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February 22, 2021

Getting a Foot in the Door for Smart City Projects

Alex Woodie

(Roschetzky Photography/Shutterstock)

The potential impact of smart city initiatives is colossal. PwC pegged it as a $2.5 trillion opportunity by 2025. But getting projects greenlit for long term deployment can be quite difficult, especially with budget shortfalls. A successful deployment of a smart city project near Sydney, Australia, can be instructive for how local governments can get the ball rolling.

Parramatta is a major commercial suburb of Sydney, and the second-oldest city in the country. Following the Great Recession, a large pharmaceutical company moved out of town, leading developers to propose building a large housing complex on the former campus. When neighbors raised concerns about the impact of construction noise and dust in the heart of the city, planners required the developers to deploy a series of sensors to monitor air quality and noise levels.

The Urban Institute won the contract to build a system to manage data coming from several hundred sensors. The non-profit organization developed the application atop a streaming data analytics platform supplied  by KX, its primary technology partner.

The initial use case was primarily defensive, says Simon Kaplan, Urban Institute’s CEO for the APAC region.

“If somebody calls up and says ‘The jackhammers were running at 6 Sunday morning,’ they will be able to say ‘Oh now, we checked the data, that wasn’t happening,’ or ‘Yes it was, we had to go shout at somebody because it’s naughty of them,’” Kaplan says.

Smart cities projects are projected to drive $2.5 trillion in spending by 2025, according to PwC (elenabsl/Shutterstock)

When construction crews finished sections of the new development, and the air was no longer filled with dust and the sounds of jackhammers, the city of Parramatta found that the sensors and the data were still providing value to the residents of the city, and so it decided to leave them in place.

“It’s turned into a much broader project,” Kaplan tells Datanami. “There’s no point in taking the sensors down now, because it turns out, as blocks of this become livable, you get all sorts of information about urban [living] and things like that that they’re trying to understand.”

For example, Paramatta installed sensors to monitor runoff from the construction sites into local streams. Now those sensors are being used to track more natural sources of pollution (or at least the regular urban runoff). The city makes that data available to citizens via a dashboarding feature in the KX software suite.

“The residents love it,” Kaplan says. “They’ve got public dashboards and they can open it up and say look, there’s pollution today or everything is clear, so it has served many functions.”

Kaplan credits the KX software as a key factor in its success. “If we didn’t have KX as a product, we literally wouldn’t be able to do that. We would have had to build too much software,” he says. “KX takes that problem off the table, which is brilliant…It’s not an exaggeration to say we would not have survived as a startup if we had not formed this partnership.”

The Parramatta project was important for another reason, Kaplan says. It was the first one that transcended the pilot stage and the city commits to keeping it going long term. Since then, Urban Institute has worked with half a dozen other Australian cities to implement data collection applications as part of smart cities projects.

The project worked because the city welcomed input from the residents, and was upfront about what the benefits would be. In fact, the residents essentially co-designed the project, Kaplan says.

San Diego has turned off the sensors in its Smart Streetlight program

The success in Parramatta is unique. Many smart city projects start out with a bang but end with a whimper. Finding a way out of this pattern and hitting upon a recipe for regular success is arguably a bigger challenge than the technology side of the equation.

“Part of the challenge is that everybody knows that collecting better urban data will be useful. But there’s not really yet strong use cases as to why, so there’s a lot of experimenting going on all over the world,” Kaplan says.

COVID-19 is helping in some ways. Just as businesses have accelerated digital strategies, the pandemic is leading local governments to find digital alternatives to in-person activities. Considering the amount of land that local governments are in charge of–not to mention the electrical grid, water system, roads, and services cities often provide atop that land–this is no small task.

“In the old days, if something didn’t seem like it was working, you could send two guys in a truck to go down and have a look,” Kaplan says. “Now, every time you do that, you have to think about a whole new family of risks. So if you can have the sensors tell you what’s wrong …. we can apply analytics to the data to learn what the problems are, [and that] means that the city can make better designs about how to deploy resources. That on its own is worth millions of dollars of year to a city.”

Not all smart city projects are panning out. For example, starting in 2016, the city of San Diego, California spent millions to install 3,000 “smart streetlights” that contained video and still cameras, in addition to efficient LED lights that are dimmable.

The crux of the idea was to use the network of sensors to provide data about traffic patterns, parking, bicycle and pedestrian usage, as well as weather data (temperature, humidity, and air pressure). But last September, following public outcry that the local police were using images from the streetlights to solve crimes, the city elected to turn off the program.

Despite the setback, Kaplan is committed that deployments such as San Diego’s will prove to be a success in the long run. “Those cameras in the streetlights in San Diego are particularly useful if you use them for things like parking enforcement. You don’t’ have to use them to track people,” he says. “It’s not like London, where they’ve got a whole bunch of cameras mounted two foot above your eyeline everywhere. That’s a hell of a lot more intrusive than the use case in San Diego.”

KX has about 25 smart cities projects in the Australia and New Zealand region, and it’s only growing, says Andy Churchill, KX’s managing director for the region.

“The trend is more sensors, not less,” Churchill says. “And the trend is high frequency. So  capturing more information and a closer frequency. The data is only increasing. The volume is increasing. It’s not like the decisions are slowing down. They need to speed up as well. If you’ve got a main gas leak, you need to know about that quickly. With a water main burst, you’re losing a scarce resource.”

According to PwC, there will be $1.2 trillion spent on smart cities initiatives this year. Even if that figure is inflated, there’s no denying the upward trend of spending. PwC says one of the main drivers of the spending will be a desire for “government bodies….to transform the lives, wellbeing and safety of their citizens.”

The key for success with smart cities projects is the same as with any big data initiative: start small with a relatively easy project and get a quick win under your belt, which will whet the customers’ appetite for more as well as provide funding for larger projects down the road.

It’s much cheaper to find and fix potholes when they’re small than waiting for them to grow into chassis-smashing craters. High-efficient LED street lighting can cut millions off of a city’s electrical bill. “These are the low-hanging fruit, the places where the relationship of using the data and the financial return to the city, even in terms of new revenue or reduced cost, are obvious,” Kaplan says. “That’s where people will begin.”

Eventually, we’ll get to 5G networks of self-driving cars, but not now. “I think there’s little appetite for wild-eyed speculative projects for a while, unless you can persuade a Google or somebody with deep pockets to fund it on your behalf,” he says. “Ten years from now, if we have this conversation, we’ll laugh at these use cases, and we’ll have much better ones. But we won’t know where they are until we get there.”

Related Items:

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When it Comes to Data Transfer, 5G is Just the Beginning

U.S. Smart Cities Effort Targets Data Apps

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