How has the IoT changed our cities?

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In the past few years, hundreds of cities around the world have become “smart”: or so they tell us. But what does it really mean? This label has been used over and over, often inconsistently, at the same time as the “smart city phenomena was growing. It generally refers to any type of urban development strategy aimed at making a city more efficient, whether it is through higher energy efficiency, sustainable management of resources, optimised mobility, or the enhanced quality and delivery of city services in general.


There is however one common requirement that makes a city smarter: improved data management. Until recently 95% of all the data available on the Internet was sent and received by users. Today, “things” dominate, with 95% of data transmitted by phones, cars, engines, meters, streetlights, tags… without any human intervention.


The internet of people has evolved to become the Internet of Things (IoT), providing cities with new tools and opportunities to improve citizens’ lives. And this is just the beginning: with the number of connected objects growing constantly, we have yet to find the limit of the IoT’s potential for cities.      

Without any doubt the rapid evolution of electronics and communications systems was the main triggering factor behind this development. Decades after the first microprocessor was created, the System on Chip (SoC) technology and the 3D-Integrated Circuits are allowing a huge reduction in area and power consumption, up performing the computational capability and downscaling the prices of sensors and systems. Today the old-fashioned M2M (Machine-to-Machine) connections that allowed only a Service-oriented Application (SoA) or a point-to-point solution (things that talk with identical things) have changed to modern IoT where the isolated systems work together to enable new applications. IoT is the new glue-logic that joins disparate systems into an expansive one.


A good illustration of the IoT’s contribution to smart cities concepts is the EU-funded SINFONIA project. There, the cities of Bolzano, Italy and Innsbruck, Austria are working hand in hand to achieve 40 to 50% primary energy savings, increase the share of renewables by 20% and reduce CO2 emissions by 40% in two pioneer districts.  To reach those objectives, the project relies on three main pillars: energy efficient building refurbishment, optimisation of the electricity grid, and improvement of the district heating and cooling (DHC) network.

How does the IoT fit in that picture? Well, it is basically everywhere. Energy data management is both a key enabling factor for each pillar, and the “glue” that connects them all together and makes the project truly “smart”.

The most obvious example is the use of sensors to monitor energy consumption in refurbished buildings. The data collected is used to better understand and optimise the energy performance of the buildings themselves. But not only: combined with other sensors on the DHC and electricity grids and with meteorological stations, the data will be used to better forecast energy needs and adapt supply accordingly. 

In the case of Innsbruck, energy data management will be crucial for the deployment of an innovative hybrid grid integrating several decentralised renewable energy producers, power-to-heat systems and battery storage. In Bolzano, SINFONIA partners will implement an Urban Service-Oriented Sensible Grid (USOS-grid) composed of 150 “smart points” providing a wide range of services to citizens: electric bikes and vehicle recharge points, smart public lighting, Wi-Fi connections, traffic monitoring, and more. These are just two examples of what SINFONIA is aiming to achieve, and of how the IoT can unlock a wide range of opportunities and services that simply did not exist before.


Whether related to the energy consumption of a washing machine or to traffic jams, the data collected also provide a wealth of information that can be used by different players in different ways. Energy consumption data can be used to trigger behavioural change among users (i.e. through the development of apps), but also by other cities interested in replicating “smart” solutions.  In SINFONIA, for example, five “Early Adopter Cities”  (Pafos (CY), Rosenheim (DE), Seville (ES), La Rochelle (FR) and Borås (SE)) have already set out to build on the project’s experiences to develop their own smart development plans. In this context, statistical data from Bolzano and Innsbruck will be particularly valuable.  

Although the knowledge in sensing and communication is better than never, the number of technologies to master has suddenly increased: sensors, gateways, low-power short-range networks and wide-area networks, IoT security, IoT device management, IoT analytics and data science. Another challenge is the failure (at least to date) to establish a common IoT language for the several devices and apps to communicate with each other. 


There are in fact two competing strategies in IoT technology platforms:  one US inspired, and one supported by the European Union. While the EU is backing the open source FIWARE technology, high-end private companies in the USA are pushing their own solutions on the market. Which solution ultimately becomes the standard remains a question mark, but will no doubt influence the development of Smart Cities. As a testimony to this interrelation between the two concepts, we can note that since Horizon 2020 was launched, the European Union requires all new “Lighthouse Projects” to integrate IoT solutions.


But let’s not forget the most important “thing” in our cities and IoT Platforms: the citizens. They are, in the end, the final users and beneficiaries of the services enabled by the IoT. It is necessary to engage them as early as possible in district scale refurbishment projects to ensure their needs are well understood and prioritised. In SINFONIA, a significant part of the project is therefore dedicated to the refurbishment of residential buildings. Ensuring people live in practical, comfortable and healthy homes must remain the first and most valuable investment for our citizens.


by Marcos Martínez Peiró, Assistant Professor, Technical University of Valencia & Guillaume Corradino, Head of European Programmes, Greenovate! Europe


28 March 2017