15 min

Why a smart city can be so much more than just the sum of its smart parts

What is a ‘smart city’? According to the literature, a smart city is one that is capable of displaying certain types of intelligent behavior. But intelligence never just appears out of the blue. To be smarter nearly always requires making a special effort. There’s a learning process involved and the environment (infrastructure) has to be right. Stefan Lefever, technical director at imec City of Things explains how a smart city can be much more than just the sum of its parts.

Stefan Lefever: “The same thing applies to the smart city. As part of our vision, we give details of what we call an ‘open smart city’, which encourages the people living there and other stakeholders to keep on learning (and in doing so to become smarter). How can we evolve into a future in which we are more than a collection of smart ‘islands’, separate smart objects or individual smart projects? Only if we take a holistic view and have the right underlying technical structure can we meet the challenges that transcend all areas.”

From thinking inside the box to a holistic vision

More and more people are living and working in cities these days. In fact, according to the UN, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas. And that figure will rise to almost 70% by 2050. This trend poses multiple challenges for cities – challenges relating to their specific location, their climate and their history, etc. But many problems we face are common to virtually all cities. These include mobility, diversity, the environment, efficiency, safety, the economy, privacy, leisure time and so many more. As a result, cities have to tackle these problems if they want to offer the people who live in them a livable and sustainable environment. 

Stefan Lefever: “But most cities are organized vertically and try to tackle each policy area separately. City services themselves say that they are arranged in different departments and have grown that way historically. Which means that the ‘environmental affairs’ department of a city does not necessarily know what is happening in the ‘mobility’ department. And just to complicate matters further, new city councils are elected every 4 to 5 years, meaning that priorities sometimes change. All of which makes it difficult to develop all-encompassing solutions in the long term.”

So, can the smart city provide a solution for this? Does it make a more holistic vision possible? Stefan Lefever: “That is one of the most important questions that we are trying to solve with City of Things. Our argument for this is the open smart city (or the ‘Open City of Things’). And the first thing such a city needs is a vision.”

Technology is secondary to vision and requires standards

Stefan Lefever: “If vision is the foundation for an open smart city, how can we maximize the contribution of the supporting technology to that vision? And how can we keep the people in the city informed about the vision and the road we are taking to get there? It’s a learning process based on insights – and those insights are based on data.”

The move towards a smart city can be compared to the introduction of electricity at the beginning of the last century. Power networks were put in place, but to connect machinery and appliances you needed ‘outlets’ (power sockets). Today, the same thing is happening with ‘datafication’. One needs ‘data outlets’ to connect applications and these applications then provide the city with intelligent solutions.

The electrification required standards: what voltage and frequency, what shape were the power sockets to be, etc.? ‘Datafication’ also requires a set of arrangements about what the data will look like and how it can be accessed. Standards for datafication are currently being developed at a rapid pace (OneM2M, ETSI, TMFORUM, etc.). Stefan Lefever: “And processes are also needed (such as DataOps) to regulate the production and use of data. Let’s take an example to make things clear. Imagine you are measuring the temperature. Your readings generate a series of numbers. Everyone needs to be able to identify these numbers immediately as ‘temperature’. So you attach a label to the numbers. And that label has to be universal and can never cause any confusion, even in different languages and cultures. This interoperability of the semantics of data is crucial. The mechanisms for releasing the data also need to be universal. Not just in the city, but also between multiple cities or whole regions.”

Interoperability in naming and sharing data is not the only challenge. According to the European Interoperability Framework (EIF), organizational, technical and legal challenges are equally important in smart cities. Stefan Lefever: “And the way we see it, there is another interoperability challenge in the smart city: relations with citizens. A smart city that takes this into consideration from the outset will find more support from stakeholders for its vision and ‘smart’ actions. And how can the smart city achieve that? With open data, transparent management, living labs, communication signs for people in the street and online, etc. All of these factors contribute to the success of the smart city.”

open city


Insights for expanding to other cities and regions

Stefan Lefever: “We took the recommendations of the EIF on board. For the first two years of City of Things we started a series of vertical projects in areas requiring urgent attention: mobility, the (living) environment and the involvement of citizens themselves. We did this in projects such as the Antwerp Smart Zone. And the lessons learned from this interesting local research are of great value for introducing technological, open and digital innovation that is truly sustainable.”

“But we don’t believe in taking a top-down approach to all this, with all-knowing technology for creating the ‘ideal city’. No, instead we have always based ourselves on the needs of citizens, businesses, government and researchers (the quadruple helix). And we involve all of these stakeholders from the very beginning of developing, testing and validating our solutions.”

“In our initial series of projects, we identified a number of challenges. Now we are focusing on the standardized unlocking of real-time data from Internet of Things (IoT) sensors (restFul APIs and semantics). We also aim to implement data-related processes (DataOps) that are geared to real needs. This will result in an open city architecture that can be rolled out as a scalable platform across a total regional ecosystem, such as Flanders. At a later stage we may publish another technical blogpost to discuss our findings in this area in greater detail.”

As a result of projects in various functional fields (smart lighting, smoother and safer traffic, smart highways, smart water management, mapping air quality, multimodal flows in the city) imec.cityofthings understands that a tool is required to gauge how these areas can influence each other. And for that one needs to combine historical, current and predictive data efficiently. Only then will it be possible to map out and make the best possible use of the opportunities for improvement.

Stefan Lefever: “So we have developed a ‘digital twin’. A digital twin is a virtual copy of a city (currently Antwerp). In this digital environment we bring together datasets that are normally analyzed separately. An example: historical, current and predictive data about traffic density can be used as input for making simulations of air quality. These simulations provide relevant insights that support the policy.”

“But simulations also involve risk. If we combine simulations and use predictive data frequently, small estimation errors can occur in the original datasets, causing significant discrepancies in the final calculations. Which is why real-time data from properly calibrated sensors in the city act as a valuable supplement, creating a reliable tool for city planning and management.”

In short, an open smart city platform encourages a city’s learning process, as well as giving it the tools to become smarter. A vision that uses these data-based methods is the key to applications that cover various areas to achieve optimum results. And a combination with advances in other sectors – such as artificial intelligence – can speed up the learning process so that the city can become smarter even faster.

Want to know more?

This blog is an introduction to a more detailed paper that states imec.cityofthings vision of the ‘open smart city’. Through it, we aim to inspire all players in this field to work together and further define and develop the open smart city, step by step. We highlight the needs of just such a city and describe its underlying technical architecture. At the end of this blog, you will find the link to the full whitepaper.

Imec City of Things invites all interested initiatives, governments and organizations from home and abroad to work together on the open smart city of tomorrow. Don’t hesitate to contact us.

About Stefan Lefever

Stefan Lefever is technical director of City of Things at imec.  He is fascinated by all forms of technology that combine cutting-edge hardware and software solutions to perform complex use cases, especially when they help make this world a better place. Stefan holds master’s degrees in both industrial science (electronics) and engineering science (computer science).  His career encompasses 20 years spent working in the telecommunications industry, more specifically in area of professional EADs (Ethernet Access Devices) and MSARs (Multi-Service Access Routers).  Over the past seven years he has worked, first, as a taskforce manager and then as program director on achieving the transition of single-core monolithic firmware platforms to a versatile, multi-core software execution environment. Along the way, Stefan has made an important contribution to the implementation of SDN/NFV scenarios using both physical and virtual communication components.

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