The Future Is Now for Smart Cities

By John Edwards

Municipalities across Europe are tapping into RFID and related technologies to deliver new and enhanced services.

The City 2.0 has arrived. European planners, architects and utopians, from Leonardo da Vinci to Le Corbusier, have long proposed strategies for the development of more efficient and livable cities. Now, thanks to radio frequency identification and other cutting-edge technologies, municipalities across the continent are becoming smart cities, paving the way for sophisticated citizen-oriented services that improve the quality of life, address age-old public utility issues and enable ancient infrastructures to accommodate 21st century lifestyles.

Santander, Spain, for example, is a hotbed of smart city experimentation. An ancient port city on the nation's Atlantic coast, Santander is aiming for the future by reshaping itself as a prototype for smart cities worldwide. Blanketed with approximately 12,000 sensors, Santander is changing the lives of its residents by making an array of city services interactive and convenient.

Illustrations: iStockphoto

To continuously monitor the city's vital signs, Santander has deployed roughly 3,000 IEEE 802.15.4 devices, 200 GPRS modules and 2,000 joint RFID tag/QR code labels at street lamps, facades, bus stops and other locations, as well as onboard buses and taxis. Relying on video, temperature, moisture, pressure, magnetic strength and a variety of other sensing capabilities, the devices silently monitor parking availability, determine air quality, observe traffic conditions, calculate when the next bus will arrive at a specific stop, and tell residents and visitors whether the surf's up at local beaches. Santander's sensors can alert garbage collectors to full dumpsters, automatically dim streetlights on deserted thoroughfares and manage when parks need irrigating.

Project supervisor Luis Muñoz, a professor at the University of Cantabria in Santander, is particularly proud of the city's ability to monitor parking availability electronically. Display panels, positioned at strategic downtown locations, show the number of available parking spots on every street. "Whenever a car parks on top of one of the magnetic sensors, the field changes," Muñoz says. "The event is detected by the sensor and relayed to the data repository; the information is then displayed on the panels."

All of the city's sensors are linked to a central command and control center. Relevant data is also sent to applications running on residents' smartphones. The apps present real-time information on bus delays, road closures and the current pollen count. Residents can also feed their own data into the system. A concerned citizen can, for example, snap a smartphone photo of a pothole or broken streetlight to notify the local government that there's a problem that needs to be fixed.

Defining the New Metropolis
As the smart cities concept gains adherents, city leaders, system suppliers and technology analysts are struggling to reach a definition of the term. "Smart cities are quite broad, covering a wide variety of applications and services, and different people see things a little differently in their smart-city applications," says Hannu Penttilä, deputy mayor in charge of real estate and city planning for Helsinki, Finland, a municipality that's well on the way to becoming a smart-city leader. "I would say that smart-city applications make living easier in cities, and they are greener than older applications or the old way of doing things."

The goal of the city's Forum Virium Helskinki, for example, is to develop digital services in cooperation with companies, other public-sector organizations and residents. One project enables passengers to access Helsinki Region Transport with a Near Field Communication-enabled travel card or mobile phone, as well as post their experiences on a virtual messaging wall. Another project in which the travel card doubled as a library card was so popular that plans are now under way to make the travel card a customer card that residents could use to access various city services, such as museums and swimming halls.

"A smart city is not an end state," declares Paul Bevan, secretary general of EuroCities, an organization representing more than 130 European cities. "It's more of an ambition to use technology to make your city sustainable, more livable, more successful, and to reduce its climate footprint by innovating." One of the organization's 2013 priorities is smart cities, as it works toward a "common vision of a sustainable future in which all citizens can enjoy a good quality of life."

It's difficult to create a one-size-fits-all definition for a smart city, because there are so many different aspects to building, creating and running municipal services, says John Devlin, security and ID practice director for ABI Research. Still, he gives it a try: "The basic definition is the employment of new technology and more intelligent processes to enable a cleaner, quicker, smarter way of life." Yet, Devlin adds a footnote. "It has to be available, it has to have scale, and it has to be largely standardized so it can be applied to other... cities as well."

The widespread availability of sophisticated wireless communication, identification and location technologies is inspiring more cities to plunge into smart-city development. RFID, real-time location systems and NFC technologies can all be considered basic smart-city tools, says Michael Liard, VP of auto-ID at VDC Research. Cities are drawn to smart-city technologies for the same reasons as private businesses—to identify, track and manage assets (including human resources), as well as to streamline processes and improve productivity, he says. "There's also a desire by localities to enhance and provide new services, plus there's an ongoing requirement to improve safety and security."

Thanks to widespread Internet adoption, European civic leaders are now facing a better connected and informed populace that's demanding improved services from their local governments and isn't reflexively fearful of new technologies. "Citizens aren't out on the streets holding posters or picketing saying, 'We want a smart city,'" Liard says. "They do know, however, that they want more or better services."

Increasing smartphone adoption throughout Europe is creating a more tech-savvy user base. "The continued rise of the smartphone is going to be important," Liard says. "Most of the new smartphones that are being manufactured outside of Apple have NFC embedded," he says, "but it's going to take time for the population to understand how to use NFC, to have available applications and so on."

Most cities that opt to become a smart city do so because they view the concept as the best approach to solving problems that may have existed for years, decades or centuries, Liard says. This is why most initial smart-city applications focus on services residents use routinely, such as public and private transportation, power and water delivery and refuse collection. "I think it makes most sense to identify where your biggest pain points are and begin there," he says. "Build on that as the foundation and continue to grow from there, keeping that vision of a smart city in mind."

"Maybe the city wants to save on auto emissions, reduce street traffic and help its citizenry to get into better shape," Devlin says. "So they introduce a bike rental program, and to make it easy for people to use the bikes, they automate it using RFID technology."

The European Commission is promoting smart-metering projects, to provide a more efficient way to supply energy, keeping both utilities and customers informed on energy usage and allowing residents to save money. "Domestic smart meters help people know when they're using electricity and when they can perhaps adjust their energy usage accordingly," Bevan says. "These meters feed back information through mobile phone technology, so they never have to be read."

Some smart applications are designed to help boost local economies. Nice, on the French Riviera, is considered a pioneer in smart cities. The city recently deployed an NFC service to help tourists and other visitors to its modern art museum and other cultural sites learn more about the objects they're looking at. "The app allows access to an audio guide that gives information about the painter and his work," says Florence Barale, the Nice municipal councilor in charge of innovation. "Moreover, lots of historical monuments are equipped with NFC technology to help the tourists to discover the treasures of Nice."

Planning and Funding
Identifying potential applications is the easy, no-pain part of the smart-city development process. The headaches begin when it comes time to plan and fund real-world projects. An important first step is winning the support of the local citizens and businesses that will be using—and, in many cases, funding—the smart-city projects.

"You have to get some type of support and buy-in from the citizenry and also from the retailers, the enterprises and the government entities that provide services to citizens to embrace this concept... and to allocate funds toward it," Liard says.

The SmartSantander project was paid for by a €9 million ($11.8 million) European Union grant that Muñoz supervises. Muñoz notes that winning local support was relatively easy, since a smart city stimulates a productive model based on knowledge and innovation. Furthermore, it creates new services that are customized to residents' needs, an attribute that tends to build community enthusiasm and approval. Local businesses also like the technology because parking automation makes it easier for people to shop at stores, and traffic-management services help delivery trucks, taxis and other types of commercial vehicles move around the city faster and more efficiently. "Before, the services were quite flat, with no special directions for specific groups of citizens," Muñoz says. "Now, we can bind the technology to citizens and serve users according to their profiles."

Potential smart-city adopters need to promote services, not technologies, Bevan says. "It's not just about instrumenting your city and somehow grinding all the data that comes from millions of sensors throughout the domain in order to change behavior or develop infrastructure that will bring solutions," he observes. "It's more about using technology as tools that citizens can access, as well as governments and organizations."

Smart-city technologies also appeal to people who are concerned about the environment. Most Europeans tend to be open to projects that promise to improve their quality of life, particularly if such ventures also lead to a cleaner and healthier community, Bevan says. "In Europe, they have a very strong mindset, at a corporate, citizen and government level, around the concept of being green," he says.

Despite persistent economic weakness, European national governments continue pouring euros into smart-city initiatives, often in the hope that the technology will lower the cost of providing essential services, support EU technology providers and maintain or enhance services despite rapidly aging populations.

"It's national governments that are funding projects within specific cities," Liard says. "Local government is more constrained than ever when it comes to budgets, so continued national government involvement with, and funding of, these types of projects is what's going to continue to drive smart cities onward."

Yet, government support for smart-city initiatives varies widely across the continent. Not surprisingly, project funding is generally weakest among the EU's most economically troubled nations, such as Greece and Ireland. Spain, despite facing significant economic challenges, continues funding smart-city projects, Muñoz notes. "France is certainly the beacon within Europe in terms of allocating euros toward the Internet of Things and creating smarter cities," Liard says.

To speed development and reduce costs, many emerging smart cities are seeking business partnerships to share costs, as well as to tap into the latest technology innovations. Meanwhile, transportation, entertainment, retail, energy and tourism-oriented organizations are all beginning to see revenue potential in smart-city applications and are looking for municipal partners to collaborate with. "There's a good deal of private or enterprise investment," Devlin says. "They see an opportunity."

"Often, a city doesn't need some sort of state investment," Bevan says. "It's a question of partnership and working in such a way that you are creating a market."

"Some very big IT infrastructure and software companies see this as an opportunity for themselves from PR and social perspectives," Devlin says. "There's also business opportunity as well, since they're able to provide the ICT [information and communications technology] infrastructure."

Nice, for example, has partnered with Cisco to create "Connected Boulevard," a system that continuously gathers data from residents via a hybrid network to generate real-time context-aware information on traffic, parking, street lighting, waste disposal and environmental quality. "Having access to this data is essential to enhance many services for residents," Barale says.

As more municipalities begin exploring the possibility of transforming themselves into smart cities, many quickly realize that some places are better positioned to make a swift and painless transition than others. Europe's biggest and most well-known cities, such as London, Paris and Berlin, may actually have more trouble becoming smart cities than most far smaller communities, Bevan says.

"Bigger cities are generally strong on ideas and innovation and have the capacity and investment for change," Bevan says. "Even so, comprehensive implementation is often easier in smaller urban settings. These offer great pilot scenarios, living-lab style, for smart initiatives and solutions that can be scaled up subsequently."

Smart-city applications are often a logical choice whenever a municipality launches an urban-renewal project or modernization strategy, with the goal of building or remaking an entire neighborhood. Helsinki, for instance, is planning multiple smart-city applications for its new Kalasatama neighborhood. "It is a new part of Helsinki, a totally ground-filled area," Penttilä says. "It was an old fish harbor and now it is being made ready for new development."

Penttilä envisions Kalasatama as a "smart neighborhood" served by applications automating multiple municipal and private services, ranging from mass transit to street repairs. "We will showcase different kinds of smart-city applications," he says.

One application, being developed in partnership with Nokia Siemens Networks and Helsingin Energia, one of Finland's largest energy companies, will create a smart grid that enables Kalasatama residents and businesses to coordinate energy use with the availability of local wind- and solar-generated power.

"There is a strong tendency in Helsinki, as well as in other cities in Europe and in the States as well, for people to want to be better citizens," Penttilä says. "They want more life in their cities, a better life." Penttilä thinks that people will eventually come to expect the availability of smart-city applications in the same way they currently look for a city to provide parks, street lighting and other essential infrastructure elements. "At the end of the day," he says, "it's people who will move the smart- city idea forward."