i3 | April 02, 2019

Inside Smart Cities

by 
Natalie Hope McDonald

What we can learn from Estonia and other high-tech wonderlands.

Cold, rocky and dotted with hilltop fortresses, Estonia’s past as a one-time Soviet Union stronghold on the European coast could hardly have predicted its unlikely rise into one of the smartest countries on the planet. Today, the city of Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, is not only known for its beautifully preserved Old Town and the soaring TV Tower, but also the many high-tech startups that call this super smart city home.

The story of Estonia’s successful transition from floundering state to digital hub all began after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and later when the country gained its independence in the 90s. To make the region stand out among European neighbors, Estonia’s forward-thinking leaders opted to pursue a path that may have seemed far-fetched at the time, especially given the country’s struggling economy — to invest and ultimately create one of the world’s first-ever smart cities.

By essentially digitizing and networking education, government and other key live/work entities, Estonia managed to achieve full digitization by the mid 2000s. This meant that literally everything in the country became digitally connected, including voting (which can be done on a smartphone), taxes (which can be submitted in less than a few minutes digitally) and banking (people even get alerts if their account is illegally accessed), making it one of the safest, privacy-friendly systems ever build by a government in the world.

Being "smart" in Estonia also means having Wi-Fi everywhere with seamless e-services, as well as constantly evolving to meet the needs of its citizens. For example, Estonia recently launched a digital participation tool called AvaLinn, a mobile app that’s being billed as a “co-creation” tool that allows citizens to share ideas and discussions about spatial and urban planning.

What makes the system work so seamlessly is that every citizen of Estonia (or e-Estonia, as it’s sometimes referred) has been outfitted with an ID card with a chip that — in combination with a pin code and USB reader — creates his or her digital identity. Once logged into the system, a person can access all facets of data — everything from health and education records to taxes, insurance and government programs in one user-friendly portal. It has simplified transactions that used to require more time, money and labor, thus making the citizens of Estonia content with the way things are running.

Other popular e-services, according to Toomas Sepp, the city secretary and administrative leader of the Tallinn City Office, include a mobile public transportation app (it offers timetables, tracking and a city map), traffic cameras (these alert drivers about jams) and the official online city map (it’s updated with the most recent news and developments).

“Our ambition,” says Sepp, “is to make planning smarter and involve citizens in the planning process even more.”

Estonia is looking even deeper into ways their smart city can become even smarter. “Technology is already providing opportunities to make citizen engagement more interesting and rewarding,” Sepp says. “For example, virtual reality and augmented reality in urban planning is something that we have not tapped into yet.”

How to Build a Smarter City

That a small post-Soviet nation achieved what most other cities still dream about is a testament to how ambition can trump even the most challenging of economic tests. In fact, most cities that rethink smart services often find themselves in far better economic positions down the road. Going smart also has tremendous environmental and psychological benefits.

Just ask Jesse Berst, chairman of the Smart Cities Council in Reston, VA, who says smart cities are in the process of being redefined by technology designed to improve urban life as we know it. Berst says there are four major components to any successful smart city initiative being developed now:

  1. COLLECT: This is the very heart of IoT and networking in which data is being collected and shared about a city’s condition — and this is happening anywhere and everywhere. “You don’t have to wonder if your streets are congested,” Brest says. “Your streets tell you” thanks to a system of cameras, apps and networking.
  2. COMMUNICATE: This is about accessing and sharing data where it’s needed most, like city-wide networks that Berst predicts will soon operate on a 5G network (it’s already being tested in Asia).
  3. COMPUTE: This is how analytics are read and reported, ushering in an era of predictive analytics that help local governments make smarter decisions. For example: Should a traffic light change 10 seconds earlier to help cut back on congestion? Could a water sensor discover a leak before there’s any real damage to a street or community?
  4. CONTROL: This is how people truly harness the power of the other three categories — with data and tools over a secure communications network. The result can be as simple as knowing when to turn off lights when no one is in a room to tracking street maintenance before it poses a problem.

Berst thinks of smarter cities in two ways — the first in terms of outside-in and the second as an inside-out approach. “Outside-in is getting this information, getting environmental sensors and video cameras,” he says. “Inside-out is taking the city’s services and delivering them digitally. Just like I do a big percentage of my shopping and most of my banking on my phone, people expect to interact with their cities 24/7 by phone or browser.”

According to CTA market research, more than $34 billion will be spent to create smarter cities by 2020. CTA predicts that there will be at least 88 smart cities like Estonia by 2025. This coincides with an increase in city populations, which will be most affected by sweeping changes in technological innovation. The United Nations expects that two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050 (that’s up from half today and one-third from 55 years ago).

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao has characterized smart cities as a culmination of “transformative technology.” During an appearance at CES 2018 with CTA President and CEO Gary Shapiro, Chao championed this high-tech IoT movement, saying, “We need to have the infrastructure to support that.” She suggested that tech needs to be/will be a part of infrastructure investment, not unlike how we think about roads and bridges.

The central promise of the smart city, explains Berst, is ultimately how to become “happier for less.” He says, “If you go digital, you can spend less to make your citizens happier.” They are happy because they don’t have to stand in line at City Hall to get a permit, or spend days and nights preparing to pay taxes, registering to vote, applying for government financial assistance, or reporting something as simple as a pothole on the go.

“We’re crossing the chasm this year,” says Berst. “Silicon Valley is the transition between the early adopters and early mainstream, and we’re just now catching up.” He expects to see more developments in cities like Tampa, Atlanta and Kansas City that are interested in widespread deployment of digital networking.

Self-driving cars are anticipated to be an important feature of the future smart city, but in more practical terms, before that we’ll likely see networked streetlights and more traffic cams, smart underground pipes outfitted with sensors and more interconnected surveillance in U.S. cities. Many of the most forward-thinking municipalities are taking cues from Europe and Asia, where the race to become smarter is part of much bigger and more complex economic plans.

“We’ve been seeing this kind of city-wide, comprehensive approach in China for years now,” Berst says, “and Singapore and, to some extent, Dubai.” The U.S., he admits, has some serious catching up to do.

“It’s not just a trend,” Brest says. “It’s a race for jobs and talent, and a race for a healthier environment. We can’t fix our planet unless we fix our cities. We need enlightened leadership and intelligent planning, but we can’t do it without digital technology.”

Harnessing Energy to Power Smart Cities

Skeleton Technologies, an energy storage maker with offices in Germany and Estonia, had been involved in the back-office transformation of e-Estonia and other smart cities globally. It’s one of many tech companies that have since located to Tallinn, an incentive that’s been helping to drive Estonia’s economy in the tech sector. Olivier Chabilan, the company’s product marketing manager, predicts, “Energy storage will eventually lead to world-changing habits and energy savings. At this time, we can save 32 percent fuel on light delivery trucks by adding an energy recuperation system. Savings of the same order can be achieved on harbor cranes and city buses.”

And while the behind-the-scenes work is not always visible in cities in which these transformations are taking place, they are making service deliveries faster and more efficient. Chabilan sees the future according to how energy can be harnessed and used more effectively to power smart grids and networks worldwide.

Smart Cities at CES 2019

CES 2019 drew companies focused on 5G, IoT and transportation to plan the next-generation of smart city innovation. The Smart Cities Marketplace at CES, brought together 70 companies that showcased the latest in mobility, big data, self-driving tech, sustainability, health and public safety. Startups included vehicle cybersecurity company Karamba Security; “Vehicle as a Service” creator Autofleet; LiDAR developer Ouster; smart padlock maker Tapplock; and many more. Other heavy-hitting companies such as Ford, Baidu and Bosch showcased how their technologies create more impactful smart cities. Bell even debuted a full-sized, drone-like flying car this year, and envisions a ridesharing system using it once smart cities are ready.

CES 2019 was the gathering place for major players in the smart cities industry and many participated on a plethora of panels. Experts discussed how the public and private worlds can work together and use technology to influence urban sustainability, public safety, blockchain usage and even develop “air taxis.” Speakers included panelists from McKinsey Global Institute, Qualcomm and IBM, as well as Baltimore mayor Catherine E. Pugh who spoke about her city’s use of tech to improve public safety and disaster recovery.

At Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg’s CES keynote (pictured above), he discussed the telecom company’s plan to provide the first commercial 5G broadband internet service, enabling smart city perks such as remote-controlled commercial drones and high-speed internet. “The pace of technological changes in the past decade has been fast,” Vestberg said. “The only thing we know for sure is that it’s going to be even faster in the future.”

The Amazon Effect and the Future of Robotics

Also based in Estonia, Starship Technologies is a robotics startup created by the co-founders of Skype. The company is in the midst of launching a large-scale commercial delivery service aimed at corporate and academic campuses in both Europe and the U.S.

Henry Harris-Burland, vice president of marketing at Starship, believes that robotics will ultimately have a hand in the future of smart cities around the world, especially when it comes to retail and delivery.

“People are getting more items delivered than ever before, and they want more from delivery services,” he says. A big goal is to provide items at lower cost, quicker, and more conveniently. “The Amazon effect,” he adds, “is putting great strain on logistics companies. They are doing all they can to squeeze efficiencies out of legacy systems, but a new approach is required.”

Starship’s beta service is striving to make the delivery process easier and more convenient for consumers in the long run. Overall, Starship’s robots could enable retailers to offer delivery services at a lower cost to customers. With the final leg of a delivery comprising up to 50 percent of a product’s total transportation cost, the financial sustainability offered by using a service like this could mean, for example, supermarkets and other retailers can offer customized delivery at a much cheaper price point.

“Robotic delivery services also offer environmental benefits by reducing congestion,” he says. “Some cities have limited delivery hours for vans and lorries because of the congestion they cause. Research has showed that 25 percent of CO2 emissions and 30 to 50 percent of other pollutants are caused by diesel-powered trucks and vans.”

Because Starship’s robots are electrically powered, they offer a more viable, green alternative to diesel and petrol vehicles, with the capability for removing inefficient cars and vans from the process.

The company is currently testing sidewalk delivery drones in Washington, DC, the first city in the U.S. to be in the beta launch. To date, five of these bots have made more than 7,000 deliveries in the nation’s capital (with only three reported accidents).

What's Next in the U.S.?

Council member Mary Cheh was one of the leading boosters for Starship’s testing program in DC. She told The Washington Times she wants the city to foster new technology. “I want Washington to be known for innovation and progress,” she says. This could mean making inroads between companies like Starship and known delivery companies like UPS and FedEx. It’s all quickly becoming part of the shared and networked economy being pushed simultaneously by companies like Uber and Airbnb.

It’s not far fetched to expect delivery bots in smart cities around the country in the coming years. McKinsey predicts that autonomous vehicles and delivery bots will make up 85 percent of last-mile deliveries by 2025. These are developments that are already happening in Asia and throughout Europe. The big question is when these innovations will become the norm in major U.S. cities.

“The history of progress in America is investment in infrastructure,” says Smart Cities’ Berst. One hundred and fifty years ago it was the transcontinental railroad — and 50 years later it was paving highways, and even into the 1950s and 60s, it was all about creating an interstate with connected freeways. Berst says that cities that opted out of these major innovations, simply put, “withered and died.”

He says the same is true of tech innovations. Cities that choose not to invest now will miss out on attracting business, talent and building stronger and smarter tech-driven economies that enhance the lives of their citizens.

As such, Brest says a similar dedication to infrastructure needs to exist when it comes to building smarter cities in the U.S. It requires not only a financial and time investment, but also a change in mindset and the way we think about the evolution of urban life.

“The early days of smart cities was about getting a cool idea and going out and building it,” Berst says. “If we don’t get there early, we will always be catching up.”

Five Cities Getting Smarter

Toronto is building new constructions that react to weather, making efficiency changes depending on temperature and storm patterns. Sidewalk Labs, the smart city subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., has announced plans to create a high-tech neighborhood in the Canadian city’s Quayside that will combine urban design with the latest digital technology.

Belmont, Arizona recently received an $80 million investment from Bill Gates. Expect to see self-driving vehicles hitting the streets, monitored by a smart and extensive data network.

Trikala, Greece went from being an agricultural heartland to a smart city thanks to high-tech collaborations that rescued the city from financial crisis. Today, Trikala offers free Wi-Fi and can monitor everything from parking to traffic lights, water pipes and the exact location of garbage trucks.

Seoul, Korea is testing the world’s first 5G network. The city has been using digital networking for many years to improve health care, as well as transportation. Now, the city will help showcase how fast and efficient its new network can deliver data to smart devices being used by government officials, the medical community, educators and the man on the street.

London’s seamless system of buses, trains and shared vehicles have helped the city become even smarter in recent years. The city is also credited with introducing underground Wi-Fi, smart parking and its own Smart Cities Research Center that studies how to make the city even more technologically efficient.