the city as a digital platform

The internet of what?

At the launch of Orange Silicon Valley’s new IoT lab last week, Peter Marx, the CTO of Los Angeles, spoke about some of the challenges facing him as a he makes Los Angeles a smart city (one of his first fun observations was that no-one wants to live in a dumb city).

The city as a digital platform is going to drive the future. Even as we become more connected, more and more people are choosing to live in cities. The World Health Organization estimates that worldwide 54% of people live in cities (this up from 34% only a generation ago).

What improves?
One constant in the discussion of smart cities is a focus on end user experiences rather than technology itself. Working that through Marx raised an important question which a large number of IoT implementations will have to deal with. As IoT is inherently passive, and requires additional effort to implement, the questions of what are you going to actually do (switch traffic lights more efficiently, direct airport passengers to the shortest TSA lines, change power sources, manage toll pricing dynamically etc.), and how you measure improvement, become key. It’s much easier to feel excited about technology or new services if you can do something you couldn’t do before (share a photo with a single click, stalk your ex-girlfriend without having to embarrass yourself by talking to anyone else, monitor your health with a wearable and so on). These were novel experiences. For many IoT will incrementally improve things.

Marx commented that if he delivered a 14-17% improvement in traffic congestion, would people notice, and how would they think about it? Traffic is a moderately self regulating system. In gridlocked traffic, people who don’t have to go out in a car, don’t. As soon as a system improves people will go out. It’s entirely possible that a 15% improvement in performance will be reflected in 15% more cars per unit time, but not necessarily an overall reduction in journey time (i.e. more efficient packing of goods/people/things might reduce variability, and improve total system throughput). To be seen as a success the system likely needs to deliver clear individual value.

Autonomous and smart(er) cars being guided through the traffic congestion create another layer of connectivity challenges. You won’t want to get into a new car when you cross the border between the cities of Los Angeles and Santa Monica. This is not so much about connecting things as connecting systems. The water system needs to talk to the power system, traffic has multiple systems (and more in geographies with toll roads and congestion charges). How can you ensure that an autonomous agent works in an optimized way across a route?

The internet of … trees?
It’s not the internet of things, or even the internet of everything, apparently it’s the internet of trees. Los Angeles has a surprisingly large number of trees, and strict rules about replacing them if repair work requires removing them. The city expects that in the next year there will be 200,000 new trees planted, all of which will be tracked with sensors. In comparison Los Angeles has 45,000 connected traffic signals, and another 28,000 pedestrian lights.

How do you connect the dots?
Connecting trees, traffic lights water systems and cars is driving new set of capabilities focused on lower bandwidth communications. Samsung and others have invested in Sigfox, with LoRa alliance presenting itself as an alternative. Of these two, Sigfix appears more focused on smaller messages, with LoRa, based on more traditional cellular technology focused on bigger and bi-directional messages (nice comparison of the two). It seems likely that these systems will be driving smart capabilities at the edge, so for example, traffic lights will be driven by algorithms at the light, fed by just enough overall system information, rather than relying on a central connection for every decision. That said the more interconnected the systems, the higher the chance that centralized capabilities and communications will be important- this will be an interesting area to watch. Data collection might work the same way, in a previous blog in this sponsored series my colleague Jon Collins discussions some of the issues relating to IoT and local data.

It was great to hear from someone on the edge (pun intended) deploying IoT capabilities in the real world. The challenges faced connected multiple interconnected systems in a smart way are becoming clear, and we are starting to see solutions. How big will those trees be by the time every city is smart?