Smart Cities: Time for the Live Demo

Mark Lowenstein / November 16th, 2015

One of the most promising yet amorphous segments of the burgeoning Internet of Things (IoT) field is the so-called “smart city”. Tech sector heavyweights such as IBM, Cisco, and Qualcomm have significant smart city initiatives. Smart city concepts and demos are prominently featured in the many ‘innovation centers’ that dot the country. To date, actual implementations of smart city concepts have been more along the lines of individual projects. The smart grid project here, the transportation management initiative there.

The time might be right, however, to take the smart city concept to the next level: an actual, working, and continually evolving smart city, where all the disparate, siloed elements of today’s smart city initiatives are brought together into a more holistic approach.

Imagine how this could work. A Smart City Consortium, comprised of major stakeholders in the IoT ecosystem — from Cisco to AT&T to Disney to GE — would come together and fund Smart City. The Smart City would be located in a defined geographic neighborhood, which must have the characteristics of fairly dense population, along with a healthy mix of commercial, residential, and retail activity. This could be an emerging district or neighborhood of a city, like one of the new “lifestyle centers” that have become increasingly popular, such as Redmond Town Center in Seattle or Santana Row in San Jose. Barcelona, which seems to be the permanent home of the annual Mobile World Congress, could turn the Fira de Barcelona area into a working prototype smart city. Alternatively, Disney could raze Epcot, which has long felt outdated, and re-imagine it as Smart City.

Smart City would be a live, working test bed actively used by all residents, workers, and visitors. It could have ambitious goals, such as:

• Ubiquitous broadband connectivity
• 50% reduction in carbon footprint or 50% less energy use than comparable neighborhoods
• Leave your wallet at home
• Opportunities for re-imagining transportation, with KPIs around reducing traffic and private vehicle use

I envision the following key elements for Smart City:

1. Network: High-speed broadband connectivity that is ubiquitous and pervasive, featuring a mix of gigabit, WiFi, and mobile, depending on context. This could be a great opportunity to test small cell and some early 5G wireless services. These networks, which are the 21st century equivalent of water and electricity, would be free, widely available, and open to those who want to offer and test smart city services.

2. Hotspots, Sensors, Beacons: Complementing pervasive broadband networks would be a mix of hotspots, sensors, and beacons. For example, sensors would be located to test intelligent parking and traffic management. Retail locations would be outfitted with beacons to test advanced shopping and marketing concepts and initiatives.

3. Smart Energy: Smart City would harness the latest technologies and capabilities promoting intelligent energy management. A veritable grab bag of green energy initiatives, from solar energy to waste management to smart lighting and so on. A goal could be using 50% of the energy of comparable neighborhoods.

4. City Services: With Smart City, the days of dreading a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles are over. Smart City would be a great opportunity to test e-Government services. The goal? As close to coinless, paperless, and frictionless as possible. As an example, rather than some of the individual initiatives we see today around say, sensor-based parking, the whole idea of traffic management, of which parking is a part, is looked at more holistically.

5. Retail: Ubiquitous broadband, and the density of hotspots, sensors, and beacons would offer a great opportunity to experiment with next-generation retail concepts. Residents and visitors to Smart City would be willing participants in envisioning the future of the physical store, in addition to innovative sales and marketing techniques.

There would be open APIs across some of these smart city concepts, which would allow for entrepreneurs to develop and test new apps for the Smart City. Smart City would also a Big Data fest, with regular reports discussing progress across the sectors and which initiatives have been successful.

Another key component would be the Smart City Innovation Lab. This is different than private sector initiatives in that this Lab would be free and open to the public. This would be more like a living museum, an ‘attraction’ where companies could demonstrate and test new IoT/Smart City concepts. Visitors to the Lab would be willing participants in demos, tests, focus groups, and so on.

Imagine if Smart City came to fruition. It could be a destination site. Not unlike how people moved to, and tourists visited, Celebration, Florida when it was the vanguard of the New Urbanism movement. Imagine taking your kid, armed with a smartphone, a connected car, etc. to Smart City for the day. This would be Tomorrowland and Epcot all wrapped into one (without the $10 turkey drumsticks). Except that it would be real, live, and iterative. What a showcase for the forward-thinking mayor, municipality, district, or lifestyle mall owner who accommodates and facilitates Smart City.

Mark Lowenstein

Mark Lowenstein is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem, an advisory services firm focused on mobile and digital media. He founded and led the Yankee Group's global wireless practices and was also VP, Market Strategy at Verizon Wireless. You can follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein and sign up for his free Lens on Wireless newsletter here.
  • obarthelemy

    Interesting, but
    1- I’m mostly seeing disparate, unrelated elements, with no synergy and no specific reason why they *have* to be unrolled together.
    2- since we’re not going to build all-new cities for everyone, the process of upgrading old cities is probably as big a hurdle as determining/testing what the final state should be, making built-from scratch a bit irrelevant ?

    3- even at the individual level, the main issue with putting smart things into my home is retrofitting them into/with old systems.

    As a tourist attraction, sure. If someone wants to pay for it as a sales demo, as long as it’s not with my taxes, why not. I’m also sure some actual customers will be happy to “live in the future”. But this reminds me of those very expensive, public-funded flaghsip prestige projects that mostly siphon money to cronies. 20 years ago I worked on making a flagship public library’s LAN fully fiber-based because “that was the future”. Horrendously expensive at the time (20x copper, or more), no identifiable benefit, and in the end an orphaned project, nobody does that even today. We pulled out, I think the “national champion” got the contract.

  • aardman

    I think it’s much cheaper, healthier, and just generally more beneficial to humanity, to do a “live demo” of an urban space that is designed for walking and bicycling and people doing as many things manually as they can (within reason), rather than trying to connect and automate everything to the point that every little task, including some decision-making tasks, is accomplished for you by a computer. People, especially kids, are already not as physically active as they need to be.

    The future envisioned in this article reminds me of the lazy-ass earthlings in Pixar’s Wall-E.

    • Hi there-
      Agree with you (as a major walking/cycling/new urbanism proponent myself). My view is that at least half of the initiatives outlined in the piece would make Smart City greener, more efficient, more pedestrian friendly, and so on. Also more vibrant and livable. The idea is to use technology to help make these things happen.

  • Ken Gai

    See the Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town project, opened 1,000 houses in Nov. 2014, with wide range of partners including Panasonic who is also behind the Giga Factory in Nevada to power Tesla. They have English website with details here: http://fujisawasst.com/EN/

    Trust this serves as notable working example for your suggestion with stated 70% reduction in CO2 emissions and tight focus on integrated community lifestyle.. 😎

  • Whenever I see these futuristic discussions, I am reminded of Al Gore’s “Information Super Highway”, and how Jim Barksdale and Mark Andreesen decided that they couldn’t wait for that and created the Internet as we know it today, over regular, analogue phone wires.

    Maybe we should just implement the Smart City concepts without waiting for the Live Demo. I think that’s what Korea did with their ubiquitous broadband stuff, for example, and I’m sure that they found out a lot of issues that a Live Demo would never have surfaced (one common issue we hear across the sea in Japan are the networked game addict problem).

  • Sounds like a panopticon. I would not want to live there.

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