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Building the Cities of Tomorrow

By Jibran Jamshad

Before smart cities initiatives, the government needs to prepare for the Internet of Things (IoT) implementation.

Change is the only constant if you look at history. For example, the first industrial revolution was fueled by steam power that created a big boom in the textile sector. The evolution of the rail network, automobile manufacturing, and mass production powered the subsequent industrial revolutions. Electrical energy was the key force behind it all. A century later, computer automation, information technology, electronics, computer programs and programmable logic controllers (PLCs) are playing a pivotal role in industrial automation. Today, we have stepped towards another industrial revolution known as industry 4.0 or “smart factory”. Now, it’s all about cyber-physical systems powered by immersive experiences, intelligence, bots, a cloud and most importantly, the Internet of Things (IoT).

Exponential Growth of Connected Devices

Today, nearly every sector of industry is undergoing a serious digital transformation with an aim to empower employees, optimize operations, and improve services through customer journey mapping. The public sector across the globe is no exception, and hence, we see a lot of talk and action revolving around digital government, including e-governance, and citizen services converging towards smart cities powered by the IoT.

“The world will see a massive growth in connected devices from 6.4 billion in 2016 to 20.8 billion by 2020,” asserts Gartner, a leading research agency. Industry experts widely agree that the IoT is powering a major revolution in machine to machine communication, connected vehicles, public infrastructure, home appliances, industrial equipment, and consumer accessories. The list goes on.

Read more: Building Smart Cities in Pakistan

The lifecycle of an IoT solution is usually driven by three characteristics, i.e., the devices should be aware of the surroundings, be autonomous (able to work without human intervention), and data collected from such devices should be actionable. The last point is the key to making smart decisions on the basis of right information provided at the right time, in the right context to the right stakeholders.

Today, nearly every sector of the industry is undergoing a serious digital transformation with an aim to empower their employees, optimize their operations, and improve their services through customer journey mapping.

Actionable information gathered from a network of IoT devices across public infrastructure, government departments, and urban spaces is the key to the success of smart cities initiatives. Powered with such information, these initiatives may fulfill the promise of delivering real value via big data analytics and machine learning technologies.

Smart Cities and the Developing World

For Pakistan, the key questions are, “How can we build smart cities in an emerging, third world economy like ours?” and “Will this help us become a better state?”

For countries like Pakistan, improving accessibility, environment, and law and order can be key transformational goals. However, for mature markets, it might be more about enhancing the experience of tourists, personalizing citizen services, and telecommuting, for example. Hence, first and foremost, we need to identify our needs and priorities. It can’t be just about embracing an emerging trend or selectively adopting the best practices of smart cities.

The next question of concern will be about connectivity. Currently, we don’t have connected cities. So, are we thinking along the lines of networking each and every inch of a city or is it just going to be a specific area or certain installations only? IoT devices require a robust and always-on-network mechanism. A true cloud platform powered by IoT hub, big data analytics, machine learning intelligence, containers, mobile services, serverless computing, service bus, self-service reporting, dash-boarding, etc., are prerequisites. At the moment, these are only made available by a few true public cloud providers such as Microsoft.

Are we going to produce a back-end service in a centralized datacenter and then ensure a service level agreement (SLA) around that? It’s technically quite possible, however, it’s not the core function of a government and demands extraordinary technical capabilities as well as capital expenditure (CAPEX) and time to market. Despite the incentive of economies of scale to allocate resources exclusively to datacenters, a hybrid approach is necessary to classify your data and workloads accordingly. At the moment, we don’t have a cloud friendly policy and it’s not publically available. Hence, this is an area to ponder. In the days to come, a true cloud platform can be the backbone of initiatives like smart cities.

Read more: Lahore Cleans up Its Act

Big Benefits of Smart Cities Initiatives

City governance, health, and policing can all benefit from smart cities initiatives. For example, simply converting a community garbage bin into a smart bin can reap major benefits for the community such as automatically notifying the municipal department when it’s full. If it’s not been emptied in 15 days or at any time, city executives can review the actual situation of cleanliness across the city via smart intelligence. If we convert hospital beds into smart beds, powered via IoT devices, we not only get a real time status of diseases under treatment and bed occupancy statistics, this information can also prove invaluable during national crisis. We can embrace improvements like predictive maintenance, occupancy trends and can proactively align resources, all powered via machine learning. Deep insights can also help investigate current and future crimes. Through real time images, video, sentiment and behavioral analytics, IoT can really empower safe city projects leveraging machine learning capabilities.

Wearable technology can also play a key role in controlling crime, connecting people, and getting personalized services. For example, a band on your wrist can monitor heart rate, temperature, and blood pressure. Your health records, eating habits, sleep pattern, and workout details can be tracked, centrally stored and be made available on a single click of the mouse to your doctor. Imagine a clinic of the future, where you won’t need to carry your medical record with you nor will your doctor need to sort out your details from stacks of paper records. Imagine such a band on the arm of a newborn baby. Hospital staff and parents can monitor in real time child’s location. This can prove to be an excellent security measure to avoid scenarios like kidnapping of newborns. As soon as the band is removed from the wrist, a security alert can be generated, relevant stakeholders notified and actions like locking the doors of the ward taken.

The same theory can also be applied to smart watches, socks, lockets and other wearable technology which can be assigned to teenagers and can aid in providing situational awareness.

A band on your wrist can monitor your heart rate, temperature, and blood pressure. Your health records, eating habits, sleep pattern, and workout details can be tracked, centrally stored and be made available on a single click of the mouse to your doctor.

It is not necessary that this data crunching has to be a departmental or organization-wide initiative. Today, many public and private sector organizations rely on Nadra (National Database and Registration Authority) and FBR (Federal Bureau of Revenue) for data sharing and exchange via secure application program interfaces (APIs). The next steps can involve open data – unclassified and non-confidential data can be made publically available to be used for developing innovative solutions for citizens. For example, data from the meteorological department can be utilized to share insights and predictions with farmers in an agricultural country like Pakistan.

Another example would be making job data available across industries and mapping it to degree programs and taught courses, allowing students to make informed decisions about their future. Utilization of such data to improve government services will also boost the local economy. There can be unlimited opportunities around datasets that don’t identify people but can help society at large. Such datasets may include demographics of buyers, patients, students, taxpayers, travelers, environmental information such as weather reports, traffic feeds, airline schedules and power outages etc.

The cities of the future definitely hold the promise of connecting people and infrastructure but the success of these initiatives will depend on the tangible benefits people can draw out of them. There is a wide and unlimited list of possibilities powered by actionable insights from raw information generated by billions of sensors deployed across the board.

As per the Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies 2016, an emerging trend is use of smart machine technologies to harness data in order to adapt to new situations and solve new problems. This trend directly refers to technologies like machine learning, digital assistants, smart data discovery, natural language processing, smart bots, taxonomy and ontology management and context brokering, etc. This trend illustrates that organizations that make this technology an integral part of the experiences of their employees, partners and customers will be able to connect their ecosystems to platforms in new and dynamic ways.

Let’s take a look at some real world examples to review where we stand. The world’s first self-driving taxi service is now live in Singapore.

A more relevant and real-life example of a smart city built on the foundation of big data is the South Korean city of Songdo. It’s completely connected. Every inch of the city is  wired with fiber optic broadband. The Songdo residents can video-conference with their neighbors, attend classes remotely, control lighting, heating and air conditioning with a push of a button on a control panel. Radio frequency identification (RFID) monitors the traffic in the city and allows citizens to check the exact status of public transportation using smartphone apps. They can track their children’s location via wearable technology and recycle their garbage to generate power for the city. This is an example of a purpose built smart city.

We also have some good flagship case studies of large, metropolitan cities, such as Amsterdam where IoT solutions have been deployed to reduce traffic, save energy and improve law and order. Barcelona runs it to support improvements in agriculture, emergency management and transportation. Manchester is undertaking big projects to make improvements along four themes: transport and travel, health and social care, energy and environment, and culture and the public realm.

United States, India, Singapore, China and other mature tech economies are also considering initiatives backed up by the IoT, intelligent cloud and advanced analytics.

Read more: Introducing Smart Policing

Smart Actions

Smart cities promise a better tomorrow. It’s never about buying a product or replicating an idea. It’s something very serious and strategic, demanding a total revamp beginning with what we think and how we operate, to how we run our education system, industry and government. Imagine we are trying to undertake such a strategic challenge and there is absolutely negligible focus on emerging technologies, product development, and encouragement of creative thinking. Imparting focused curriculum in the right context and depth, allowing students to lead the way with prioritizing industry relevant projects, helping them seek grants and providing them legal and technical support will enable next generation of entrepreneurs to focus on vital technologies that hold the key to the future.

Furthermore, just like many other countries, there should be a specific Council with the right level of skills, empowerment and mandate to look after smart city initiatives. This forum should call the shots on key decisions including robust connectivity, utilization of cloud services, penetration of non-traditional devices, mining and exchanging massive data volumes and in-depth cybersecurity implementation.

Actionable information generated by smart cities is the future but the key to unlocking this lies in our attitude as citizens. If we keep on throwing garbage on roadsides and in streets, smart bins won’t solve the problem. If we fail to adopt the right attitude, neither the government nor any foreign partner will be able to invest in initiatives that can lead to a better tomorrow for generations to come. Thus, before jumping on to the smart cities bandwagon, we need to take a step back and realign our priorities and practices to be fully prepared for upcoming challenges.


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