recruit qualified personnel with the diverse range of capabilities called for by the 7-Layer Model. In addition, any large municipal project is by nature complicated and requires additional manpower and resources. Cities are just not equipped to bring smart-city solutions from broad city goals to first ideation, then to implementation and realization, and finally to longterm operation. And finally, one of the most significant gaps cities face is capital for project funding.

For those reasons, smart lighting and smart-city projects increasingly rely on a network of partnerships for short-term and long-term success. Unfortunately, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Remember that each city is unique, with its own issues and challenges. The partner ecosystem that is brought to bear is “bespoke” for each city.

Ecosystems established for smart-city projects are likened to a large family gathering of in-laws… or is it out-laws? Bringing the various constituencies together has been also described like herding feral cats. And there are two sides to the smart-city ecosystem coin.

On the heads side, the city itself will assemble its own ecosystem with the mayor, city manager, council members, department heads, external consultants and informal kitchen-table influencers, each involved to varying degrees. Smart-city projects are enabled by the technology stack shown in Figure 3. As a result, besides the mayor, city manager or chief financial officer, city leaders with oversized influence and decision making include the chief information officer, the chief data officer, the chief security officer and the chief innovation officer. Most relevant for them is uptime and reliability, cybersecurity, data privacy and data governance.

Smart-cities projects—often started with smart and connected streetlights—run over a period of years, so it is not uncommon for a city to undergo elections, followed by a change of administration during the project life cycle. This adds extra layers of complexity, scope changes, often initiated by newly elected politicians and appointed department heads.

Flipping the coin to tails, let us categorize the key external ecosystem partners, their role and city relationship impact. They run the gamut from analysts, consultants, specifiers, ESCOs, IT players, utilities and DOTs, and providers offering wireless, cable and fiber infrastructure.

Obviously, the “table” is crowded and making the smart-city partnership work is an intricate dance. Indeed, the realization of smart cities will require entirely innovative approaches to age-old municipal issues. New technology, talent, collaboration and financing models will unite stakeholders like never before. The key stakeholders are the cities themselves, utilities, technology companies, infrastructure providers, funding sources and the like.

Figure 3. 7 Layers of the Internet of Things (IoT).
Figure 3. 7 Layers of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Specifiers, engineers and consultants are critical players in this web. They can win more business and have greater success if they are able to proactively structure and manage their relationships with multiple municipal departments, private organizations and the technology ecosystem. Here are the key takeaways:

  1. Smart-city projects are dynamic in nature.
  2. For a specific project, the partnership ecosystem will be unique.
  3. Learn to become an expert in organizational forensics, both inside of the city administration and in the external smart-city ecosystem.
  4. Become fluent in the emerging IoT technologies.
  5. Build support (and funding) by focusing on the key outcomes that the city hopes to achieve.

Finally, we live in a new, riskier world today, especially as it pertains to cities. What will be the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on smart-city approaches? It may be too early to know. Clearer answers will hopefully reveal themselves in the days and months ahead. Companies will need to rethink their urban approaches in today’s complex environment, where risks can emerge quickly, and resources are often constrained. Companies must learn to partner with city administrations to bolster urban resilience, sustainability, and citizen health and safety. By focusing on the goals uppermost in the minds of mayors, firms will need to:

  • Become more citizen centric. The main imperative of city leaders is keeping citizens safe, healthy, productive and economically secure—and their business partners must help them achieve these goals.
  • Provide urban solutions, not just products and services. To be successful, companies need to be sensitive to a city’s social, environmental and economic objectives; and offer innovative and proven insights on how best to achieve them.
  • Understand and demonstrate the impact of these solutions from a city perspective. How can they reduce crime and pollution? Improve health and equality? Build resilience and meet other smart-city needs? Look at the solutions through the eyes of the citizens.
  • Build relationships with other companies. Grow your firm’s ecosystems of suppliers and consultants, and public-private partnerships, which are increasingly vital for providing effective long-term solutions for cities.