Smart IT for Smart Cities

Location and geospatial technology enable precise mapping of utility assets, urban properties, transportation infrastructure, and government facilities.


John Renard serves as president for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa as well as business unit head for utilities and geospatial with Cyient, a global provider of engineering, data analytics, network and operations solutions. Renard lives in London and has a Master’s Degree in Geography and Management Studies from the University of Cambridge. Guest posts are intended to foster discussion, and do not represent the official position of USGIF or trajectory magazine.

In January 2016, the United Nations unveiled 17 Sustainable Development Goals that member countries must meet by 2030. Most of these Goals involve climate action and socioeconomic change. Yet one goal really stands out: making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. As the global population continues to expand rapidly, urbanization is a mega trend across the globe, more specifically in Africa and Asia. More than half of the world’s population already lives in urban spaces and it is expected that by 2030 this number will rise to about five billion. In this context, sustainable development, as envisaged by the United Nations, will be unattainable without sustainable urban development. And that’s where the concept of a “smart city,” though around for at least two decades, becomes incredibly significant.

Many of the world’s leading governments are engaged in making smart cities part of their strategy for both the present and the future. For instance, the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities, supported by the European Commission, is bringing together cities, industry, and citizens to improve urban life and make communities more competitive through integrated and sustainable solutions. The initiative supports cities in finding the right partners and solutions to achieve social, environmental, and economic sustainability across Europe. Meanwhile, the Indian government launched its Smart Cities Mission in 2015 to enhance the quality of urban life in 100 cities across the country, and the UK government last year backed a smart city trade mission to Malaysia and Singapore to learn more about smart city environments.

While these pockets of initiatives thus far should be commended, intelligent digital systems have typically only been deployed in cities across the world in a piecemeal fashion, with varying degrees of success. To become truly smart, it is imperative that city councils and governments integrate the human, physical, and digital systems operating within their built environment to enable urban reform.

Why an Integrated Approach is Critical

While IT provides a holistic framework for smart cities’ infrastructure, data and information are the key ingredients in achieving this reform. Fundamentally, a smart city is one that holistically unifies data from a wide range of sources – authoritative data sources, embedded sensors, public services, citizen reports, utility companies, and more – to generate actionable intelligence that facilitates improved governance and citizen services through better decision-making.

One method for unifying data is to aggregate all of the different data streams in a city under a single roof, in the form of an operations center. Such centers act as unifying hubs that break down the silos in city administration. Another way to bring about this integration is by co-locating different infrastructure components. Constructed and equipped over the last four decades, Prague’s underground utility tunnels are a great example. Spanning 90 kilometers underneath the city including its historical center, these tunnels (called kolektory in Czech) house everything from gas pipes, steam pipes, water mains, high and low voltage cables, data cables, telecommunication cables, and special networks connecting individual companies. The system has been built to better manage urban space for the next 200 years.

Geo-enabled Platforms

One important aspect that acts as a force multiplier in smart cities is the geographical context of the data. According to a 2015 study by Dalberg in association with Confederation of Indian Industry and Google, smart maps (geospatial data) can help India gain upward of $8 billion in savings, save 13,000 lives, and reduce one million metric tons of carbon emissions a year, and this is in cities alone. Location is a key enabler in these solutions.

Location and geospatial technology enable precise mapping of utility assets, urban properties, transportation infrastructure, and government facilities. When this data is integrated with non-spatial data from disparate and multiple sub-systems of a city using a GIS-enabled enterprise information system, it allows city agencies to integrate various subsystems and put the data into a precise context. This context provides them with the ability to derive insights, visualize, and extract actionable intelligence to respond to every situation holistically. This ability makes location data a unique and powerful unifying component in a city enterprise, and is critical to increase the smartness index of a city.

Cities Making the Most of Location

City governments are cognizant of the significance of location technology and are using it in smart city programs. Barcelona was recognized as the smartest city in the world in 2015, having harnessed technology extensively to transform itself with data-driven urban systems. The city integrated ongoing projects and identified 12 areas for intervention, including transportation, water, energy, waste, and open government, as well as initiated 22 programs in which location technology played a foundational role.

Public safety is of paramount importance for cities, especially around major events, and city authorities are effectively using social media, one of the richest sources of location data, to ensure the safety of their citizens. For example, one police department in the U.S. used Geofeedia (a platform for analyzing location data from social media) in real-time to better anticipate crime during the U.S. Open for Surfing. Meanwhile, city councilors in Chicago monitor social media to understand public sentiment around specific services, and send relevant geo-tagged posts to the concerned agencies to follow-up.

However, investments in location technology and other IT tools to create economic, social, and environmental improvements for citizens is only part of the smart city story. While it is necessary, it is not sufficient to make cities truly “smart” as we understand it. There is an urgent need for political, administrative, and social groups, both at a domestic and international level, to come together to debate the appropriate policies and measures required to ensure a positive outcome from technological investments and the equal provision of resources to citizens in the urban space. Without such an exercise, technology solutions to the smart city conundrum will remain locked away in expensive ivory towers distant from future cities.

Photo Credit: The City of London 

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