Smart City 2.0: Role Of Digital Industrial Companies

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 third 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

Industrial companies are different from technology companies. And I don’t just mean that they have ladders. When you provide the foundation for the way the world’s systems work every day, you think differently. Water systems, energy systems, transportation systems, lighting systems… these all work for a very long time and require very thoughtful planning about maintenance, commissioning, serviceability, and physical security that pure technology companies do not have to consider. Industrial companies also build shared infrastructure that is open to anyone approved by the city. That goes for both individuals and organizations.

Smart City Blueprint.
Image: GE

In my last post, I talked about the new kind of infrastructure required for digital cities. Broad sets of sensors tied to streetlights that were designed to be shared under the direction of city leadership can empower a new era of urban innovation. We can move from making City Hall work better to unleashing all of a city’s citizens to help each other live, work, and play better. Shared infrastructure creates equity in opportunity for everyone from high school students to large companies, in neighborhoods of all types. To truly solve for this, it’s going to take the work of digital industrial companies.

Why? First of all, industrial companies are experienced at putting real equipment in the real world. As a general rule, we have a lot more ladders, tool belts, bucket loaders, and other equipment than most technology companies do. And what we don’t have in-house, we have broad sets of partners with those specific tools that have worked with us on industrial projects for years. I know those kinds of “technologies” don’t generate a lot of headlines, but like it or not, they are essential to creating digital cities. And the understanding and willingness to go into the street and maintain real physical equipment is essential to digitizing cities.

Technology companies don’t install and manage equipment like this as part of their DNA. Sure, every one of them can tell you how they build a custom solution and put sensors on manhole covers to check for water flow levels (I was part of those teams too!), but it’s an entirely different animal when you are managing tens or hundreds of thousands of streetlights or securing power systems against intrusion. This is what industrial companies do every day.

Second, because industrial companies work in the real world with real equipment, they design cloud technology that is purpose built for getting data from these devices to the cloud in a secure way. The GE engine powering the plane I am on (one of the only places I can find time to type these posts!) will generate an average of half of a terabyte of data per flight. Oh, and it moves from airport to airport, so getting that data back to the cloud for analysis isn’t the easiest thing to do.

Technology companies excel at getting data from one system to another. If you need to process a lot of banking transactions and analyze trends, you don’t need an industrial company. But if you are a city leader that is going to deploy physical sensors all across your city to empower the next urban technology evolution, you definitely want the experience of an industrial company.

Third, industrial companies are happy to help create open infrastructure that is shared. It’s what we do. We are happy to have lots of application vendors build solutions on our digital infrastructure, like ubiquitous, open LED fixtures.

We know we aren’t experts at solving many city problems, so we don’t even try to do it. We don’t have ulterior motives of collecting personal data on individuals so that we can advertise to them later. Our design point is to create infrastructure that empowers a community.

Some technology companies want to sell you solutions for every problem that you have. They want to be your one-stop-shop for everything. While there are many strong technology companies, my belief is that if you unleash the creativity of your city, you will find plenty of great solutions and you will create jobs and drive economic growth at the same time. That takes open infrastructure.

There are a number of startup companies that have very cool solutions. I hope that many of these startup companies can find a way to leverage the industrial digital infrastructure to solve interesting problems.

I should point out that as much as I firmly believe we need digital industrial companies to deploy and secure infrastructure, I’m confident that big technology companies will continue to play a major role in solving urban problems. In fact, I bet that their solutions will get even better and their ability to help city leaders will scale much faster after a digital industrial company provides them with the right physical infrastructure.

I love technology and will always be enamored by the solutions that cutting edge technology can enable. But for city leaders who are focused on unleashing the economic growth opportunities that urban tech holds, the only choice is a digital industrial company with staying power that can provide the open, secure, resilient infrastructure that cities require.
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.