Parag Rastogi wrote the following blog as a guest blog for Environmental Industries Commission (EIC):
The term “smart cities” is a much (ab)used word, as summarised by this article from the Centre for Cities, and resources cited therein. It is a nebulous term, covering everything from public WiFi to automated leak detection in sewers. Therefore, for this blogpost and my forthcoming presentation at the EIC Green Data conference, to be useful, I will focus on a critical but often-neglected aspect of smart cities – retrofitting existing buildings with digital infrastructure to enable this crucial element of any smart city.
The scientific literature and our own experience suggested that, in order to be scalable and adopted widely, the digital infrastructure system has to be low-impact, retrofittable, modular, economic, and intuitive. Recent advances in sensors, batteries, IoT, and cloud-based solutions have made such a system possible. Through installing novel IoT sensors in buildings, it is now possible to implement integrated hardware and software solutions that can create a richly detailed, continuously-updated picture of buildings and their relation to the wider city environment. Crucially, in our own tests, we have combined the objective measurements with feedback from users to understand how people interact with sensing and smart infrastructure.
The upshot is that the new sensing capabilities provide a sort of ‘robotic arm’ to those who operate, maintain, and repair buildings, giving them new tools to diagnose problems and assess the impact of interventions. However, it is not always the case that the citizens of the newly smartened building necessarily understand or appreciate the availability of this information. The availability of information increased awareness and, in some cases, interaction with indoor conditions and infrastructure, though from a low level of baseline engagement. Simply put, if neither operators nor users find a system to be useful, nobody is going to put up with it or buy it.
To maximise the usefulness of data collected by such a system, it is crucial that the service or technology be joined up with existing systems and new smart infrastructure. Several promising new initiatives such as Brick and Project Haystack and integrative platforms like Niagara or Schneider Exchange exist for this, though there is some way to go in operationalising seamless connections between existing and new systems. In buildings, for example, there is substantial potential in connecting conventional automation and data-exchange protocols such as BACnet (to control heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) and DALI (control lights) through clever cloud-based software to allow them to participate in smart cities and energy grids.
New sensing and communication technologies allow us to have ubiquitous, continuous sensing of environmental and infrastructure conditions for the first time ever. Yet it is in the translation of this data into information and actionable insights that will make or break any smart city initiatives. It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, with a qualified call to action: while new technologies show great potential, smartening existing infrastructure and empowering citizens with insights needs to be part of the solution for the initiatives to be sustainable.