We Have the Technology: Rethinking Our Vision of Smart Cities

In the past few years, there have been no shortage of articles on new smart devices and smart home gadgets—but what exactly makes something smart?

Do you live in a smart home if you can use your phone to turn on the lights? Do you live in a smart city if you can use an app to pay for parking? I would argue that while it might make it a smart parking meter, it doesn’t make it a smart city. And that’s what we’re seeing today: a ton of one-and-done point solutions that do not connect to any other capabilities.

On the other end of the spectrum, when thinking about smart cities, we often default to what we see in movies and use these visions as our benchmark for what they should be. In reality, this isn’t the case.

Our collective vision for smart cities should be somewhere in the middle: we need to start thinking of a smart city as a broader collection of interconnected devices and services that solve real, everyday problems, not as a place where smart technology operates siloed, nor one where flying cars abound. Some cities across the country are already recognizing this vision, but once we all do, we’ll be able to move forward in creating better versions of our cities that make life for citizens fundamentally easier.

Moving this version of smart cities forward

This vision of smart cities hasn’t reached a critical mass in Canada yet, as many municipalities have been trapped in technology silos. They may be interested in investing in smart technology, only for a vendor to instruct them to throw out all their existing systems and equipment and purchase a whole new infrastructure (phone, web, data networks, etc). Only then would they be able to enjoy the value/benefits of living in a smart city.

However, the outlook is much brighter for cities operating under tight municipal budgets today. From an Avaya perspective, at least, most large municipalities already have the technology they need—voice, video, cloud, etc. Now, they just need the software that sits in the middle to help the city automate and orchestrate their connected devices into a workflow model that solves a specific set of problems.

Furthermore, while municipal IT departments were at one point completely overwhelmed with asks for different point solutions, we are now moving away from simplistic, one-purpose tech and towards the concept of a communications core where cities can expose a wide range of consumable services (voice, video, collaboration, text messaging, etc.) to citizens and city officials.

Say a city fire department purchases a drone. A few years ago the aerial footage might have been cool for the people in the fire hall to view later, but otherwise wouldn’t have much value. Today, however, the drone footage could be sent to a secure IP address that allows the fire chief, disaster response teams, the mayor, etc. to view the incident on a video collaboration site and respond in real time.

In this example, all the technology already exists. It just needs to be assessed and connected properly.

A realistic version of services offered

The types of services each smart city offers will be largely determined by the particular needs of its citizens. What problems would they like orchestrated or automated? What services would make their lives easier?

Since the City of Toronto already publishes a great deal of open data, it would be relatively simple for someone to create a mobile app that uses real-time crime stats to warn citizens if they’re heading towards an active crime scene.

Take this example from a smart campus that Avaya recently worked with in the U.S. After the university installed parking metres that would alert parking attendants when a metre was about to expire, students were understandably upset as to why the institution would not share this information with them first. Taking this feedback from students to heart, the university decided to start sending students an SMS text when their time was about to expire, allowing them to add money to the metre via their smartphone.

This on-the-fly switch from a punitive model to a collaborative model is an excellent example of a smart campus listening to its ‘citizens’ and using connected technology to deliver the smart services they were asking for.

This type of intuitive problem solving can easily be applied to cities as a whole and the solutions that this technology can provide are endless.

How long until we’re all living in this vision of the smart city?

Conservatively, we’re probably three to five years away from living in this type of smart city, but we’re already starting to see municipalities build interactive city halls that allow their citizens to pay their property taxes or parking tickets online. Cities are also investing in smarter call centres for services that, for instance, can detect if someone’s mobile call dropped and then automatically work to reconnect them with the same agent immediately, saving a great deal of time and frustration on both sides.

These examples might not strike you as particularly futuristic, but they do represent the kind of smart interactions that will help citizens feel heard, valued and more connected to their city.

Moving forward, we’ll also start to see smart services interconnecting between geographic and municipal boundaries. For those who live outside Toronto, picture yourself landing at Pearson airport. You have your mobile phone on you (of course) and you have agreed to share your personal information online (likely no more than you already share on social media)—something like this is already being piloted. Then, your rental car service knows your plane has landed so your keys are ready when you arrive. Directions to your hotel are automatically sent to your phone, and when you get there, you can bypass the front desk and enter your room with a swipe of your smartphone. You sit down on your bed and almost instantly receive a text message from the hotel asking if you need anything.

Much of the connected technology that will help automate our lives already exists today, but the speed at which it becomes commonplace largely depends on how comfortable people are with sharing their identity, and how confident cities and businesses are that they can protect it.

Municipalities will also have to start focusing on automating and orchestrating interconnected services into workflows that deliver smart outcomes for their citizens.

We already have the technology to make smart cities a reality. We just need to re-imagine how it’s connected, deployed it what the actual outcomes should be.

Tracy Fleming is Avaya Canada’s Senior Technologist.