Data: The Heart of Smart Cities
Any complex system in dynamics is likely to have a loosely coupled structure to stay relevant over time. And smart cities are no exception. Indeed, as a city evolves through developing new districts, opening facilities for sports, education and more, or changing citizens’ online presence, its information system should be able to accommodate that changing environment.
This change does not have to be fast in some cases, as with infrastructure, but in others – like data – the advances can be astonishing just in a few years. And most of the changes in our time happen in the digital space.
At the same time only the decent level of data safety, protection, and compliance can give the ethical rights for implementing these systems in cities.
Some would rather prefer to turn back the clock: revert to paper and pencil and waiting in queues than take the risk – whether perceived or real – of succumbing to Internet era fraudsters.
The City Organism
The city is an organism: it is hard to fully describe it as an “artificially engineered system”. Indeed, roads and parks are planned and built by authorities keeping a major plan in mind. However, nobody can stop people from seeking brighter job opportunities, settling near newly opened enterprises, moving to the areas of lower priced real-estate, or escaping crowded places to find pockets of nature within the urban space. People are still socio-biological creatures, very different from mechanical systems and prone to changes and unpredictable influences living in a tremendously complex digital-physical landscape. In some aspects city works as a mechanical system, in others it is a natural organism prone to “mutations”.
In this sense, the planning of a city, for enterprises and people, is about controlling and catering to constant city mutations that make it appear as if the city has a mind of its own. Though it is important to have regulations and guide for urban development, such measures, if over-executed, can lead to public dissatisfaction and hurdle city progress; for example, excessive bureaucracy for right of way applications when it comes to fiber rollout that keeps online access slow and patchy.
A rigid, too-early defined framework that is not designed to evolve over time can stifle growth. Changes in human behaviors are common, and there will always be, spurred by recent sharing economy trends (cars, rooms, group buying), health or environment issues. If a city cannot embrace these changes fully, it means two things: One, the efficiency of the whole system will naturally diminish over time – an accumulation of systemic entropy. And second, the authorities would require an ever expanding audience to comply with procedures that are clearly outdated.
A smart city should have a flexible, universal infrastructure and framework, and it should constantly keep radars on city mutations to steer the whole urban development vector in the direction of sustainable development.
At the same time, people’s reliance on their habitat will probably grow to a much greater extent in the future. For the dog and cat owners out there, I would compare a smart city resident to us now as the difference between a fully domesticated animal and a wild one. The former has a higher reliance on its comfortable environment. That is why the influence of a smart city on humans’ lives will be growing to the point where people will be strongly connected to its digital infrastructure.
In this case, a city of the twenty first century should be much more convenient and make you much happier than the one in the past.
What Are the Costs?
Simple logic should prompt us that the earlier mutations are spotted and met, the lower the costs of such interventions. Nowadays, many processes happen in the Internet where speeds are much higher than in our physical environment. The need for real-time data collection and analysis has long become a staple topic for any smart city discussion. Moreover, in some cases, time does not only mean reduced costs but also saved lives and diminished damage as in the case of public safety and healthcare.
Keeping in mind all its complexity, the question is how we can better organize our city for those who are attached to it, achieve efficiency through the right balance of guidance and promotion of free self-expression, and better security.
Building a smart city almost always means embracing legacy systems and interconnecting them with new ones. If a city is new, as with cases of a few deliberately established capitals, for example, Kazakhstan recently and Brazil previously, where urban infrastructure can be planned as a whole, most cities are like patched quilts. They have parts of independently built that include legacy security, government services, and public infrastructure systems. In fact, even for those few lucky well-planned cities, it’s hard to devise a future-proof platform, if not only such cities will always stay pure administrative centers. As a result, such Frankenstein cities are the places we live in. They pose tremendous challenges of maintaining urban infrastructure. Indeed, if data flows are not unified, it is a Frankenstein’s monster.
A smart city is all about efficiency, safety, and convenience, which a patchwork city is not able to deliver.
I would suggest thinking about a city as a huge information data set, and the measure of efficiency of data management (sharing, real-timeliness, ease-of-use) defines the success of the whole story.
Intel’s Trish Damkroger reports that in 2020 alone smart cities around the world will generate 16.5 ZB of data (1 Zettabyte is equal to 1021 Gigabytes.) And this data is an asset that will outlive any IT system or network. In 100 years, 5G will be forgotten or looked upon with nostalgia, as will as our first attempts at virtual reality. Computer mouse? A memory. Smart homes? How can a home not be not be?
The only reliably robust part of a city is data, null and zeros (or qubits) that will have meaning forever. And it is the data about all its parts that stitches all the urban systems together.
The most important asset of a smart city should be managed carefully. There are a few points that experts could consider in smart city implementations:
Collect data at scale
Many smart devices and communication networks generate and transmit data. For a smart city, it is important to have in place common standards and recommendations for building such systems. Moreover, the city should put in place legal frameworks, including penalties and even prosecutions against those enterprises and people who misuse or abuse such data infrastructure. The borders of data allowed for collection should be defined. For example, what kind of information can a real-estate company that manages buildings collect? How much and in which way should enterprises collect and store data about their manufacturing process that may be a part of their competitive advantage?
Scout for New Data
Moving city information into digital form should be an ongoing process. Teams of data collectors should look for new data collection points and collaborate with data experts on what data is required. Data scientists would point the direction, and data collection teams can deploy a metering solution. After evaluating the data, permanent data collection points can be deployed.
Guarantee Data Integrity
The city should store data in a way that makes the data indestructible. There are many technologies, like cloud, distributed on premise systems, and automated data protection mechanisms.
Enable Data Usability
The data should reside in easily usable format with well-documented structure, so that after a few generations people would be able to consume and compare such data. Metadata (the data about data) should be kept separately from the datasets themselves with a higher level of protection in a way that places several matching datasets together.
The entity that collects and stores data should take full responsibility for its protection. Public cloud providers, operators, and government bodies are critically positioned in the future. Think of keeping your passport, credit cards, private photos, and friends’ contact details in a public library.
Anyone can go there but only you can access you information. It is a much deeper relationships built on trust than we assume now when we connect to service providers. The common denominator of all data efforts is that it is stored securely, otherwise there is little sense and huge resistance to rolling our such projects.
Read more about Huawei’s stance on data protection in our Global Industry Vision 2025.
With or without AI, decisions are in the hands of human managers. Machines are not biological and they may never understand what it means to be a human.
If we compare a city to a person, what defines the latter is not the mass or some special structure of the brain itself, but the content of information (knowledge) it masters and the skills to make an intelligent guess based on data in hands. A smart city is a set of data generated from its infrastructure and inhabitants, and in this sense it is more about what we cannot touch and see. All that is intangible. As such, I believe the problem of modern urbanism is the problem of data management. The upcoming years will be about flexing our muscles in terms of the ability to collect, massage, protect, and understand that data.
Disclaimer: Any views and/or opinions expressed in this post by individual authors or contributors are their personal views and/or opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of Huawei Technologies.