Beyond the Light

Smart City Platforms Offer Base to Begin Transformation

By Harsha Bhat, Nokia

By 2050, urbanization and the exponential growth of cities is expected to reach 70 percent of the world’s population, according to a 2012 UNICEF Urban World Report. The challenges this creates for governments and municipalities cannot be overstated. They include the safety and security of citizens as well as economic and environmental pressures.

Cities have limited space and infrastructure, which means tomorrow’s urban environments need to become smarter, safer and more sustainable to meet the needs of their future citizens.

The Internet of Things (IoT) will certainly power smart cities of the future, along with government programs pushing growth. Gartner estimates there will be up to 9.7 billion connected “things” in cities by 2020. Technologies such as 5G will only accelerate this growth and increase the potential market and its impact.

Smart city services will take advantage of the IoT revolution to improve the quality of life for citizens, help social and economic development and make cities more attractive places to live, visit and do business. Cutting edge technology will ensure the safety of citizens and help prevent or minimize the risks and impact of crime, accidents, pollution and natural disasters. Sustainable solutions will also address and help reduce the environmental impact of city dwelling.

Beyond the Light Smart City Platforms Offer  Base to Begin Transformation

Understandably then, the technology giants are on innovation overdrive to develop smart solutions to challenges facing the future of mobility, sustainability and service provision in cities. But those technology companies need access to ubiquitous infrastructure with guaranteed power to deploy these solutions across the cityscape. This is a complex operational and administrative problem, compounded by negotiated agreements with multiple stakeholders and right-of-way permit requirements for each site. This is where utilities are at a distinct advantage.

Unlocking the Value in Utilities (& Ubiquitous Street Lights)

In many cities, utilities own most of the municipal streetlight infrastructure in their respective territories. The ubiquitous availability of streetlights — ready access to electricity and communication infrastructure on day one—along with a simplified negotiation process and quicker time to market prove a major draw for technology companies aiming to efficiently deliver smart city services through a mesh of networked sensors and devices on the ground. Ambitious utilities will recognize this opportunity to broaden their impact beyond the energy sector and unlock new revenue streams.

Simply put: the evolved streetlight is not just a light source. It is a horizontal platform at the edge of the network—where capabilities can be modularly added to rapidly deliver new smart city services that increase efficiency, enhance city operations and improve quality of life for citizens.

The first phase of this evolution was centered on upgrading to LED and adding networked smart lighting automation and controls, which alone delivered a quick and significant return on investment. For instance, Gartner estimated in 2015 that combining energy-efficient LED lights with smart controls could reduce energy costs up to 90 percent.

The savings from this first phase can be used to fund the evolution of the streetlight into digital infrastructure to deliver smart and safe city services. For example, CCTV surveillance cameras mounted on streetlights can help prevent criminal activity and ballistic sensors can be added to provide alerts in case of incidents such as gun shots—ultimately, improving response times and citizen safety through increased situational awareness for blue-light organizations. Utilities are in a unique position to deliver video-surveillance-as-a-service for public safety organizations, while also addressing seemingly disparate industries; such as insurance through the ability to provide a holistic view of an accident, for example.

The networked streetlight is also the perfect base upon which to build sensing and data gathering elements such as weather, environmental and even parking sensors. These data resources can be used to augment other city services and unlock new capabilities beyond the utility sector that also support broader smart city initiatives. With 5G network densification, mobile network operators (MNOs) also will need to engage with utilities to deploy small cells on the networked streetlight infrastructure

Simple Steps for Smart City Success

Early success will be found in applications, such as vehicle charging stations integrated into smart streetlights, that support the growing drive for electric vehicles to reduce street clutter and pollution in grid-locked cities. Similarly, incorporating digital signage will open new revenue streams for cities, which would financially support smart city initiatives and increase citizen engagement as the streetlight begins to function more as a digital platform to enhance safety and sustainability, as well as serve as a new monetization opportunity. The benefit to cities of these monetization opportunities include improved critical communication, such as emergency response to flash-flooding or tornadoes, alongside visitor-support communications within city centers.

Utilities should have a plan for identifying, piloting and testing new concepts in partnership with technology players and solution providers, mobile network operators, government agencies and city corporations. Key to this will be taking a fully integrated approach through which applications, systems and devices can share data and interact with each other to unlock real value. Data generated can also be extended through APIs to application developers to create further opportunities. For this, digital streetlight infrastructure must be connected to a central platform to deliver, manage and generate revenue from smart city services. Utilities should work with technology and solution providers who have both systems and network expertise to solve the end-to-end integration piece of the puzzle.

Utilities that take an integrated approach from the outset — utilizing a central platform, either owned by the utility or the smart city corporation, to launch and manage smart city services — will recognise significant operational efficiencies from the start and be able to scale securely and quickly to generate these new monetization opportunities.

The Right Partner Ecosystem is Key to Success

Utilities also must work with the right technology partners; ones with a long-term vision, to ensure they’re able to adequately pivot their grids and systems for the latest technology needs in an era of increasing threats and rapidly evolving customer needs. While rapid citizen adoption of smart city services will be based on trust and availability, those can be addressed only through scalable infrastructure with safety, security and reliability integrated into it so the technology can remain robust in the face of evolving smart city challenges.

With this in mind, utilities also can act as facilitators by bringing together municipalities and government organizations on one side and its technology partners on the other to build long-lasting and beneficial partnerships. Municipalities can provide the smart city vision and set goals, while the digital team (composed of utilities and technology partners) deliver on that vision. Similarly, citizens need to be involved in the process and their feedback taken into account. Utilities have the customer base which can be activated to generate this feedback, creating a significant advantage for utilities in the early stages of rolling out smart city projects.

Utilities that act as facilitators to bring the relevant stakeholders together to collaborate, agree on standards and deploy solutions that seamlessly interact with the broader smart city infrastructure, will unlock new revenue streams and cement their position at the heart of the city. This facilitator role will work best when utilities focus on their strengths—infrastructure, strong government relationships and a direct customer base—and leverage a rich partner ecosystem to provide the right technology to meet the vision.

Simple Steps for Smart City Success

Bringing it all together, there are three key steps any utility should take when looking to unlock new revenue streams and cement its place at the heart of a burgeoning smart city. First, utilities must think bigger than the traditional utility role, understanding the value of their street light infrastructure and customer insights within the smart city equation. Second, utilities must take advantage of low hanging fruit, such as more energy efficient lighting technologies and smart automation, to create the savings that can be used as a springboard to move into these new markets. Finally, having begun to explore new applications, partnerships and revenue streams, utilities must take a fully integrated, secure and scalable approach to smart city deployments ensuring more efficient city services while capitalizing on data monetization opportunities. Tied together, all of these steps provide a unique opportunity for utilities to light up smart cities in a new way.

Harsha Bhat is global head of the Energy, Utility & Mining Practice for Nokia. He earned his MBA at London Business School.

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