31/01/2017 09:52 GMT | Updated 01/02/2018 05:12 GMT

Smart Cities Won't Get Smart On Their Own

Smart cities have won a lot of headlines recently with various independent projects popping up. But what about the possibility of a smart Europe? As the phenomenon picks up momentum the EU is trying to accelerate smart city deployment across the region by aiding development of open standards that aim to help manage data flow in cities by 2020.

One of these initiatives, BIoTope, is an EU-backed project aiming to create a 'habitat' for the internet of things (IoT) by 'building an IoT open innovation ecosystem for connected smart objects'. BIoTope is attempting to create standardised APIs that 'enable the publication, consumption and composition of heterogeneous information sources and services from across various IoT data platforms'. Essentially, the idea is to allow different smart objects to talk to each other.

From the EU's perspective, the expectation is that companies can then innovate with minimal investment to create systems-of-systems (SoS) platforms for smart objects. Businesses wanting to enter the smart city space will not have to invest as much time creating the architecture that enables horizontal interoperability between vertical silos. Using these APIs should allow firms to create applications that immediately fit into a cities 'application puzzle' without worrying about how a traffic light management program may interfere with a parking space allocation program for instance.

Think of it in terms of building a shopping centre. What BIoTope aims to achieve is the shell of the property, which will enable companies to build their shops inside supported by the existing infrastructure. This frees up development time to be able to write applications without having to worry about the language they'll talk to other smart objects in. Of course, there will still be other barriers to entry such as the quality of connectivity, sensor technology and most importantly, investment capital.

But the big question is whether these isolated projects will actually make a difference? Often such projects are outpaced by innovations in the private sector. There's nothing to stop a big player in the market with greater resources from rushing a solution to market that could threaten the longer-term strategic view of an initiative like BIoTope.

Even if a private solution is slower to market there's nothing to say that it wouldn't be adopted quicker by the rest of the players in the market or simply just be better than what the EU can provide. To continue the analogy, if developers are already building pop-up shops or find a better home for their applications they simply won't need the shopping centre.

There are three BIoTope pilots in Europe using the APIs bringing together local developer communities, across Helsinki, Brussels and Lyon. As the old adage goes 'many hands make light work' and BIoTope is bringing developers together in these cities and across seven projects in total to share knowledge and experience in creating the system-of-systems. Other objectives of BIoTope are to establish a clear framework for security, privacy and trust that facilitates the responsible access, use, and ownership of data in the IoT.

But just assume BIoTope does manage to address all of these problems before the private sector does; what does the limiting factor then become in smart city deployment?

You need to dig down a further layer, to the underlying network. Once all the applications have been developed and more use cases built, the focus - as with the wider internet at present - will move to the gigabit connectivity that's needed to support these applications.

Significant bandwidth is needed to connect an entire city to its smart object endpoints and 5G is the most likely candidate here, given that wireless is really the only solution for connecting millions of cars and other static objects such as traffic lights. But the biggest consideration is what happens when this data hits the base station and antennae. Experts predict the amount of backhaul antennas connected directly to a data centre by gigabit-enabled connections will need to increase between five and ten fold to carry the additional traffic.

A city is a living entity and network traffic cannot always be predicted, thus software defined networking (SDN) should be incorporated in order to create flexible and agile connectivity. SDN will allow dynamic traffic routing increasing speed and reducing latency. Furthermore SDN also enables superfast network provisioning which will allow smart cities to rapidly expand to new areas and add capacity.

There are many pieces to the smart city puzzle, and many more still to fall into place. And a generic focus on APIs like BIoTope will not work without being driven by key private initiatives backed up by a strong telco infrastructure.