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Can smart city infrastructure alleviate the strain of city growth?

IoT devices are becoming part of a smart city infrastructure that can combat the strain of city growth, from traffic control to environmental issues.

As their populations balloon, cities face opportunities and challenges. An influx of new residents and visitors can enliven a city’s economy and generate revenue. At the same time, more people in urban areas strain resources. Cities are turning to Internet of Things technologies to alleviate the burden and create economic growth.

The trend toward urbanization is undeniable. Global city populations are expected to grow from 3.6 billion to 6.3 billion by 2050—more than 60%. Las Vegas is no exception. Over the past 10 years, the city has experienced a 40% increase in its population and expects 50% growth over the next decade.

Smart city infrastructure to promote consumer experience

These explosions in city expansion have sprouted new challenges and exacerbate existing ones, including traffic congestion, environmental problems and safety issues. Growing cities need new ways to solve age-old infrastructure problems. To address its issues, Las Vegas turned to the Cisco Smart+Connected Digital Platform, which aggregates data from disparate Internet of Things (IoT)-connected sources: sensors, mobile devices and video cameras. The goal is to promote a better experience for people using city services and help agencies providing those services with better data at the ready.

Munish Khetrapal of Cisco (left) and Michael Sherwood, CIO of the city of Las Vegas

 “We want you to be enriched by the experience you have in our city,” said Michael Sherwood, chief information officer for the city of Las Vegas at a session on smart city infrastructure and IoT technology at Cisco Live 2017 in June.

The Cisco digital platform works with applications that can automate street and traffic lights, optimize trash pickup and augment surveillance and crime prevention. Fifty billion IoT-connected devices are expected by 2020; of those 20 billion sensors will be connected in cities alone, said Munish Khetrapal, managing director of solutions at Cisco, in the session.

Analyzing data quickly enables the city to identify potentially dangerous situations and take action. “That means you don’t have trashcans that are overflowing or have you walk into the street and get hit by a car,” Sherwood said. “Now we can create a better experience for everybody.”

Las Vegas is using IoT sensors to manage its traffic congestion and environmental issues. For instance, if a driver is waiting at a red light at 1:00 a.m., the sensors can gather carbon dioxide levels and ambient traffic conditions and determine whether it’s safe to turn the traffic light green—rather than let a car sit at a red light generating exhaust. “This is how we can use the infrastructure smartly,” Sherwood said.

The city chose Cisco for its smart city initiative “because we already use Cisco telephony and networks. It was a logical choice to extend our foundation and thread it out,” Sherwood said. Las Vegas also wants to leverage the platform’s open data architecture to allow third-party-developed applications to draw on a wide variety of data—compliant with the city’s data-use policies. 

The Cisco platform has enabled other cities to bolster safety and ensure broader access to health care information and services. Khetrapal recounted that in Jaipur, India, on a particular section of city roadway, there were about 4,000 accidents annually, and the city had no idea why.

After installing IoT sensors and video cameras, city officials learned that more than 70% of accidents were attributable to drivers going the wrong way down the road. Jaipur police used the information to significantly reduce the number of accidents on the road. Access to data “completely changed the paradigm,” Khetrapal said. Sensors in Jaipur also provide information on environmental factors like pollution as well as on available parking spots and tourist information at kiosks.

Smart city infrastructure is also enabling more efficient and health-boosting city services. Trash pickup today in Granada, Spain, is still manual: A truck stops at every house on a given street and checks bins. But Granada is in the process of connecting 14,000 waste bins across the city using sensors that will bring data into the Cisco platform. Data about which bins need emptying will soon make garbage truck routes more efficient—quite an improvement considering the serpentine system of one-way streets.

Ultimately, greater automation of waste management could save the city millions and reduce the carbon emitted by garbage trucks stopping at empty bins.  

Amsterdam in the Netherlands is also using smart city infrastructure and connected lighting to reduce costs and boost safety. The pilot project, in concert with Philips, enabled the city to install IoT-connected energy-efficient light-emitting diodes (or LEDs), which can save a city up to $13 billion a year, according to a Philips estimate. While this is a start, cities need more aggressive, long-term energy savings. For more connected lighting technologies—adaptive to and interoperable with other systems—are needed. To bring smart city infrastructure to the next level, The Internet of Everything report concluded, “a joint effort is required to realize the vision of smart connected cities, enabling meaningful innovation.”

A photo of a mural depicting IT pros as superheroes at Cisco Live 2017

How open data policy fuels smart city infrastructure

While many cities have started down the road of a smart city initiative, some encounter challenges that come with data silos. According to an InformationWeek report, 17,000 state and local law enforcement agencies in the U.S. use data sets that don’t communicate with one another.

Moreover, according to McKinsey & Co., if unlocked, data silos could generate up to $5 trillion in revenue. Information “becomes more valuable as it is shared, less valuable as it is hoarded,” noted open-data-policy advocates in calling for cities to adopt an open data policy.

“Opening data makes cities more transparent and also enables more efficient and cost-effective delivery of public services,” according to the Smart Cities Open Data Guide.

Sherwood said adopting open data policies in localities around Las Vegas will allow communities to share services rather than duplicate them. If systems are interoperable and can share data, central Las Vegas could potentially take over urban services management for less-well-financed cities, like North Las Vegas. “If I have the efficiency, the automation and the capabilities, why should [North Las Vegas] have to continue to [collect trash]?” IoT is going to revolutionize government; it won’t be sectioned by geographic boundaries—it’s going to be open," Sherwood predicted.

Sherwood noted that data exchange improves consumer experience. “What we’re doing with IoT is making your experience better by bringing all this data together—being able to shuttle it around between partners.” An app could, for instance, combine rental car data with traffic data and other information, which could be fed to wearable wristbands or smartphones for navigation, mobile payments and hotel room keys.

At the same time, data privacy advocates voice concern about the implications of data sharing. Data privacy is already an issue with IoT devices, particularly after recent critical breaches. Privacy proponents worry that third parties given access to data may not be careful stewards. IoT devices have also been hacked in breaches like the Mirai botnet cyberattack in 2016.

Cisco’s Khetrapal concurred that data security is a critical consideration, particularly regarding data ownership: City agencies may own their own data but must provide access to others to reap the benefits. Policies must address data management that includes significant granularity—agencies can share data by user, location and so on—and complexity, where data access can be licensed on the basis of time, compliance, or other factors.

Sherwood said he expects persuading constituencies to share data will be an ongoing challenge. “A lot of it is territorial. But it’s about me educating vendors.” He has to demonstrate the ROI of sharing data and building reciprocity among agencies and partners.

So, for example, the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC) had a mobile app that gets little usage compared with the official Las Vegas mobile app. Sherwood persuaded RTC to share data with the city of Las Vegas, and together they are now building an app that allows riders to hold a smartphone up at a bus location and learn when the next bus will arrive. Ultimately, this will tie into mobile payments on smartphones as well.

With smart city initiatives, ‘The main thing is starting’

For CIOs like Sherwood, change doesn’t come easily, and implementing IoT and smart city technologies can be less challenging than orchestrating the organizational change that comes with new technologies like IoT and smart city initiatives.

“You’re changing the way you do business when you start implementing IoT,” Sherwood said. “While I might be the chief information officer, I’m a really business process-change person. Now I’m going to a department that used to send a truck up and down the street every day and check a trashcan; now we’re going to change that methodology. I have to be able to explain how we’re going to change operations.”

Sherwood said some organizations develop analysis paralysis with smart city projects and don’t know where to start. They may not know whether to connect street lights, traffic lights, surveillance cameras or other elements. “People always ask me, 'Where do you start?' The main thing is starting,” Sherwood stressed. “Find a business problem and then find the technology around that to solve that problem.”

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Lauren Horwitz

Lauren Horwitz is the managing editor of Cisco.com, where she covers the IT infrastructure market and develops content strategy. Previously, Horwitz was a senior executive editor in the Business Applications and Architecture group at TechTarget;, a senior editor at Cutter Consortium, an IT research firm; and an editor at the American Prospect, a political journal. She has received awards from American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), a min Best of the Web award and the Kimmerling Prize for best graduate paper for her editing work on the journal article "The Fluid Jurisprudence of Israel's Emergency Powers.”