We only have partial understanding of ancient cities like Pompeii and Angkor. But once proper records began, humankind was able to document a clearer picture of city life.
And often, it wasn’t pretty. Wikipedia’s entry on London includes this observation from the 19th century: “London’s antiquated local government system, consisting of ancient parishes and vestries, struggled to cope with the rapid growth in population. In 1855 the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) was created to provide London with adequate infrastructure to cope with its growth. One of its first tasks was addressing London’s sanitation problems. At the time, raw sewage was pumped straight into the River Thames. This culminated in The Great Stink of 1858.”
What made London so unpleasant at that time? “At the beginning of the nineteenth century London was the largest city in Europe...[and] the infrastructure of the metropolis creaked under the strain of expansion, especially in the first half of the [19th] century,” writes oldbaileyonline.org. “Even as street lighting and macadam reached in to many of the less pleasant corners of the city, arrangements for the disposal of the detritus of urban life became more difficult. The air became ever more polluted with the smuts and dank stinks of a coal fired world.”
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Contrast with the modern metropolis of today-a financial center with world-class architecture. Vast improvements were made with a city-wide sewage system. Another critical area was controlling the burning of coal. The latter was also a problem in New York City right up until the introduction of anti-pollution laws in the United States (legal remedies included measures to address automobile-emission problems in Los Angeles).
“A report by the Environmental Protection Agency documents one period in late November 1966 when air quality deteriorated significantly in cities along the Eastern Seaboard,” said an article on businessinsider.com. “On November 24, 1966, a dense smog shrouded all of New York City. Between Nov. 24 and Nov. 30, New York City documented an increase of about 24 smog-related deaths per day.”
Building in the fix
London became overcrowded in the 19th century because of mass migration-this trend has skyrocketed in the 21st century. Pollution remains a problem in many cities. People still burn coal to keep warm, only nowadays we have satellites that can produce high-resolution images of the resultant pollution clouds.
As people continue to migrate to cities in search of employment and a better life, the goal is to install and coordinate infrastructure that will make cities “smarter”: more efficient, cleaner, more user-friendly for its residents. It’s best to think of smart cities as ecosystems, and let’s not forget that smart-city initiatives must be sustainable, meaning the financial angle must be addressed. In other words: it’s fine to talk about “smart parking” but who picks up the tab?
The issue of existing infrastructure is a critical one. Both London and New York have original infrastructure dating back over a century. The decision to repair, retrofit, repair or replace has budgetary variables and represents a public and private sector quandary. All such decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis.
In “greenfields” environments, where existing infrastructure is scarce, such decisions are easier. But public and private stakeholders must still agree. Standards must be set, vendors must be selected, policies must be created, enacted, and enforced.
Everyone involved in smart-city initiatives needs to stipulate how and when they plan to build in the fix. When it comes to re-engineering municipal processes, there are no insignificant details-everything is significant.
What makes a city “smart”?
Wikipedia defines a smart city as “an urban area that uses different types of electronic data collection sensors to supply information used to manage assets and resources efficiently. This includes data collected from citizens, devices, and assets that is processed and analyzed to monitor and manage traffic and transportation systems, power plants, water supply networks, waste management, law enforcement, information systems, schools, libraries, hospitals, and other community services.”
The key word here is “sensors.” Embedding sensors into everyday urban objects produces the datasets that allows technologies to help manage assets and resources efficiently. And many of these sensors won’t be sending data to humans, but to other machines (machine-to-machine or M2M communication).
“The smart city concept integrates information and communication technology (ICT), and various physical devices connected to the network (the Internet of Things or IoT) to optimize the efficiency of city operations and services and connect to citizens,” says Wikipedia. “Smart city technology allows city officials to interact directly with both community and city infrastructure and to monitor what is happening in the city and how the city is evolving.”
Wikipedia declares that nothing significant happens without ICT: “Information and communication technology is used to enhance quality, performance and interactivity of urban services, to reduce costs and resource consumption and to increase contact between citizens and government. Smart city applications are developed to manage urban flows and allow for real-time responses.”
The development of apps depends on a significant percentage of the population having access to smartphones. This isn’t a problem in Singapore or Seoul, but could be in Dhaka or Lagos.
Example: Hong Kong
Any smart city initiative is ecosystem-centric by nature. No single technology can do the job.
A good example is Hong Kong, where the public sector relies on the private sector to do a lot of the “heavy lifting” for tech-related initiatives. The Smart City Consortium (SCC) consists of “a group of professionals from different corporations and organizations [who] provide opinions and suggestions to the government to formulate related policies and standards in the development of Hong Kong as a world-class smart city.”
“We encourage worldwide collaboration with different stakeholders to create the right ecosystem which fosters innovation and sustainable economic growth for Hong Kong,” says the SCC in their mission statement.
The SCC sees Hong Kong’s extensive telco networks as conduits on the path to a smart city. “In September, China Mobile Hong Kong (CMHK), the Hong Kong subsidiary co-owned by the largest national mobile telecom network in China, announced their plans to support a narrow band IoT (NB-IoT) network for enterprise IoT applications,” says Daniel Chun, Smart City Consortium. “In the same month, [operator] 3 Hong Kong followed suit and launched its NB-IoT infrastructure.”
“There is a niche where long range is needed for wide-area coverage but with minuscule power consumption and limited data rates, these new technologies are the perfect solution for smart city utilities and applications such as temperature and humidity sensors, smart parking meters, smart street lighting and many more IoT use-cases,” said Wendy Yung, executive director of the Hong Kong Wireless Technology Industry Association. However, competing standards (as is so often the case) appear as flies in the ointment.
“Cisco Hong Kong demonstrated their new offerings at the Hong Kong Science Technology Park (HKSTP) in low-power wide-area networks (LPWAN) based on the low-power RAN (LoRA) standard,” says Chun. “Earlier this month, a competing global standard (supported by the SigFox Alliance, operated by Thinxtra) also recently announced the launch of their IoT network in Hong Kong. Thinxtra has been issued a public license to operate a citywide mobile data network in Hong Kong. Both LoRA and SigFox standards use unlicensed spectrum.”
“SigFox and LoRa have been competitors in the LPWAN space for several years,” says a blog-post on link-labs.com which is well worth reading for those wanting a deeper understanding of the underlying technologies and their respective business-cases: https://www.link-labs.com/blog/sigfox-vs-lora. “The business models and technologies behind the companies are quite different [but] the end goals are very similar.”
“The goal of the LoRa Alliance, LoRaWAN adopters, and SigFox is that mobile network operators adopt their technology for IoT deployments over both city and nationwide low power, wide-area networks (LPWANs),” says the link-labs.com blog-post. “But there are some prominent differences between how each technology plans to achieve this goal and which applications the technology is best suited for.”
“It seems that the race to achieve dominance and adoption in machine-to-machine (M2M) communications now rests on the ability to enable different vertical and enterprise applications,” says the SCC’s Chun. “We have long advocated the need for a citywide sensor network-one that public and private enterprises can [use to] build and develop intelligent infrastructure to support objectives that constitute better living, improved public safety, and more efficient municipal and city management.”
Mobile data not new to HK
The use of mobile data is not new in commercial or enterprise applications in Hong Kong. On the contrary, Hong Kong has long been a pioneer in mobile data communications. Hutchison Mobile Data (the previous subsidiary of Hutchison Telecom) launched the world’s first public mobile data network in 1989 adopting Motorola’s DataTAC technology with citywide coverage. Its customers included FedEx, the Hong Kong Jockey Club, and selected information providers.
“It was too early at the time as neither coverage and speed was the problem,” says Chok Lee, managing director of WesTel International, who was previously the head of engineering at Hutchison Mobile Data. “It was the lack of actual applications, the readiness of the host and the cost of devices and services.”
At a recent launch event by Thinxtra in Hong Kong, their MD for Asia, Murray Hankinson, said that “outdoor applications such as slope management, air-quality sensing, and asset management will benefit from Thinxtra’s new IoT network.” Thinxtra supports an ecosystem of developers and solution designers in Hong Kong.
Cisco recently featured their Kinetic branded LoRA network and its first application installed at the IoT Sensor Hub at the HKSTP. Garrick Ng, CTO of Cisco Hong Kong indicated that their first PoC application is related to smart mobility. Ng says that “other environment monitoring, smart parking, water and gas metering, leak detection and asset tracking applications could benefit from LoRA’s relatively lightweight endpoint equipment using unlicensed spectrum.”
According to a Machina Research whitepaper, the introduction of a standards-based IoT environment would create simpler processes for building new applications and would allow for interoperability. This could mean an estimated 27% increase in the number of connected devices related to smart cities projects by 2025, which in turn could improve the speed and extent of adoption of smart city applications.
The future’s so bright, we gotta have standards
As ever with all things tech, standards are the way forward. While standards scuffles will continue, most cities have come a long way from London’s “Great Stink” of 1858, and the drive to improve the world’s metropolises through the use of technology is unstoppable.
This article first appeared on Telecom Asia December 2017 / January 2018