Smart cities could lead to cost savings of $5 trillion annually by 2022, according to ABI Research(1). The report attributes the future success of smart cities to the deployment of smart technologies and IoT. But more importantly, researchers ruled that the desirability of the strategy would boil down to stakeholders collaborating and embracing a holistic approach.
What do such findings mean for smart city initiatives in the pilot stage? The implications are many, including the need for scalability. This is particularly true in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak, whose impact has required a crisis response from building owners and managers. Traditional buildings and their "smart" counterparts have achieved starkly differentiated success in dealing with the pandemic, in terms of speed, adaptability and performance.
Such operational disparities are not the least bit surprising, considering smart structures were built and future-proofed for resilience, safety and convenience, to begin with. They are inspired by the contemporary digital economy which thrives on the maxim, 'everything that can be digital, will be'. But, despite the demonstrable benefits of smart cities, and the ready availability of scalable solutions, there are considerable challenges to reckon with.
Underlining the objectives
In order to truly appreciate what smart initiatives offer one must first comprehend the pain points and existing gaps in traditional, legacy projects. These include visible, recurring patterns of increased costs, shorter equipment life cycles, unchecked resource consumption and labour-intensive operations. Lack of transparency into electro-mechanical performance undermines the possibility of timely intervention, leading to a compounding of inefficiencies, before eventual breakdown. Additionally, routine operations demand on-site presence of professionals, which proved to be a challenge when the pandemic struck.
Smart buildings are aimed at bridging these gaps, using a combination of smart devices and cutting-edge technologies, all working in tandem. Seamless IoT-based integration of multi-vendor assets breaks down existing silos. Facilities managers are able to capture portfolio-wide data and monitor performance in a centralized command centre — remotely and in real time. The insights thus derived translate to informed decision making on a range of operational parameters including energy usage, maintenance, efficiency and ROI. Data-driven operations leave no room for errors, while cloud-computing enables real-time, remote control of the entire portfolio and critical assets like HVAC, lighting, security, etc. However, the question remains: How are "smart" initiatives actionable on a macroscopic scale?
Systematic scaling of smart cities
According to the latest research by SmartCitiesWorld(2), funding is the biggest obstacle hampering widespread scalability of smart cities. This can be attributed to lack of awareness among policymakers or lack of consensus between stakeholders. Funding and favourable policies often require top-down intervention and drive, but the motivation comes from bottom-up decisions and interest from end users. A smart city initiative can successfully materialize when both factors complement each other.
Every city presents unique opportunities and challenges. Public safety could be a priority for some, while government efficiency could be a challenge for others. Needless to say, smart cities deliver demonstrable value on all fronts. But in order to buy into the strategy, one has to foster outcome-based thinking. For instance, granular data from connected devices in a smart city is conducive to administrative efficiency, through insight-led decision making. The integration of city-wide surveillance systems—sensors, cameras and actuators—results in a robust public-safety framework, accessible to a single-window operator in the centralized command centre, even remotely.
In the same vein, quantifiable benefits of smart cities extend to several desirable civic outcomes, including sustainable development goals, mobility, economic growth and uplift of living standards. That said, it is vital to draw a meticulous, thought-out blueprint, before putting a smart city plan to action. It should detail every undertaking and the desired outcome, along with budget allocation, expected ROI and a time frame for each endeavour. As the scaling up of the project is undertaken, stakeholders can avail automated reports and insights from across portfolios, to follow the progress and take key decisions. For example: Energy metrics report could indicate how the shift to smart metering is leading to cost savings, or what switching to LED lamp posts could mean in five or ten years, in terms of savings and ROI.
While there is ample evidence to regard smart cities as a pipeline of opportunities, success comes down to the capabilities of the service provider. Smart city initiatives entail tech-heavy operations, which, as is the case with most tech platforms, are susceptible to cyber-attacks. Also, scaling means collection of vast amounts of sensitive data, such as bank details and personal information, which requires best-in-class data management practices. Smart city initiatives need to give paramount importance to cyber-security. The stakes are high and the entire city is vulnerable, in the event of a data breach.
Management through quantifiable outcomes
Once the transition is complete, smart cities, by virtue of ingrained transparency and accountability, enable community-level monitoring and management. Issues such as "how much crime was reduced" or "how much water was conserved", become possible to consider in concrete and measurable terms. Being able to track issues, responses and outcomes, allows all stakeholders to operate on the basis of real world parameters.
Ultimately, scaling digital transformation from smart buildings to smart city networks is all about being able to implement specific and targeted management. The approach taken to such an endeavour needs to be holistic, well integrated and secure against being compromised by cyber criminals. Once these basic considerations are amply addressed, the upside is centralized control, which can optimize the entire spectrum of desirable outcomes, for all stakeholders.