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What is a ‘Smart City Platform’?

So what exactly is a Smart City / IoT Platform? And why do there seem to be as many different platforms as there are smart cities? Well, the answer is that as there is no consistent definition of a Smart City and the term ‘platform’ means different things to different people then putting the two together can only lead to further ambiguity and confusion!

Probably the most widely accepted definition of the term ‘Smart City’ is that used by Navigant Research [Smart Cities – Global Market Analysis and Forecasts, Q2 2016]: “A smart city is characterized by the integration of technology into a strategic approach to sustainability, citizen well-being, and economic development”. This covers what I believe are the three tenets of any smart city application – environment, citizens and governance.

But what exactly is a ‘city’? St Davids in Wales is officially a City (as defined in the UK) because it has a cathedral. However, with a population of under 2,000 it would probably only need one person with an Excel spreadsheet to make it smart. (Apologies to those from St Davids – it is a beautiful place and far better for not being ‘smart’). On the other hand, Shanghai with a population in excess of 24m is bigger than many countries. I will continue to use the term ‘city’ in this article, but I really mean this to refer to a more general urban environment.

The definition of ‘platform’ is similarly ambiguous, even within the smart-city domain. Depending on your perspective, the term ‘platform’ may refer to the hosting environment (e.g. ‘Platform as a Service’), the network infrastructure, the operating system, the ‘big data’ architecture, or something else entirely.

I was asked recently to define exactly what I meant by a Smart City Platform, and it wasn’t as straightforward as I would have thought. While throwing out yet another definition may not necessarily help to crystallise opinions, this is a blog so I am allowed to be subjective!

A Smart City Platform is an open and interoperable system that can consume data and events from a wide range of subsystems and data-sources throughout the city; securely manage and analyse heterogeneous data across domains; and deliver meaningful insights and outcome-driven recommendations to city managers, partner organisations and the general public.

There are several different aspects to this which relate to the logical architecture illustrated below.

  • Interoperability – the Data Integration Layer should provide a flexible and easily extensible mechanism for securely connecting to external data systems and IoT device gateways. These may include city operational systems (parking management, street lighting, etc.), eGov systems (local tax information, bin collection schedules, public events, etc.), public data sources (e.g. weather information), local services (bus schedules, sports stadia, etc.) and a whole host of other data sources.  These sources will be different in every city – and they will be constantly changing.
  • Data Management – as discussed in a previous blog article, smart cities generate BIG data. This needs to be analysed, processed and stored securely and efficiently to extract the information that is required to make the connected city ‘smart’.
  • Automation – the Smart City Platform must provide a way to automate Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in response to the events and insights generated by the platform. The platform must provide a mechanism to easily create, update and manage SOP workflows to reflect changing operational requirements.
  • Data Access and Visualisation – ultimately the Smart City Platform is only as good as the information that it provides, so while it should provide its own dashboard and reporting tools the platform must also make this information available to other operational tools used across the city. This may include a data warehouse with specialist BI and data-analytics tools, web portals and mobile apps for public access, and application-specific tools for traffic monitoring, bin collection, etc.

So by this definition a Smart City Platform does not manage devices and sensors, nor does it manage the network infrastructure. Of course the sensors and actuators are very much a key part of a smart-city solution, as is the hosting environment and network infrastructure. However these are generic sub-systems and not specific to smart cities, so I see them as ‘enablers’ and not part of the Smart City Platform. Likewise, at the top of the platform there are generic BI and data analytics tools; again, I see these as multi-service tools which sit above the Smart City Platform but are not an intrinsic part of it.

Ultimately, no single ‘platform’ will be able to offer all the features required for every vertical application (lighting, parking, healthcare, etc.) and at all horizontal levels (device management, network management, service management, data management, etc.). The real solution requires a ‘platform of platforms’ approach with open and interoperable platforms interacting with and complementing each other as part of a wider ecosystem.

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