Smart city projects showcase – great uses of IoT in urban contexts

When we first started out looking at smart cities as an active research topic, we soon noticed that there wasn’t a lot of publicly available data to understand what the true smart city landscape looked like. So, we asked Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino of Designswarm, a strategic consultancy focusing on the internet of things (IoT), to help survey this landscape and provide a global view of the state of matters.

With the help of a panel of global experts we looked at 148 self-defined smart city projects and dug a bit deeper into what problems they were tackling, what they were doing on the ground and who they were funded by. Note, these are not smart cities in themselves – but smart city projects.

We wanted to share some of the key findings, having monitored how the data has evolved over the course of the last year.

Please click the image below to see the full infographic.

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A brief analysis

The data provides some interesting top-level takeaways which tie in with our own experience of smart city and urban IoT research. The most popular project categories are data platforms, environmental monitoring and citizen engagement. Interestingly, however, if you combine traffic management, parking and transport together; transportation as a whole

becomes the second largest category. It also seems that just under 50% of smart city projects are still funded by public money, whether it’s local authority, direct grants, EU or through academia.

Regarding funding, smart cities are cities after all, and it’s in the interest of public bodies, not corporations, to look at ways of improving efficiency and quality of living. It seems that the larger corporates are still standing back from straightforward investment and are participating through corporate R&D budgets. This may be down to the lack of maturity and uncertainty in the market (and indeed the technology itself). Many corporates are wanting to sell solutions to cities and local authorities, but there are few funds at local government level (certainly in the UK) for anything outside of the absolute necessary and statutory requirements. Unless a local authority has a very clear vision for how they will use these technologies for the future, this slow investment may continue. Conversely, it is also up to the corporates to articulate the clear benefits in the first place, and come up with ways to support a city through an evolving budgetary landscape.

Contrast this situation with innovative SMEs who seem to be very involved at these early stages, and are aggressively developing for smart cities. It may be that they see a local smart city project as an opportunity to showcase their technologies and services on a worldwide stage. We were able to see this happen at the Smart Oxford Challenge that we organised last year.

The funding situation may also explain a part of the focus of cities developing data platforms. The need for combining disparate, vertical services datasets is surely at the heart of any smart city model, and data platforms are the perfect place to start. However, they are also inherently low-risk projects as there is no physical infrastructure being built or maintained and service providers are offering good deals to get local authorities onto their products. Data platforms also fit in with the agenda for local authorities (certainly in the EU) to be open with their data and also happily reduce the costs of the growing number of Freedom of Information requests each year. The portals to platforms are visible to the public and also help to encourage the innovation and start-up ecosystem in the city and therefore positively tick lots of boxes.

Our data also suggests that the initial funding for near 50% of data platforms has ended but, it seems digging a bit deeper, many are still active or have possibly evolved into other projects (the funding of which is not clear). On a similar note, one of the key truths we wanted to uncover was how many of these projects were really active and available? There is a lot of hype around smart cities, and getting past the webpages of jargon and generic diagrams sometimes reveals very little going on the ground. We tried to group our projects into buckets of ‘prototype’, ‘in development’, ‘commercial delivered’ and ‘unavailable/retired’. We found that out of the 148 projects we reviewed, 58% were actually operational and available. Encouragingly, this is 13% up from last year as projects moved from ‘development’ to ‘available’.

Transport is the area which has the most projects in early stages of development. We assume this is due to the large infrastructure costs, large time scales and disruption of current transportation that encourages this lower risk process. Transport has a well understood and studied impact on the economic benefit and living standards of cities, so it is hardly surprising it features high on the list of popular project types. It is also very tangible and visible to the average citizen – no one wants to be stuck in a traffic jam or stand at the side of the road taking in lungfuls of pollution (this also chimes in with the fact that 7% of all projects were explicitly targeted at monitoring air quality with many more projects implying that air quality monitoring would be a part of larger system).

The challenges of transport in a city is largely two-fold, with one part needing to optimise the current infrastructure, and the second to encourage high-density alternative forms of transport, moving us away from cars. We estimated that around 65% of all transport projects are about enhancing the current infrastructure rather than encouraging public transportation or realistic alternatives such as cycling.

Stepping back from the individual project areas, our experience has shown that many of these things add up. As an applied research group, we’ve been running a number of technology projects over the last couple of years focused on the IoT aspects of smart cities and are an active part of the Smart Oxford initiative.

We have seen first-hand that both the market and the technology is nascent, especially around IoT in cities. Data gathering and publishing is the most obvious thing to do for all the reasons above. However, we found the complexity of implementation, deployment and management of the data gathering part is still high. A successful project requires high levels of technical skills from the hardware, cybersecurity, data processing and visualisation worlds, as well as the ability to find ways of dealing with the real-world headaches of deploying new kit in a real environment (these points are covered in more detail in my talk to University of Oxford’s Transport Strategy Unit). These complexities and high-skill requirements put up barriers for many projects. Many smart city theories are based on building up a true picture of the city behaviour, but if this too hard or expensive to do at the moment, then there is a risk that data or transport planning platforms based on insufficient data will not be truly useful.

However, things are changing, and it will be interesting to see how next year’s data will look. For instance, lessons from these first set of smart city projects are being published and they will inform the next set of initiatives, helping to filter out the weaker use cases and highlight those that others can replicate. Similarly, new technologies are now realistically available and maturing (especially in the Low-Power Wide Area Network world) which starts to simplify the process of deployment and management. We at Nominet R&D are also focusing our efforts on ensuring our IoT tools and services address the complexity and usability barriers experienced by many.

What do we call a smart city project?

This list certainly isn’t exhaustive. In many ways it’s just the start of the process, not the definitive end. The data was gathered from a desk research exercise collected a year ago and discussed by a panel of distinguished smart city experts. In refreshing the data over the course of 2016, we didn’t add any new projects that might have originated in that time, but just updated the data. However, for next year, if you know of a smart city project that is not on the list then we’d love to hear from you – especially if it is outside the EU and US! Contact us at: RandDinfo@nominet.uk

We are thankful to our global experts who gave us feedback on our selection process.

Andrew Collinge, Assistant Director, Greater London Authority

Russell Davies, Digital Strategy Director, The Cooperative

Ben Hammersley, British internet technologist, journalist, author and broadcaster

Jane Katz, Director of International Affairs and Programs, Habitat for Humanity International (Habitat for Humanity)

Adam Greenfield, author, lecturer and speaker on connected objects, spaces and cities

20th September 2016