by Russell Poole, Managing Director UK at global interconnection and data centre company Equinix
Could the smart cities immortalised in Hollywood arrive in the not-too-distant future?
Open any magazine or newspaper, or watch any news channel, and you will likely come across the phrase “smart city”. On the big screen, smart cities are often portrayed as futuristic, dystopian metropolises – think The Matrix or Blade Runner. But what does the term “smart city” really mean? How does a city become “smart”? And what sort of technology needs to be developed and implemented to manage the continually evolving challenge of digital disruption?
It’s no secret that the modern world is digitising at an unprecedented rate, challenging conventional notions of everything – from the way businesses are run to the way we design our towns and cities. It’s often said we are living in a digital economy, with data acting as the new gold – and it’s hardly a surprise when you look at the statistics. Cisco predicts that by 2022, the number of connected mobile devices around the world will reach 12.3 billion, up from 8.6 billion in 2017. More than 422 million of these are expected to be 5G-capable, which means they can send more data and at increased speeds. And on top of increased personal use, governments all over the world are implementing connected devices in everything from traffic lights to water sprinklers, to automate everyday processes and improve the lives of citizens.
Optimising the future
The smart city integrates information technology and a variety of physical devices connected to the internet of things (IoT), to optimise the efficiency of operations and services. Smart city technology enables officials to directly communicate with both city and community infrastructures, while monitoring activity and city developments. This in turn allows the city to adapt to its most pressing needs, be this through improving traffic flow or deploying an emergency service.
Many cities are adopting smart technology, but very few can claim to be truly “smart”. This would require the overwhelming majority of our daily processes to be streamlined or fully automated. What we are seeing instead are smart projects being deployed in an urban context, with processes being adapted to better serve the needs of residents and ease the pressure on local infrastructure.
This gradual shift towards smart cities symbolises a major breakthrough and the first step towards full automation, but it doesn’t come without challenges. The major issue isn’t the deployment of the technology, but rather the data this technology creates, and how it is captured, analysed, and leveraged in real time.
Connection from the digital edge to the core
The catalyst for every smart city is the internet of things (IoT). The prolific adoption of IoT devices means that connected devices can not only link to the internet, but can also talk to one another. The insights gathered by IoT devices can be broken down and analysed by machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) platforms that analyse and then replicate the cognitive functions of humans – albeit at a significantly higher speed. These insights can be used to shape and improve urban planning, such as transport systems and waste and pollution management.
The modern smart city needs to be highly interconnected to collect and share data. Smart cities require robust digital infrastructure that physically and securely links dispersed sensors, devices and machines, so they can exchange and process information in real time, altering systems and outputs as required. Smart cities also need to work together, sharing information on how to best streamline and improve processes to create a wider ecosystem that connects different communities. To that end, interconnection – the private exchange of data – has a central role to play in bringing together all the moving parts involved. This will be particularly pertinent when 5G arrives later this year, as it will be the catalyst accelerating the next generation of IoT usage in our day-to-day lives, enabling smart technology to be implemented in cities all over the world.
Having the right digital infrastructure in place means that technology can play a far more active role in improving people’s lives. Through analysing the data collected from the various connected devices, decisions can be made on how best to improve the city for its residents and visitors. No longer will people need to hunt for a parking space, because in a smart city their car will be receiving directions towards an available parking space, saving on both time and CO2 emissions. Walking into a supermarket, we will no longer need to wander around the store – rather we will be presented with personalised suggestions of what items may be on promotion based on our stored preferences collected by AI software. This allows the user to have a better experience – in this case potentially gaining savings without having to collect physical coupons – and the retailer to have greater sales or insights on buying behaviours for future promotions.
The unprecedented data growth generated by smart cities will place huge levels of strain on legacy digital infrastructures. To handle this influx, it is imperative that we begin to develop digital infrastructures that can seamlessly handle not just our current data demands, but also the growing demands of the future. This shift is alluded to in a recent market study published by Equinix, The Global Interconnection Index Volume 2 (GXI Vol.2), which predicts the growth rate of interconnection bandwidth – the private exchange of data between companies away from the public internet – will outpace the growth of internet traffic by nearly two times, and will be ten times the volume by 2021.
At Equinix, we help companies manage digital disruption by connecting digital supply chain partners and transporting huge quantities of data – such as that created by IoT devices in smart cities – so it can be processed and analysed to generate valuable insights for businesses globally, or stored in the cloud.
Companies that leverage an interconnected IoT ecosystem can gather, process and share data in real time with partners distributed around the world in our 200-plus data centres. Even though much of this technology is still in its early stages, making it difficult to predict how long it will take to see the first fully automated city, it’s important that we keep developing new technologies and supporting digital infrastructures that allow this progress to continue.