The Smart City Movement

Smart City Movement

By Andrew Farr


Smart technology is so 2014. Smart cities? Now we’re trending.

Actually, smart cities are not a brand new concept but are being talked about more and more. Considering the rapid technological development of the 21st century, it would seem like the natural progression. After all, the term does make the concept sound pretty futuristic, right? Okay, well maybe not futuristic ? technologically possible may be a better description.

Experts say there is a long way to go until the concept is fully realized, but smart cities are an eventual goal for many municipalities around the globe that are pouring millions ? and even billions ? of dollars into enhancing the “Internet of Things” across buildings, infrastructure, city departments, transit, public utilities and more.

So, how do we define a fully functional smart city?

“I think the very simplest explanation is using digital technology to improve community life,” says Jesse Berst, founder and chairman of the Smart Cities Council, an advisory organization that works to equip cities with knowledge about smart technology to solve problems like growing populations, shrinking budgets and failing infrastructure.

Berst says the real goal of creating smart cities runs even deeper, and the benefits will be numerous if cities continue to work toward achieving it ? but it won?t happen overnight.

“You can drill down into each one of those words and expand it,” he says. “For instance, improve community life, you can say improve community livability, workability and sustainability. I think it’s really important that we strive for the triple-bottom line benefits. It?s a long journey. I think most cities will be on the path for 20 or 30 years and we?ll be inventing new stuff every day as we go along. It?ll be a little like the internet in that regard.?

Achieving the goal of creating smart cities may not be without its controversy, as Mike Weston, CEO of Profusion, a data science consultancy company, points out in a column from The Wall Street Journal last month. Weston addresses some of the ethical issues that can arise from having too much information sharing across data platforms in a city, including information pertaining to ordinary citizens.

?If the Internet age has taught us anything, it?s that where there is information, there is money to be made,? Weston writes. ?With so much personal information available and countless ways to use it, businesses and authorities will be faced with a number of ethical questions. In a fully ?smart? city, every movement an individual makes can be tracked. The data will reveal where she works, how she commutes, her shopping habits, places she visits and her proximity to other people. You could argue that this sort of tracking already exists via various apps and on social-media platforms, or is held by public-transport companies and e-commerce sites. The difference is that with a smart city this data will be centralized and easy to access.?

Weston goes on to suggest that the scenarios stemming from the creation of a smart city range from useful to dangerous, potentially involving customer backlash and lawsuits along the way. Weston says it will be up to businesses to act responsibly with how information is used.

There are numerous aspects of community life that can be impacted by enhancing operational efficiency of municipal departments across a city. City departments such as public utilities, and in particular, water and wastewater utilities are one of many areas already being affected by the technology revolution ? and the smart city movement could be next.

Promoting Smart Cities

Berst?s group is one organization working to advance the concept of smart cities. The Smart Cities Council works to assist cities with achieving its three core values ? livability, workability and sustainability ? by supporting and educating cities with technology counsel, financial advice, policy best practices and tools for citizens. The Council offers tools, apps, case studies and handbooks through its website, events such as its Smart Cities Now Forum, Smart Cities Week and resources such as its ?Smart Cities Readiness Guide? ? a guide that was developed as a resource on smart cities through which cities can assess their readiness to innovate ? identifying a path, taking next steps and measuring progress.? ?

The Council was formed in 2012 after Berst, who has a background working in the smart grid field, began discussing with some friends and colleagues in smart grid companies, ways to assist cities with starting initiatives to become ?smart.? The initial idea was to work with the City of Spokane, Washington, as smart metering vendor Itron, Inc. ? based near Spokane in Liberty Lake ? was one of the companies Berst had initially collaborated with. Other companies to get involved early on included Cisco and IBM ? a company Berst says was one of the earliest pioneers talking about smart cities.

Berst and the founding companies soon realized the need to coordinate their efforts. From there, the development of the ?Smart Cities Readiness Guide? came, after which the Council broadened its focus beyond Spokane, and today works to educate cites on adapting the use of digital technology to create more sustainable cities.

Many technology manufacturers in the water sector are lead or associate partners with the Council ? companies like Itron, Badger Meter, Schneider Electric, Neptune Technology Group, Elster and others.
According to market research firm ABI Research, smart cities technology is an $8.1 billion market today, and in five years, the market will grow to almost five times that size, reaching?$39.5 billion. In another market forecast from Pike Research, investment in smart city technology infrastructure could total?$108 billion?from 2010 to 2020.

Despite the growing adoption of smart technology to assist public utility efficiency, Berst says it?s difficult to point out one U.S. city to call an example, and says the United States has somewhat lagged behind. According to Berst, cities like Singapore, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Madrid and Copenhagen are better examples of cities that have been particularly progressive in developing smart city operational efficiency. He says the biggest challenge probably exists with information sharing and interoperability among different technology systems within municipalities. ?

?There are a lot of U.S. cities that are doing one aspect or another, but there are not very many that have really taken a thoughtful look into a holistic, cross-cutting approach,? he says.

According to Berst, there are a couple different ways cities are using new technology without thinking of how it might be used to impact the city as a whole. Some cities simply adapt smart technology in particular areas to check off a box for voters. Other cities may be prone to using new technology to address specific pain points without thinking about how to leverage it to benefit multiple city departments as opposed to just one.

?We?re trying to convince cities to take a holistic, cross-cutting approach. You?ve got to share infrastructure and share resources, and that?s one of the biggest problems we?re seeing and it?s causing unnecessary expense and duplication of resources. That?s what we don?t see as much of in the States as we do elsewhere,? Berst says.

Water/Wastewater Utility Efficiency

In terms of utilities adopting smart technology to improve efficiency, Berst says the water industry has overall been a little slower than the electric power sector, but is moving in the right direction.

?I think they?re just now starting to get up to speed,? he says. ?I think it?s this historical [mindset] that water is underpriced in this country. You don?t pay nearly what it?s worth, and so there just hasn?t been quite the motivation to save water and it?s made it harder to cost justify putting these [technology systems] in. Now I think that?s beginning to change with the drought conditions in various places.?? ?

Dan Pinney, global water marketing director at Sensus, says public utilities? adoption of smart water technology is growing and, similar to Berst, shares the viewpoint that the challenge now lies with creating compatibility among different technology platforms. This could ultimately mean the difference between implementing just a single piece of smart technology or something that can be part of a larger network.
?Certainly, getting data integrated from different areas is a challenge,? says Pinney, a passionate advocate for smart technology. ?The smart city concept is, I think, still in its infancy in all it can do. When you start taking data from a lot of different places ? whether it?s weather data, groundwater data, energy consumption or distribution information ? there?s just a lot of different pieces that need to be integrated together.?

Pinney says making sure systems are upgradeable will be a determining factor of cities? ability to become smart.

?We?re fundamentally in the business of helping utilities conserve,? he says. ?Sometimes they?re conserving manpower, sometimes they?re conserving their resources. So, choosing a system that can be upgraded and migrated not just in terms of whether it can ?talk,? but whether it can continue to grow, and whether you can continue to add future applications onto it, is really critical.?

Pinney also says there?s a fundamental problem that can occur when utilities, on the other hand, put too much emphasis on installing new systems as opposed to having ones in place that are upgradeable.

?If you think about the cellular world, for example, you don?t have the same cell phone you had five years ago and the cell phone you had 10 years ago doesn’t even work in today?s world. So being sure that you?re choosing a platform that?s going to be around for 15 or 20 or more years, that is a very important technological step,? he says. ?Otherwise, you?re forced to do a change out of a system when you really didn’t plan on it. I think we’ve become such a throwaway society that somehow doing that on a personal level seems okay. We all do it. But when you do it across the whole municipality, the numbers are really huge. It?s very important to install a system that can grow with you that you don’t have to replace every five or 10 years.?

The idea of achieving a smart city also has to do with city leaders knowing their goals and knowing what they want to achieve by improving technology systems. Perhaps it’s one reason why technology for the municipal water and wastewater industry seems to be focused on data analytics. For instance, utilities receive data from technology systems like smart metering or SCADA, but having the ability to analyze it in order to make useful decisions is the ultimate goal.

“The whole thing is designed to help with operational efficiencies,” Pinney says of smart cities. “That operational efficiency comes from analyzing the data, and more importantly, taking action from that data. It’s one thing to have the data. It’s another thing to be able to do something with it. It might be leak detection, it might be irrigation control, it might be lighting. The utilities need to be asking themselves when they install infrastructure, what operational efficiencies are they looking to gain.”

Going Forward

Pinney references a utility in Tennessee that installed an AMI system to assist with meter reading and leak analysis. At the same time, the city was also struggling with revitalizing its downtown area in an effort to make it more secure. The city decided to install LED lights that connected to the AMI system which allowed the city to light the downtown area using the system’s mapping data. “That?s an example of a utility leveraging infrastructure that they put in for a completely different purpose,” Pinney says.

It seems the creation of fully functional smart cities, at least in the United States, is still a long way from reality. For many municipalities, simply identifying operational goals might be the logical first step. It will be interesting going forward to see if more cities will move towards leveraging technology for interoperability among multiple platforms that is more in line with a smart-city approach.

According to Berst, there are three major benefits for any smart city effort. The first is a city?s situational awareness and having the capability to understand what?s going on throughout a network and being able to identify specific problems that may occur, such a leak in a pipeline. The second is real-time optimization and making sure the system is optimized so that all information is taken into account in real time. The last, which Berst says is maybe the most exciting, is predictive analytics ? predicting with great accuracy where a problem is likely to occur and also where growth is most likely to occur.

Berst says one of the most important things for utilities to work towards is addressing how they can share information and data, how to install multi-purpose systems and how to install them with open standards.

“Different companies implement standards in different ways and you want them to prove that they have their systems actually working together,” he says. “I can cite dozens of examples from the electric power industry where projects were delayed by months sometimes because two products that support the same standard didn’t actually work together at first and had to be tweaked.

“But it goes back to multi-purpose. There are a bunch of vendors working together very well and there are solutions in place all around the world doing these things right now. So these are not insurmountable problems. When you put them in, good things occur.”


Andrew Farr is the associate editor of Water Finance & Management.

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