Smart Cities: Bringing sci-fi to the mainstream

Smart Cities: Bringing sci-fi to the mainstream

This ecosystem will bring in limitless opportunities

by Jyoti Lalchandani

SmartCityThe ‘Smart City’ concept is one of the hottest topics in the technology industry right now, and justifiably so. Indeed, the growing interconnection we are seeing between new technologies, businesses, and personal gadgets is setting the scene for a raft of exciting improvements in our day-to-day lives.

Smart City projects are already well underway in many parts of the world, limited only by the vision and ambition of their host nations.

The GCC is providing fertile ground for their development, driven by the timely convergence of economic diversification initiatives and the disruptive technology solutions that are enabling them.

Despite the economic challenges presented by low oil prices, the GCC member states continue to see substantial government investment in infrastructure. That scenario, combined with greenfield construction initiatives and tech-friendly business and social communities, has created an ideal environment for Smart Cities to not only emerge but also flourish.

IDC expects the region to continue investing in emerging technology to the point where a virtual cycle is in motion; early investments in what are considered to be ‘Smart’ components today will become everyday facilities tomorrow. Indeed, this process of the futuristic becoming mainstream is precisely what is required to drive continuous development, innovation and investment.

At the heart of any Smart City is the internet of Things (IoT) — the emerging sphere of technology that comprises a multitude of interconnected sensors and automated actions. IDC expects there to be billions of such connected devices in play over the coming few years — everything from the individual sensors in personal wearables to the myriad quality-control sensors used in manufacturing, building automation, and public services, among many, many more. Nearly every aspect of our lives will be monitored by sensors capable of coordinating data and services to respond to our immediate needs, and to identify solutions for long-term trends.

Smart Homes are an obvious example of this evolution, with improving home automation and commercial services generating much excitement. This transition is well underway, and its acceleration into mainstream acceptance is inevitable. We are already seeing services that enable a resident to issue verbal instructions within their home to change the temperature, control entertainment, purchase consumables, and more.

To facilitate a successful ecosystem, it is vital that the constituent parts of a Smart City no longer view themselves as isolated silos, but instead as active participants in the community. For example, every skyscraper already maintains its own climate control, a process that will benefit hugely from the widespread use of IoT sensors and automation. And by sharing all the data that is gathered by these sensors, the community as a whole can benefit.

For example, such sharing of data enables buildings to gain early warnings of severe weather conditions from their counterparts on the other side of the city, allowing them to begin preparations to minimise both the impact and the subsequent maintenance that is required. Similarly, several buildings may jointly alert the municipality to a sudden influx of traffic at an unexpected time of day, enabling traffic controls to be recalibrated accordingly. IDC believes that this collaborative approach offers benefits for everyone — the municipality enhances its service delivery, businesses become more efficient, and individuals see their lifestyles improve.

Security and emergency response is a key beneficiary of this collaboration in the Smart City environment. Citywide CCTV networks that integrate the resources of both public and private organisations will be combined with automation to identify and track threats and incidents in real time. Health care will benefit from faster response to emergencies, as well as personal health care data from wearable devices, telemedicine, and AI diagnosis. This is no longer science-fiction — IBM’s Watson deep-learning service is already contributing to medical research.

Energy is another important factor; Smart Cities react fluidly and instinctively to fluctuating energy demands, the availability of alternative energy sources, and infrastructure failures. This improves efficiency, reduces costs, lowers greenhouse emissions, and benefits the interconnected infrastructure itself — the internet of Things will naturally require a stable power supply!

There are major societal changes on the horizon, some of which may offer cause for concern unless addressed early. Increasing automation will lead to better environments for many of us, but it may also lead to a downsizing of the workforce. Ride-sharing services like Uber have already shown how digital disruption can impact an established industry, and when fleets of self-driving cars become available, that cycle may repeat once again. Meanwhile, call centers have long been a mainstay employer in various knowledge economies around the world, but those agents may be replaced by AI interfaces in the medium term.

Privacy is also a common concern, and the personal data that flows through this ubiquitous technology will need commensurate safeguards put in place to protect individuals from new high-tech crimes. The validity of such concerns remain uncertain at this juncture, but what we do know for sure is that the limitless opportunities brought about by the Smart City revolution promise tremendous benefits for us all, both personally and professionally. Indeed, the technological foundations of these cities will empower the next generation of life-changing technologies, finally bringing the world of sci-fi to the mainstream.

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Published in Gulf News July 7, 2016. Jyoti Lalchandani is group vice-president and regional managing director for the Middle East, Africa and Turkey at global ICT market intelligence and advisory firm International Data Corporation (IDC).

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