Smart city platforms: driving innovation in times of uncertainty
“To survive and thrive in an uncertain environment, one must be adaptive. A city is no exception. Being adaptive is about having situational awareness, considering options, identifying opportunities, devising & executing plans in an evolving environment.”
Participating in the panel discussion “Smart City platforms: All for One and One for All” at the Madinah Smart City Forum 2022, Lakshita Wijerathne, Chief Operating Officer of iviva and Chief Executive officer at Spaceworx.io, explained how the role of smart city platforms has evolved over the years. The panel explored how the new generation smart city platforms pave the way for operational excellence and create tangible business value for everyone in the ecosystem.
The story of Madinah’s transformation caught the attention of the entire world. Digital transformation is one of the key strategies of Vision 2030 for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As a result, Madinah began its transformation journey a few years back, keeping the city’s own vision aligned to the Kingdom’s. The Madinah Smart City Forum 2022 was organized by the Al Madinah Region Development Authority to discuss the concept of smart cities and how they would improve the quality of life for a city’s residents. The two-day forum brought together global specialists in property technology, who shared their experience, challenges & thoughts on how smart cities can ensure sustainability.
Here’s Lakshita’s perspective on how smart city platforms can be the driving force of innovation for city councils.
“ What a year it has been. Gripped with COVID 19 and the climate crisis, 2021 continued to challenge and impose unpredictability on us. Yet, while the world battled to reorder the way we live under these circumstances, the adoption of AI and IoT technologies exploded, making rapid progress in transformation, especially in cities.
The Smart City concept is not new. Yet, the attention it has drawn over the past few years is unprecedented. While some cities scramble to jump on the bandwagon, others have progressed rapidly, making effective use of technology that fuels connected futuristic cities.
A smart city platform, in simple terms, binds multiple products, processes, systems, and people, bringing together a unified ‘system of systems to deliver a holistic view of the city’s overall performance and functions. Powered by AI and IoT technologies, these platforms allow cities to be living organisms, transforming, growing, and adapting to evolving needs of a city. The pandemic has taught us the importance of adaptability, agility & resilience. A city is no different. However, for a city to provide the best living experience, it must function as one holistic provider instead of multiple disparate systems, be flexible to grow, adapt to its citizens’ changing needs, and withstand environmental changes.
You may have already understood that a smart city platform has many advantages. But, before we dive deep into it, let’s look at some essential characteristics of these platforms and see how they help a city achieve the goals mentioned above. ”
Essential characteristics of a smart city platform
Ability to collect & analyse large amounts of data: A city consists of residents, citizens, visitors, various building & infrastructure systems, IoT, cloud and software systems. All these systems provide enormous amounts of data necessary to understand and be aware of different situations.
For example, by analyzing social media feeds, purchasing patterns, surveys, and hospital records, city planners can get valuable insight into citizens’ health and lifestyles & be proactive with healthcare services made available in the city.
Provide business and operational intelligence: A smart city platform provides actionable insights. The city management team can retrieve historical data & view data in real-time to review available options, identify new opportunities & determine the best course of action.
A perfect example of business intelligence is city planners determining when the road infrastructure is to be augmented by analyzing traffic buildup at critical intersections. And operational intelligence is when we can influence traffic light management and use digital signage to divert traffic when an accident happens.
Support predictive operation: Through AI/ML technologies, future situations can be predicted, allowing for proactive instead of reactive actions. This assists in planning and executing as predictions give heads up to relevant teams to act accordingly.
For example, you will predict when your district air conditioning plant may need an overhaul as the platform will predict failures and performance degradation.
Create and deploy services faster: With these smart city platforms’ low code & no-code development capabilities, business analysts within the city management team can create and deploy digital services rapidly. This is necessary for a city to provide quick & essential services that need to be deployed in days instead of months. E.g., Digital services to help citizens interact with health officials during the pandemic.
Ability to scale: Planning for unexpected spikes in service requests is an excellent example of how resilient smart city platforms can be. These platforms have an innate ability to dynamically scale their cloud-hosted infrastructure to accommodate the increase in demand and attain the required elasticity. For example, pandemics increase the demand for online services such as healthcare, government services, purchasing and delivery with no prior warning.
Create a centralized data hub and dispatch fast, accurate data: Smart Platforms enable centralized data management functions, including data cleansing, transformation services, and access control. This allows easy access to sanitized and unified data without the complexity of understanding various data formats & protocols. For example, some systems use BRICK, HAYSTACK & BOT data formats; some use BACnet, Modbus & OPC protocols. The platform will transform these varied formats into a unified form for easy end-user consumption.
Creating composable digital services
According to Gartner, a ‘composable business’ is an organization created using interchangeable building blocks. In the context of smart city platforms, this means the platform must support the creation of ‘composable digital services’ by assembling prebuilt, interchangeable building blocks. The modern smart city platform must support the “composable digital services” strategy. It fosters agility, adaptability, & resilience instead of the traditional approach that created digital services as bespoke solutions that are difficult to modify, enhance, and maintain.
There are three key concepts that digital service architects must follow when creating ‘composable digital services. They are ‘composable thinking,’ ‘composable architecture’ & ‘composable technologies.’ First, an architect must develop a mindset that cultivates “Composable thinking.” Instead of creating a monolith, a single, complex application, it must be envisioned as a collection of independent, autonomous, discoverable building blocks that can assemble to create a service. This approach allows design, development, deployment, enhancement & replacement of the building blocks independently which is impossible in a monolith.
Secondly, they must create a ‘composable architecture.’ This is a structural requirement in the platform that allows building blocks to be assembled, plugged, replaced, hosted, and continuously improved to meet the need for involving digital services.
Thirdly, the architect must use ‘composable technologies’ to build those building blocks. Modern technologies and tools such as cloud computing, elastic computing, containerization are just a few of these technologies that the platform should be supporting. To help with this strategy of ‘composable digital services,’ platforms need pre-built building blocks and the capability to create reusable building blocks. This will enable solution architects to quickly put together a solution and further enhance or modify a solution by assembling & interchanging the building blocks.
Let’s elaborate on this with an example.
As a result of the pandemic, organizations are moving towards contactless visitor management systems. This often requires replacing existing access control systems and visitor registration kiosks. If the visitor management application currently in use were created as a monolith, the application would have to be redeveloped, incurring a significant cost once the hardware is changed. But on the other hand, if a composable digital service was used, it would only be required to replace some building blocks related to the current hardware, whereas the rest will continue to function as it is.
Driving business value through innovation
Now that we have established that the platform is an essential component of a smart city, let’s focus on the objectives.
The goal of a smart city platform should be to:
Connect and promote collaboration amongst all stakeholders. This includes citizens, residents, visitors, public & private entities. Instead of silos that create inefficiencies, lack of transparency, & low productivity, smart city platforms aim to create synergies & collaborations.
Integrate people, systems, and processes and be the single source of truth to their stakeholders. Innovation rides on the timely availability & accuracy of information. Hence all systems and personnel involved must have access to precise & prompt data.
Creating inclusivity. Achieving inclusion through consideration of generational, cultural, and gender differences across stakeholders in the city is key to ensuring that the platform remains relevant and meets its objectives.
Enable adaptability, agility, and resilience. Nothing stays static. Stakeholder requirements, business environment & the technology landscape- everything changes. The platform too must adapt to internal and external changes to remain useful and relevant. According to Forbes, smart cities have evolved from having isolated systems like automated streetlights, synchronized traffic lights & CCTV surveillance -> to using IoT, AI & cloud-enabled services -> to citizen co-creation and now moving towards cognitive cities.
For a smart city platform to be successful, it needs not only to support the construction of a smart city, but it also needs to support continuous innovation. Because various factors drive innovation, the potential of such platforms can be challenging if it does not focus on driving value – especially to its intended users. Smart city platforms need to focus on reducing operational costs while enhancing the quality of life & building a community of truly connected citizens.
So how does a smart city platform do this?
It’s not just building a smart city…
By engaging citizen developers: It is important to get citizen developers involved in the creation of smart city platforms. Since the platform provides low or no code capabilities, citizens, even if they are not software developers, can still produce excellent digital services
By engaging public and private entities: Smart city platform is the datahub that stores and exposes all pertinent data for third-party consumption. Any public or private entity wanting to build innovative digital services will have access to a vast amount of data through one source, which allows them to focus on analytics & workflows rather than dealing with the complications of integrating disparate sources spread across the city.
By facilitating trial and prototyping: Composability features of the platform such as Building Blocks that represent Connectors, Workflows, and Dashboards will allow trial, prototype & production of digital services faster. In addition, identifying what works and what does not quickly is equally important in creating valuable digital services.
It is evident that the role of smart city platforms is multifaceted. It is simply not a platform that enables a connected city but a living system to enhance the quality of modern cities and drive innovation fluidly.