The Future of Smart Cities
At the 1939 World’s Fair, General Motors presented a bold vision of America 20 years into the future with its massive exhibit, Futurama. Inspired by the fair’s “World of Tomorrow” theme and designed by Norman Bel Geddes, Futurama featured miniature towns, farmlands, bridges and an automated highway system connecting the nation. Safely spaced, self-driving vehicles traveled in separate lanes at 50, 75 and 100 mph. It was the first tangible, visible depiction of a smart city—a clean, sustainable and organized hub that presented opportunity and prosperity for all.
Over the next 70 years, equally audacious futurists presented not merely interesting ideas but game-changing innovations and technology that incrementally advanced everything from vehicles and transportation to healthcare and retail. At the same time, the world’s population exploded, particularly in urban centers, pushing municipalities and regional and national governments to invest in new ways to create smarter cities.
The term “smart city” was coined in 2008 by IBM in the midst of the Great Recession as part of its Smarter Planet  vision. Big Blue defined smart cities as those equipped with intelligent power grids, healthcare solutions and transportation systems among other things driven by cloud-computing, sensors, algorithms, data and analytics to improve safety and decision-making.
By that time, the vision of a smart city had come into a more pragmatic and clearer view than that of GM’s utopian Futurama. But the concept did not move from the drawing board to actual reality until pilot programs demonstrated solutions to some of the most pressing issues related to transit and traffic, air pollution and waste management. Some of the more notable initiatives focused on improving traffic flow and increasing public transit ridership, both of which rely on data collected from wireless sensors and/or cameras as well as analytics to implement creative solutions (Figure 1).
Even in America’s biggest cities—where traffic and transit numbers drastically declined with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic—signs point to increasing growth  once again, and smart city and transportation projects are reigniting after a long pause. Thanks to the rollout of 5G and the sophistication of artificial intelligence and embedded systems, networking and processing performance is improving dramatically compared to traditional low-powered IoT technologies. 5G enhancements such as “sidelink” transmission (which allows mobile devices or vehicles to communicate directly in a peer-to-peer fashion without a cell tower) are enabling new proximity-based services for parking, lighting, maps and wayfinding, retail, healthcare and law enforcement.
What’s more, a high density of 5G base stations (in streetlights, for instance) will enable deployment of mmWave bands for centimeter positioning accuracy. Sensors and cameras can use this precision to provide a holistic view of intersections, traffic lights, wait times, pedestrians and cyclists. These technologies will interact with a wide range of devices that exchange information in real time with cars, trucks and buses equipped with semi-autonomous features (Figure 2). Some can already sense objects in their path and brake if necessary. Now apply that to pedestrians carrying cell phones that sound an alert if an approaching vehicle poses a danger. These new innovations could significantly reduce injuries and fatalities.
In addition to sensors and cameras, smart city technologies include multi-access edge computing (MEC), which is essential for routers that run Python app filters and analyze data before transmitting. More cities are also deploying drones and robotics for a wide range of operations, including assisting first responders during fires, search-and-rescue operations and other life or death situations.
COVID-19 temporarily slowed the progress of smart cities projects, especially those focused on transportation as people were avoiding public transport and public places or choosing to travel in their own vehicles. But in some major cities where multimodal transportation networks play a vital role, COVID-19 actually prompted new smart transportation initiatives. In Chicago, for example, City Tech Collaborative is piloting new technology to enhance Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) operations, safety and rider experience.
Building on the CTA’s existing measures to keep bus and train service timely, efficient and safe, City Tech and an ecosystem of partners have implemented video analytics, onboard cameras and routers to provide real-time insights into occupancy across multiple vehicles. This is allowing CTA to proactively meet route ridership demand, reduce both passenger crowding and wait times and provide a safe, socially distanced rider experience. As far as scaling, this model can be applied to train transport and can be tailored to address schedule and rider changes and challenges due to inclement weather and other unforeseen events.
The importance of public-private collaboration for smart cities projects cannot be overstated. Cities need to provide and improve services for residents and businesses while the private sector typically has the technology required. It’s a model that public agencies have used for decades to deliver telecommunications, utilities, air and ground transport services and more. Sharing best practices, technologies, successes and failures also helps advance the smart city. Thanks to everything being built on Transmission Control Protocol and the Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), a set of rules that governs the connection of computer systems to the internet, the proprietary nature of systems is diminishing over time, helping cities replicate and scale successful projects.
Additionally, knowledge should be shared with the public to help them better understand the benefits of these new smart technologies, 5G being among the most critical. Many still have questions and concerns around privacy in particular. Knowledge sharing with citizens can and will help build trust and move intelligent transportation forward.
 IBM’s Smart Planet vision https://www.ibm.com/ibm/history/ibm100/us/en/icons/smarterplanet
Digi International | www.digi.com
PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE • JULY 2021 #372 – Get a PDF of the issueSponsor this Article