Infrastructure Management

Why it's time to admit that you can't create the smart city

This is a contributed article from Simon Wilson, UK CTO, Aruba

You might wonder, why does every single technology vendor you know have a published point of view on the smart city?

Sure, there may be some who feel they have the network or data analytics platform to slot into any location around the world. Just use this kit, and ta-dah! You’re on your way to becoming smart.

Most know it doesn’t work like that.

Every time I visit a smart city conference, or explore a city that professes its smartness, I am reminded of the barriers we face to bring the vision to life. Physical, legal and technical barriers that will always be there. Ever heard a vendor suggest that they can pull all data from every corner of the city into the same place in order to make truly smart decisions? Impossible. The legacy systems in place, and the pace of technological change, will not permit this.

Of course, there are great technologies being trialed across the world, which are enhancing the connectivity of everyday public services. But one smart service does not a smart city make.

If we’re going to really make the smart city happen, it’s time to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. The multitude of vendors who speak about the smart city all have a good point, but to take things further they need to be working together to make their existing solutions better. And that means open standards, technology collaboration, and partnership.


The security and experience problem

Travelling across London, I am occasionally impressed by the smartness of the experience. A patch of Wi-Fi coverage here, some contactless pay pads there. But it’s all disparate. Until we can provide some more consistency in the connectivity we are providing across the city, two things will continue to happen. The ‘connected experience’ for people living in cities will fall short, and there will be a huge and ongoing security risk surrounding connected city equipment. 

Just consider what it means to provide wireless access to a city of a million residents, for example. It’s thousands of wireless access points, across indoor and outdoor environments. If you then want to offer a bike hire service, then you have thousands more IoT sensors, different types of hardware, that need to be connected too.

All of this has to be managed very carefully, because the more connected devices there are, the more entry points there are for an attacker. In fact, after surveying local governments last year, we found 86% of those who have adopted IoT in their city have already experienced an associated security breach. Sharing data between systems is very important for the smart city, but first and foremost must be security and privacy concerns.

To get some consistency, we need to start with a network environment that can ‘fingerprint’ individual users and devices that are trying to connect. That means being able to understand the difference between different hardware and software, to interpret whether the traffic is from a road sensor or a customer mobile device. In doing so, the IT team will be able to prioritize connectivity to specific services as they are needed, and isolate incoming threats as soon as they are detected.

This act of integration can only be achieved with a multi-vendor approach.


The need for open architectures 

Imagine wanting to add traffic information services in your city, but your existing hardware isn’t compatible with the software that you need. Does the IT team have to rip and replace their equipment, or scrap the new service? In the same survey we carried out last year, we found that 49% of cities are struggling with just that -- integrating older technology with new.

To create lasting smart city experiences, there is no alternative. We need an open infrastructure that is built on open industry standards, open APIs, open source coding and is available to an open network of partners. Not partners chosen by your vendor. Partners you can choose freely yourself.

Each application must be able to interoperate with other applications, now and in the future. This level of openness has many benefits. For example, using open APIs means data can be shared across multiple different systems, providing functionality that your current vendor doesn’t have or that needs improving. Openness also means transparency, specifically into the type of data being accessed and by whom, which is vital for ongoing security efforts.

The more open APIs are enabled, the greater the flexibility and speed at your fingertips. Just think, you won’t have to wait for your existing vendor to develop functionality any more, new features can be bolted on using a third party.

An example of how this collaborative approach works in action can be seen at Cambridge University. Its use of an open network infrastructure helped it to create a public access network, used by local councils, service providers, students, researchers and members of the public for everything from library reservations to travel updates.

Thousands of citizens use the network across the entire city, and many different IT systems are in use. But users of the network are not affected, because wherever they are in the city, indoors and outdoors, their ability to connect is uninterrupted, and their login credentials do not change. The people of Cambridge are able to get from A to B more quickly, and ultimately that´s what the smart city is all about.

As many have written before, we can’t create the smart city with the flick of a switch. It takes time and piecemeal, step by step progress. But it’s time to stop suggesting that one vendor can rule them all. To truly improve the welfare of your citizens, the smart city needs to be built on open foundations, with security and the user experience front of mind. And there is no company in the world that can accomplish that alone.


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