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Q&A: Smart city lab shapes the future of energy infrastructure (Includes interview)

By utilizing a variety of Itron’s mains-powered and battery-powered wireless communications modules on the open, standards-based network, Western Power deployed sensors from multiple partners, showcasing the potential of smart city applications. This enables Western Power to manage and collect data and realize numerous smart city use cases. Such technology can assist in addressing extreme weather events.

To learn more, Digital Journal spike with Itai Dadon, head of Smart Cities, Itron.

Digital Journal: How would you define a ‘smart city’?

Itai Dadon: A smart city is a city that has engaged in the process of integrating technology to improve the social, environmental and economic aspects of its services to the community in pursuit of an equitable and just urban environment for all its populations.

A common misconception is that a city can become simply smart once and be done. In truth, a city can never check a box and declare that it is ‘smart’. Improvement through technology integration is an ongoing process that cities engage in, and they must have an ongoing commitment to innovation to see its benefits in the long term.

DJ: Which current city is closest to this vision?

Dadon: Cities like Singapore, London and Paris have a reputation for being ahead of the curve in smart city technology adoption. However, we should not fall into the trap of ranking cities against each other because each city has its own challenges, which are defined by the particular needs of its community. Therefore, it draws and demands different technologies and plans for how to engage in the process to better address these challenges.

Technology has a unique role to play in supporting cities in a variety of ways, which must be adaptable to the needs of those communities. On a more general basis, technology can enable all cities to keep pace with different priorities that may change over time. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates a great example of how cities’ priorities change overnight, creating the need to deliver critical infrastructure to people’s homes as shelter in place orders took effect, as well as maintaining public health and safety. Natural disasters also temporarily change priorities of cities with at-risk geographies, and they are happening more frequently and with stronger impact due to climate change.

Regardless of how often priorities change and increase, agility is a critical capability for cities to adapt quickly. This demands an infrastructure that allows them to understand needs very quickly. That’s where IoT and smart cities can help – understand what’s going on in real time across the city’s territory and assets.

DJ: What does the future hold for communications?

Dadon: As we think about the future of communications devices in smart cities, ensuring their security will be the top priority. We already possess incredible technology today to connect a multitude of assets within cities, but as we continue to connect more of those “things”, they become more attractive for bad actors to hack.

It is one thing to connect through technology and another to connect securely. In the coming year, decision makers in cities will have more awareness and concern to consider cybersecurity as a critical factor when selecting smart city technology. However, a key challenge is that the act of connecting securely will mean something different every day as hackers find loopholes to exploit security protocol as it evolves. It will be a race where technology needs to be evolving and updating regularly. The same happens with IoT devices in the field. Cities will require the ability to upgrade these devices over the air, (meaning over the network and without having to get to the asset physically) during the lifetime of their devices.

DJ: How important will wireless communications be to this development?

Dadon: Wireless communications are the only means of addressing any needs that may arise efficiently and at a manageable cost structure for cities. This is true for non-moving assets like streetlights, telephone poles, train systems and the like, as well as moving assets, such as e-scooters.

For non-moving assets, adding and connecting wired assets is costly, expensive and potentially very challenging depending on the geography. Many can be in hard to reach locations, such as basements or pits. In this instance, having a wireless network equips cities with a canopy that reaches all these assets.

Additionally, cities are increasingly seeking to monitor moving assets and bring new use-cases like enabling emergency crews with live video and AR. This and the need to provide more connectivity to underserved communities makes cellular connectivity, and 5G technology particularly, critical in supporting these goals. Having this infrastructure in place will equip cities to address future needs at scale and with complete flexibility.

DJ: How should cities be preparing infrastructure for this future state?

Dadon: As cities seek to understand in real time what is going on across their infrastructures securely and cost effectively, they should first build a multi-application wireless network with connection to multiple asset types. This approach provides a step-function value to the city in a way that is economically sound. Cities should consider what needs they need to meet for their unique assets and challenges.

Many assets like street and traffic lights, bridges and roads require an extremely reliable, resilient and secure connection. Enabling a connection even during and after disasters is crucial.

Leveraging common wireless infrastructures can help improve cost structures. Additionally, they enable a unified security philosophy that allows cities to protect communications from potential hackers. Finally, they are resilient enough to maintain visibility even and especially during times of crisis.

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DJ: What will be the main challenges ahead?

Dadon: Challenges around data interoperability between standards will be prevalent given that there are already so many proprietary solutions today that cities must figure out how best to connect.

Cities cannot have vastly different siloed approaches for what a smart city is. There must be a unified structure and language of information and how it is shared. The success of individual cities is contingent upon this more holistic success.

What’s more, cities have, front and center, an imperative to protect and preserve the privacy of citizens. Going forward, they will be challenged with how to introduce technology in a way that helps but does not impose on personal privacy. This will require that cities actively assess what technologies are good and useful rather than invasive for their communities. It is critical to continually ask and challenge those questions and engage community members as part of this process.

DJ: How can smart city success be measured?

Dadon: A smart city can be measured not by the amount of advanced technology it introduces, but rather by the social and economic impact of that technology. Cities can look at a variety of outcomes to measure success, such as:

Did it reduce carbon emissions and light pollution and improve air quality?
Does it protect and respect wildlife?
Is it reducing crime rates?
Does it improve access to education and opportunity for housing and work?
Has it reduced commute times through public transit accessibility for those who don’t or can’t own a vehicle?
Are we helping local commerce to flourish?
Does it improve quality of life for citizens?
Has it improved the public’s safety and security?

Ultimately, the success of a city is measured by its growth and attractiveness to tourists and new residents through the jobs, homes, commerce, entertainment, education and overall quality of life it has to offer. Especially as COVID-19 has spurred a reality where many can do their jobs remotely, even major metropolitan areas are faced with the need to create harmony of all of these factors – not only employment options.

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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