Let’s stop being dumb when it comes to planning Smart Cities

If the term ‘Smart Cities’ feels like it’s been around for ages that’s probably because it has. Although local authorities are starting to understand what smart cities are, confusion still abounds – they are not one size fits all as a smart city is essentially a set of building blocks brought together to deliver additional value. The challenge is knowing which blocks to bring together, when, why, and how.

It is clear that many are still struggling with the “Why”. Key building blocks like smart parking are well understood, we now have smart city standards, and we will soon have a CCS procurement framework; but many are still failing to look at Smart City solutions and services holistically and are therefore not full grasping the additional value attainable through joined up thinking.

The elevator pitch for Smart Cities rejoices in how silos are broken down through connectivity and service integration. Yet despite this, procurement for full fibre rollout continues in parallel to procurement for EV charging, heat networks, and so forth. All of which are potential components of a Smart City, all have the capability to be smart in their own right, but crucially all of which could be integrated.

So why bother to join up the various strands of a Smart City? Well, consider the underlying infrastructure: fibre, power and heat all need to go in the ground so if deployment is co-ordinated, through shared trenching, disruption can be significantly reduced.

Furthermore, fibre rollout requires street cabinets, a number of which will be powered; this combination of trenching and power is ideal for EV rollout. Hence benefits can be achieved, for example, by designing the fibre route and powered cabinet positioning via taxi ranks and parking to support rapid charger deployment. Or consider heat networks, these require power, as do fast chargers. Can benefits be gleamed from co-locating e.g. around bus depots or charging hubs?

Due to increasing densification in city centres it is getting ever more difficult to reinforce the underlying power grid to meet demand. This can lead to situations where development potential is subdued by the prohibitive cost of providing power. However, operating heat, power and EV charging as part of an integrated energy system has the potential to alleviate some of these issues.

The above measures, coupled with adoption of new technologies, may well see power bottlenecks eradicated completely. SSE is currently trialling Graphene-based solar generation that can be panel, glass or building cladding. It has an efficiency of circa 54%. This is around three times the world best output from standard PV panels. Using this technology, buildings will become net generators, supporting neighbouring load, enabling rollout of Rapid EV charging and providing the power needed for heat pumps to warm the buildings. However, this can only be achieved by joining up silos through the introduction of smart systems that control assets, smooth peaks and troughs and manage customer behaviours.

Moving away from energy, more or less all cities have aspirations to rollout ultra-fast broadband yet the cost of reaching every home is challenging. To address this SSE Enterprise Telecoms has taken the innovative step of running fibre through the sewers, thus providing significant discount on trenching costs and improving viability. By breaking out of the sewer at key points and connecting to street lights the signal can be propagated using microwave technology daisy chaining down the street and subsequently beaming out into the home. Although not fibre to the home, the bandwidth deployable will be substantial.

Giving fibre investors the rights to commercialise the lamp posts improves the business case further by introducing wider smart city revenue potential such as 4G infill and 5G. Depending on how the deal is structured, this could also develop a further revenue stream for the authority. Where authorities have significant funding challenges, the fibre initiative could be integrated with a Lighting as a Service model (which sees the LED street light conversion taken off balance sheet). Both are safe asset investments and as a combined offer the potential is substantial.

Linking such fibre initiatives with smart lighting platforms presents further opportunities. Smart lighting providers, such as SSE’s Mayflower, are extending their offering into additional services such as smart parking, assisted living and air quality monitoring in order to exploit their underlying narrow band communications networks. For example, narrow band for sensors and monitors to support assisted living and fibre to support video GP appointments, diagnostics and counselling. Such communications into the home can alleviate loneliness by enabling social prescribing and befriending volunteer networks.

To answer the “Why” and fully grasp smart city benefits takes vision. The final challenge is then the “How” and most notably from a political and not technical viewpoint. Smart city building blocks span silos. To bring them together requires these silos to be broken down, which in turn requires strong leadership from the top.

 

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