Smart cities: a problem of power, processing and security

19 May 2016

The hunger for smart cities is growing by the day, with more and more people wanting services – public and personal – synced up to ensure an efficient way of life. But will it be easy?

Smart cities

No. Not even nearly. A quick round-up of what a smart city entails is probably in order, so let us take you through your day in Smartropolis.

You wake up, go for a shower, get dressed, grab a coffee and get into your car – for this to happen your alarm, boiler, coffee maker, garage and car are connected, synchronising each stage into one fluid, motorised movement.

By the way, you haven’t set foot in Smartropolis yet. That begins now. The riverbank beside your housing estate is armed with sensors, keeping city officials on top of any flooding issues.

Your car joins the main road and a street network informs the transport authority of any traffic congestion. Micro weather stations in local stadiums, fields and colleges inform your smart car how many minutes you are from rain (and work).

Street lights, cat eyes in the road, pedestrian crossings, traffic lights, trains, buses and city bikes all garner mounds of information through the wonder of sensors – oh, so many sensors – making for an informed, smart city.

Recent research has suggested that, if sensors powered by IoT were utilised in major cities, we could be doing the environment, and our national bank balances, a major favour, saving as much as $17trn by 2050.

Problems ahoy

But there are problems holding back early adopters: security and processing.

“To date, the approach to privacy and security in the context of smart cities has been haphazard and uncoordinated,” said Maynooth University’s Prof Rob Kitchin earlier this year.

“In many cases, the issues are paid lip service. I advocate a much more systematic approach that aims to gain the benefits smart city technologies offer, whilst minimising the potential risks.”

Last month, the European Commission said it was investing €120bn over the next five years to build a union-wide ‘digital single market’, where members would pool together their resources.

In this case, resources mean data. Data means you. Linking together the data of every EU member so that wireless, IoT-enthused smart services can be rolled out cross-border. A security nightmare.

There are programs being developed to handle this, organising all these connected devices in a kind of ‘Titanic’s hull’, where a leak in one doesn’t affect the rest of the ship. Although that didn’t end well, so is perhaps a poor example.

‘IBM estimates that 90pc of all data generated by devices such as smartphones, tablets, connected vehicles and appliances is never analysed or acted on’

We need more power

As far as dealing with the information, power is needed to help process even fractions of the growing banks of data. Modern batteries won’t cut it: micropower, for microprocessors, is needed.

Prof Cian Ó Mathúna, head of strategic programmes at Tyndall, is working on making batteries, sensors and magnets so small and powerful that you could bring down device sizes dramatically. Elsewhere, ‘affordable’ sensors are gradually being developed. But we’re way behind what’s needed.

“IBM estimates that 90pc of all data generated by devices such as smartphones, tablets, connected vehicles and appliances is never analysed or acted on,” said Eleni Pratsini, director of IBM Research Ireland, last year.

“As much as 60pc of this data begins to lose value within milliseconds of being generated.  Meanwhile, our knowledge of cities grows with every connected sensor and device, but too often we are not acting on it, even when we know we can ensure a better result.”

So until we can manage the growing mounds of data desired by city planners, and keep it safe enough for residents to be comfortable with, any true successes will be a while coming.

The race is on

As each city dips its toe in, many of us are sitting back and watching the leaders really go all out. In the heart of Singapore stand 18 stunning 50m-tall ‘super-trees’ that are not only impressive to look at, but act as giant, bio-harvesting data generators.

While gathering data on the local environment, the super-trees also collect rainwater, absorb and disperse heat, and generate solar power. Meanwhile, taxis are fitted with IoT sensors to monitor traffic congestion, with gathered data sent back to the city’s government, and passengers’ fares lowered to compensate for bad traffic.

Singapore is even building an entire smart city from scratch in Andhra Pradesh in India, to develop the new capital, which is multiple times larger than Singapore itself.

In the meantime, it will be progress along varying rates throughout the world. For example, Kansas has just rolled out a programme that has streetlights, ‘interactive kiosks’ and blockshigh-qualitylity Wi-Fi. The programme includes 125 “smart” streetlights, 25 interactive kiosks, and 50 blocks of free outdoor public Wi-Fi.

Dublin has flood plans up and running, with Croke Park driving innovation elsewhere. London and Bristol are bringing the right heads together. Cork is doing likewise.

Everybody is getting involved. Let us hope power and security can catch up.

Motherboard image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic