Powering a new era of smart cities through open, secure and interoperable systems

Jan. 19, 2021
"There is an exciting era ahead of us. And that era must be built on openness and compatibility."

By Phil Beecher, CEO of Wi-SUN Alliance

Smart-city leaders have had their challenges over the past few months, just like the rest of us. But they’ve also seen huge opportunities unfold before their eyes as the benefits of intelligent technology use become clearer.

As we emerge from the pandemic in 2021, smart-city stakeholders must look to interoperable, open standards to provide the innovation, resilience and sustainable growth urban centers of the future will need to thrive.

Primed for growth

On the face of it, the world’s cities have had a rough year, just like the rest of us. The COVID-19 virus has swept ruthlessly through most densely populated regions of the globe, overwhelming healthcare systems as it went. As offices were forced to close and workers stayed home, the beating heart of many cities was torn out. Depleted budgets could take a toll on future IoT projects. New York mayor Bill de Blasio has warned of a $2 billion cut to municipal services in 2021.

However, at the same time connected technology has begun to show its value. In some Indian and Asian cities, for example, some smart city control rooms have been repurposed as public-health monitoring centers. In London, an Uber-led initiative is enabling commuters to travel via boat and road on shared electric vehicles, reducing emissions and maintaining social-distancing rules.

Now, ambitious planners from Amsterdam to Milan are setting out their vision for a post-pandemic world—with resilience, innovation and sustainability at its heart. It’s fantastic to see analysts predict that—although the virus may impact smart city projects in the short-term—investment in the coming five years will accelerate globally.

Tech challenges

It’s clear that technology, and specifically IoT and wireless connectivity, are at the heart of these efforts. When done right, they can enhance the reliability of IT systems, reduce operating costs and improve citizen safety and quality of life.

But what kind of technology is required?

A survey from Wi-SUN Alliance last year revealed that cost (50%), security and privacy (21%) and interoperability (14%) remain the biggest perceived challenges to success. In the security sphere, respondents were particularly concerned about data privacy (37%), critical-infrastructure attacks (28%) and network vulnerabilities (24%).

An open future

It’s therefore clear that our smart city-future must be built on secure, interoperable and low-cost connectivity. Field-area networks FANs) are a great place to start; this model is an ideal fit to support the very large-scale outdoor networks needed to connect and deploy large numbers of industrial devices like smart streetlights and smart meters.

Consider the following:

  • Mesh-enabled designs reduce the single points of failure and coverage black spots that sometimes affect star networks. Transmissions between nodes are made over shorter distances so they also offer greater power efficiency and improved performance.
  • Enhanced security with support for IEEE link-layer encryption standards (eg IEEE 802.15.4), as well as IPv6 network security features such as intrusion detection, network analysis, traffic shaping and pen testing.
  • Choose equipment that follows open standards (in general) to avoid vendor lock-in, increase choice and minimize costs. Concerns over cost pressures will be particularly acute in the immediate post-COVID era. Systems built on open standards are also more likely to have been optimized for performance, security and resilience.

As smart-city efforts really start to accelerate over the next five years, this open approach will help to provide stakeholders with the assurance that deployments will be future-proofed for continuous innovation.

For utilities, manufacturers, solutions providers and other constituents, there is an exciting era ahead of us. And that era must be built on openness and compatibility.