- Published: 29 December 2022
Connected Places Catapult’s Paul Wilson looks back to the beginning of the smart cities trend and tracks how the path has been laid for the future of the urban environment, culminating in the emergence of connected digital twins.
Q: Where did you start in the smart cities space and what lessons have you taken in the intervening years that still apply?
I’ve been involved in smart cities for almost 10 years now, beginning with the Bristol is Open project. In 2011, the UK government announced a new fund called Super Connected Cities. Money was awarded to cities around the UK from DCMS, and many used that finance to invest in fast broadband schemes. Bristol was different; the city wanted to hold out and invest in something more sophisticated and pioneering.
Bristol City Council had been able to purchase tens of miles of fibre and ducting from a local TV company that had gone bankrupt for just a few hundred thousand pounds. The first thing the council did was to use that ducting and fibre to connect some of its buildings together, but there was a group within the council who wanted to use it, plus the DCMS funding of about £4m, to create a connected city. To sell that vision, the council partnered with the University of Bristol, which has a well-known communications department, bringing together the expertise of the university with the appetite of the council.
With a joint venture between the two established, the money was first used to upgrade the fibre within the ducting and add a mesh network across the city through IoT-enabled lampposts. Every tenth lamppost in the city became part of that network to create a mesh across Bristol. From there, an early-stage 5G antenna was deployed in the centre of the city, and the fibre network and mesh network together were connected back into the university’s high-performance computer. The computer was then connected to the university’s planetarium, which was upgraded to become a 7 billion pixels per second digital projection environment. With this set up, we could begin to visualise operations from across the city in real time inside the planetarium.
By going through this process and demonstrating these abilities, we could begin to impact outcomes across the city, for example, connecting up a business incubation centre for small start-ups. Another part of this was connecting up a part of the city that had poor housing conditions, meaning we could track damp houses and show landlords how their properties were falling below minimum health and safety standards. The ability to track that data and send it to landlords created change in those houses faster than probably anything else I’ve ever worked on.
That was the shape that Bristol is Open took, and it helped bring on board corporates like Nokia, NEC and InterDigital for what I’d term ‘city-experimentation-as-a-service’. We recognised that there were as many reasons to build a smart city as there were people to make use of it. It could be facilitating assisted living for the elderly, enabling driverless cars, monitoring air quality, or creating a city that is more fun and playable through digital connectivity – it could be anything you wanted to strive for.
Having put the digital infrastructure in place, the city went on to win a variety of grants for research and development based on the infrastructure it had available, for example, experiments with driverless cars and different forms of energy. It proved true the argument that laying the digital infrastructure enables innovation in many forms – and often at a considerably lower cost than physical infrastructure. New roads cost tens of millions of pounds, but the enabling infrastructure to better monitor and maintain them is a fraction of that.
There is a gap in funding between physical and digital infrastructure that mirrors this still. I think it’s because there has been a lack of digital skills at the government and policymaking level, meaning that there’s been a tendency to leave this work to the private sector to oversee. It will be crucial for public officials and leaders to become well versed in this area because the technology is already becoming so ubiquitous, and they will need to know how it works, what it can do, and what the potential pitfalls are.
When the term smart cities really began to emerge in the mid-2000s, it was the same time that software companies were looking to transition to software-as-a-service solutions and offering cloud-based products. The cloud itself was only just at the beginning of the curve to becoming mainstream – adoption was still relatively low and organisations were wary of running software in what they’d call a ‘public cloud’.
We’re now 15 years down the line from there and we can see how those ideas have been accepted. That shows just how long it can take for some of the trends we’re seeing emerging now to really take hold; even when the whole IT industry was convinced about cloud technology, it took more than a decade for it to become a widespread reality.
Q: How have you seen urban connectivity change and evolve since your time in Bristol?
The change was reflected by the next part of my career, where I was invited to work with DCMS to help design the UK’s £200m 5G testbed and trials programme. At that time, the government believed that the country was falling behind with its digital agenda after it was a fairly late adopter of 4G.
The approach was to create enough demand through our understanding of new use cases that could be created by using 5G, meaning the telcos would see the market as being ready for commercial 5G deployment ahead of other countries. We created around 40 testbeds and trials around the UK, ranging from driverless freight vehicles to smart tourism – use cases that were really diverse. From here, I was involved in the consortium to set up UK5G, which came to an end earlier in 2022 and aimed to create a smart city in Birmingham through the Urban Connected Communities Competition. This ultimately resulted in the set-up of West Midlands 5G.
At this time, I also worked with TM Forum – a global association of telcos and tech firms focused on moving the telco industry into cloud virtualising software, particularly oriented around operational and business support systems. The forum’s aim was to create open digital architecture to break down software components into microservices and use APIs to link them together, rather than continue with the status quo of big software companies charging telcos huge licensing fees to run services. In turn, that would enable a more agile approach to software development as opposed to a license-based rip-and-replace operation every 10 years inside the telco. TM Forum has really moved the needle here during the last five years, creating open labs owned by likes of Vodafone and Deutsche Telecom and bringing in software vendors to collaborate.
What has changed in cities’ approaches to innovation and partnership since the height of smart city discussion in the mid-2010s?
I was TM Forum’s smart city lead and together we created the City As a Platform Manifesto, which more than 300 organisations signed up to, dedicated to the idea of cities and private sector companies working together openly and collaboratively. On a good day, the public sector is all about public good; on its bad days, it is about politicians staying in power. The same can be said of private sector companies, where on a good day their focus is on innovation and happy customers, but on a bad day it switches to profit and a similar cling to power. The manifesto helped organisations on both sides to be realistic about the motivators on the good and bad days, and understand the different timeframes that public and private sectors are working to. Private companies are reporting on a quarterly basis, whereas public elections only happen every few years.
We created an early stages architecture for city platforms that could be used as a starting point for both public and private organisations. We quickly learnt that cities were financially in a difficult place to provide critical services – many still are, with changing social pressures, aging populations and an ever-increasing number of social security requirements. Keeping physical infrastructure in good order was the priority and the idea of using digital tools on top of that was seen as a step too far in terms of complexity.
It became obvious to me that it was too difficult to think at city scale, and those privately-owned and operated spaces like airports, business districts, stadia, universities and other similar things would be where real innovation in cities would happen, because there were too many competing pressures on budget at a civic level.
Over time, the technology being implemented in those private spaces became mature, which made them more familiar and therefore more affordable, so that they then spread further across cities and led to smarter cities by default, rather than starting with the grand vision to become a smart city. It starts with an ecosystem and then becomes an ecosystem of ecosystems, which leads us to where we are today – the beginning of connected digital twins in cities.
What makes connected digital twins such an exciting prospect in the cities space?
The digital twins that we are seeing come through the Digital Twin Hub, which is being chaired by Dr Alison Vincent, are very much being built by places that are owned and governed – exactly the type of places I mentioned before. This is where the majority of place-based digital twin work is happening, and that makes sense because it’s where the whole concept of digital twins began – in highly-controlled engineering environments, with capital intensive equipment requiring smart performance optimisation.
Digital twin technology is now permeating into the public realm more and more as the benefits are being understood. If you’re building a significant piece of infrastructure or a large building, for example, make sure that a digital twin is part of your bid because you could raise more finance for the project due to how it’ll be operated. With more data and information about operations comes digital management, operational management and predictive maintenance, so your overall basic management of physical infrastructure and places will be better.
Instead of starting with a smart city vision, parts of the city are now developing digital twins. As these incrementally come together and are increasingly connected, there’s more chance that we get back toward the smart city vision as it was a decade ago. I’d postulate that by the mid-2030s we’ll see some of the smart city work coming to fruition that was theorised about in 2015/2016.
We now need open architecture for digital twins and an understanding of different ontologies, so one vertical’s ontology can work with another. That will enable a degree of collaboration that we’ve longed to see in connected places and cities over the last 10 years, rather than the backwards and forwards of data sharing agreements where organisations are more concerned with the rulesets than the outcomes for society. Sharing doesn’t mean giving and it doesn’t mean loss of control, but sophisticated data governance is going to be crucial, and that’s where the Digital Twin Hub’s continued work on connecting digital twins is going to come into its own.
Digital twins provide a strong proof case that this is coming and smart cities are still in the pipeline. To those who think the hype cycle of smart cities is over, I’d say this is something that was always going to take 20 years to emerge, and digital twins are the latest manifestation of it.
Autor(en)/Author(s): Luke Antoniou
Quelle/Source: Smart Cities World, 19.12.2022