Opinion: Making the smart city vision a reality

Opinion: Making the smart city vision a reality
A technologist at heart, Jamie is passionate about innovation. He is continuing BT's drive to be at the forefront of technology and to empower people and industries to reach their full potential, going beyond the limits of today. Jamie leads BT's Enterprise - Wholesale mobile network operators segment and is responsible for a forward order book over £700m, with a group of professionals with a leadership philosophy of “show, don’t tell,” and prioritises customers above all. Formerly at Ericsson in global leadership roles and with experience built in Hutchison Whampoa's Three UK and a series of other start-up businesses.

The smart city vision is a fully connected city. One that uses technology to optimise key functions from transport, to saving electricity. And this idea is gaining traction. Indeed, despite the pandemic, global spending on smart city initiatives is predicted to reach a whopping $135 billion in 2021 – a 22% increase on the year before. 

In today’s digital world, most people increasingly expect to have connections to friends, family, and other parts of the world at their fingertips. This means expectations on city infrastructure to enable ubiquitous coverage and capacity for person-to-person communications are high. Beyond this, there are a myriad of emerging technologies and connectivity use cases such as artificial intelligence (AI), smart street lighting, driverless cars, and smart parking which all promise to reduce costs and generate economic growth and resilience, while improving public services and quality of life. Not to mention increasing sustainability as the planet faces a climate emergency. But how do you make such an ambitious concept a reality? 

You’re only as good as your connectivity 

With so many technologies – and all the policies which govern how to implement them – half the battle is knowing where to start. Ultimately, smart cities depend on strong, reliable, constant connectivity. To have delays or crashes would be detrimental to the functioning of the entire community, leading to more than a few complaints but also a decline in efficiency, economy, and quality of life. Reliable connectivity is therefore vital to the functioning of smart cities if they are to be the always-on urban areas we envision. The public need to be able to take comfort in the fact their city is supported by a robust network.

Last year, the UK government confirmed it is committed to making the UK a world leader in 5G, and as we enter this era of connectivity, new technologies will propel smart cities forward, providing greater coverage, speed and bandwidth in order to support a labyrinth of connected devices. For instance, take small cells technology. It plays an important role in amplifying and supplying high bandwidth and low latency connectivity to urban and rural places where macro sites cannot, whether that’s due to high costs or where it’s logistically impractical. To provide seamless coverage and installation of small cells, councils, operators and telecom equipment providers need to work together in harmony to ensure smooth rollouts and ongoing network operations.

Making it happen 

Back in 2018, a survey by the MJ and BT found that the overwhelming driver behind building a smart city was to improve traffic and transport management. Following that, councils are prioritising environmental services, community safety, energy efficiencies, social service improvements and leisure services. These priorities are still very much at the top of the agenda today. 

There are clearly a lot of moving parts and so at the heart of a smart city’s management infrastructure is a control centre connected to digital data sources all over the area. Video cameras, personal healthcare monitors, traffic flow sensors, fire and intruder alarms, flood and pollution sensors and countless more devices must be connected; and therefore must be underpinned by a strong network. This allows the people running the city to make swift, intelligence-based decisions, helping them to prioritise their city’s individual needs, respond to what’s going on and even anticipate events before they happen. 

For the cities which are currently focused on tackling traffic congestion, or building smart streets, traffic optimisation sensors can be easily integrated into street furniture. From there, data is collected so councils can evaluate real-time traffic volumes and make changes such as altering signalling patterns to ease the flow and better manage air pollution. 

Working towards a common goal

Organisations across all industries have experienced a rapid acceleration of digital transformation as a result of the pandemic. And local authorities are no different. Society on the whole has embraced new technologies more quickly than ever before, and with smart cities providing so many benefits, we will likely see timelines brought forward. 

It is for this reason, the government – with the help of the sector – decided to update current legislation (2017 Electronic Communications Code) in order to assist operators to deploy mast infrastructure across the UK. A further important factor is the inclusion of street furniture, like lampposts, into the remit of the legislation – which has provided an ideal resource for operators to host digital infrastructure consider critical to the success of the smart cities programme, such as small cells, sensors and CCTV. 

With this in mind, councils and local authorities must work in tandem with telecoms providers who install equipment on infrastructure, such as lamp posts or buildings – an ‘open access’ model as promoted by industry leaders. By working closely alongside councils, providers can help ensure that access to the street furniture that hosts the small cells and antennae is available to everyone at reasonable charge in order to put the smart city vision in motion.

According to the European Commission, a “smart city is a place where traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital and telecommunication technologies for the benefit of its inhabitants and business”. The smart city is by definition a vision with telecoms and connectivity at its core and whose benefits are felt across whole communities. 

(Photo by Henry Chen on Unsplash)

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