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Creating the infrastructure for the rise of smart cities

By Michael Sudarskis
Secretary General, Internatonal Urban Development Association

IUDA.M_sudarskis.PortraitImageThe very high-speed networks and smart grid infrastructure is a constant concern in the development of cities and agglomerations: services offered to businesses, universities and citizens all rely on these infrastructure forming the basis of any approach to digital development.

However, urban infrastructure systems need to be interconnected. Changes or disruption in one service often affects the provision of others. Electricity outages affect water supply, heating and cooling, communications and even transport. The high complexity of interconnected urban systems requires integrated management, spatial design, land use, mobility and building design to make it possible to identify efficiencies and opportunities that may be overlooked when each sector is managed separately. For example, coordinating street design with building layout can create new possibilities for energy and transport efficiency.

Until few years ago smart grids infrastructure was hailed as the ultimate solution to energy transition and better mobility: the grid – and the interlocking of different grids with different sources of energy plus smart metering – was to better distribute and manage energy leading to significant savings and reduction of consumption. The notion of smart grid was also applied to the management of traffic, connecting signals and street lights regulating the flows of pedestrian, bikes, cars and public transport and signalling parking places. Spanish Santander with its 10 000 sensors over the city illustrate the importance given to the grids in the rise of the smart cities.

Today we witness a shift of the problematic from an infrastructure-led logic to a service-led economy. We are becoming less dependent from infrastructures: web, mobility, cloud computing helped to overcome the constraints of the old client / computing server relation; and a modern browser has become the universal interface between all access points to information: smartphones, tablets or laptops, and applications.

The availability of smart solutions for cities has risen rapidly over the last decade. As a result, technical solutions exist for every city to become smarter. The challenge today is primarily to implement appropriate solutions efficiently, rather than only focusing on new technology or new and expensive infrastructure development.

And the shift continues were priority is no longer building connected and smart infrastructure but to produce and control the data – the Big Data – collected throughout the infrastructure networks. The key ingredient to develop smart solutions for cities is data that is not only necessary to plan the changes in the city, but also to gather real-time information to manage services and use infrastructure better.

And that shift is a unique chance for developing countries where urbanization is projected to be at its most rapid pace. Many have inadequate infrastructure that will require enormous investments to retrofit to standards. New cities require huge investments that developing countries need to balance with other priorities. Already facing increasing pressures to deliver more and better basic services to a growing urban population, countries will need support in exploring approaches that fit local contexts. The “big data” is part of the solution; Kenya succeeded to “monetise” the country with the help of the mobile phone despite the lack of a sophisticated banking infrastructure.

Smart cities cannot be developed through a patchwork approach, but by the step-by-step adoption of incremental improvements. Integrating infrastructures and services depends strongly on interoperability (i.e. devices and systems working together), which in turn is facilitated by technical standards. As IEC said in its recent White Paper, standards are essential enablers by guaranteeing an expected performance level and compatibility between technologies .

Thus, It is the improvement and the integration of infrastructure policy with the comprehensive understanding of the city process as well as of the behaviour of their stakeholders, including citizen’s participation, which will make smart city become a reality.

After all it is on the social fabric, not only on economic competitiveness and cutting-edge infrastructure that resilient and sustainable cities are built.

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