Smart City 2.0: Infrastructure For The Digital Age

The “smart city” has been a topic of discussion for more than a decade, with technology put into practice in locales throughout the world to varying extents. With Internet of Things (IoT) technology making advances of late, we’ll see more strides during 2016 and beyond. This article is the second in a series by John Gordon, chief digital officer of Current, powered by GE, addressing what may be the next wave in smart cities. Please share your experiences, thoughts, and questions on this topic in the Comments section below.

By John Gordon

One of the most fundamental missions for city leaders is providing infrastructure that allows citizens to live, work, and play safely and efficiently. The type of infrastructure that cities provide has continuously evolved as needs changed and opportunities arose.

In my last post, I called out the new Smart City movement and the opportunity to unleash urban innovation. Achieving this will take a new kind of urban infrastructure, purpose built for the digital age.

The earliest city infrastructure included things like walls to provide protection or wells for water. New systems for energy, roads, lights, and even Wi-Fi came to fruition as leaders saw trends growing and realized there was a way to deliver these things effectively for the entire community versus letting individuals solve for them on their city

We are at the onset of another evolution in city infrastructure. This evolution has the potential to have the greatest impact of all because it can leverage the creativity and innovation of all citizens but in a way that benefits the masses. This is the evolution to urban digital infrastructure. Urban digital infrastructure that allows us to see, hear, feel, smell (probably not taste any time soon!) key information from across the city.

Parts of this infrastructure are at work already. Roadway cameras help with traffic flow. Environmental sensors check air quality. Microphones triangulate gunshots. These have been useful to City Hall in delivering better service to their citizens.

Today, each one of those sensors is deployed for a very specific purpose to solve a very specific problem for a very specific user. And a problem with that is it is very expensive to deploy special-purpose sensors multiple times across the city.

Additionally, since each is deployed for a very specific use, they haven’t been designed to empower citizens more broadly.

Urban infrastructure must be open to all. Anyone can use roads and sidewalks. Water systems and energy systems connect to any buildings through utilities. Fire departments respond to all calls. Each can be used for many purposes and therefore the costs of that infrastructure are shared broadly across everyone uses them.

Can you imagine if we did this with other city infrastructure?

The conduit for this very real potential is a technology infrastructure that is all around us every day. Something we wake up to, something that guides us throughout the day and something we really couldn’t operate without — lighting.

LED fixtures with microphones, vibration sensors, public Wi-Fi capabilities, cameras, and other sensors that can be shared for many purposes and can be widely, and cost efficiently, deployed are the right, open common digital infrastructure to enable a nervous system for a city or enterprise.

For one reason, lighting is everywhere. It forms a ubiquitous network for capturing and transmitting data from city streets to high-rise offices. In the U.S. alone, there are about 327 million smartphones compared to 7 billion light fixtures! In terms of fixed physical infrastructure, no other technology platform compares to the pervasive nature of lighting and the potential to piggyback intelligent, connected solutions.

Couple this potential with growing adoption. LED usage is anticipated to expand from 28% today to 95% by 2025, unlocking tremendous value for the world to reduce energy cost and complexity in commercial enterprises.

Sensors embedded through this ubiquitous lighting network pull data, and it can be made actionable through the GE Predix platform, a cloud-computing platform specifically designed for the secure collection and analysis of data from real world sensors.

Cities retain control of what kind of data and how much of it is shared with different groups of users, but once the infrastructure is in place, creating new solutions for the data can be done much more quickly. For example, one city recently asked us to analyze when pedestrians are in crosswalks to make streets safer. This was addressed by placing sensors in LED streetlights. We hadn’t originally set out to solve for this, but using Predix, we created new code that solved for this need.

And there are countless other applications that we haven’t even thought of yet. That’s why we are creating digital infrastructure as an open platform and actively recruiting application partners and developers who can leverage data to solve problems and innovate applications.

The opportunities before us are enormous, but if cities continue to think about technology as a way to solve one problem at a time, they will miss the opportunity. It’s time for digital infrastructure to impact cities as the open road to growth and economic prosperity.

smart cityGordon is the chief digital officer of Current, Powered by GE, where he is responsible for orchestrating an enterprise-wide energy transformation by leveraging the capabilities of GE’s Digital business. Prior to Current, Powered by GE, John was the vice president of IBM Watson Solutions, and previous to that position, he was the director of IBM’s Smarter Cities business, where he was responsible for coordinating a global team to develop the initial end-to-end Smarter Cities business. Gordon received his MBA from The University of Texas, Austin and his BA from the University of Notre Dame.