Making cities smarter

Michael Mulquin, Chair of SyC Smart cities details how the IEC can help cities become smarter

Quayside, a waterfront district in Toronto, is advertised as the first city to be "built from the Internet up".  A joint partnership between Google Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, Quayside seeks to leverage new technology to address urban challenges and improve quality of life.

Michael Mulquin speaking at the IEC Council Open Session on smart cities
Michael Mulquin speaking at the IEC Council Open Session on smart cities

This is one of the many cities in the world which is seeking to use technology in order to enhance city services. Research organizations frequently publish their rankings of the 'smartest cities in the world'. Yet because each ranking is based on different sets of criteria, the results are often dissimilar. Widespread consensus does not yet exist on how to define a smart city or measure its degree of 'smartness'.

At the recent IEC General Meeting, Michael Mulquin, Chair of the Systems Committee (SyC) on Smart cities, spoke about the role of IEC and how standards can help cities become smarter.

Defining a smart city

Mulquin defines a smart city as a "city where improvements in quality of life, services sustainability and resilience are accelerated by the widespread and transformative use of data and technology".

Data are the foundation of a smart city. The Internet of Things (IoT) provides the ability to easily and cheaply collect data and, using algorithms, it is possible to analyze the data in real-time in order to formulate an overall picture of what is going on in a given area and how it can be improved. According to Mulquin, "citizens can enjoy the benefits of data and technology to know more and lead better lives".

Many cities have already begun introducing 'smart technologies' to, for example, improve transport, support businesses or monitor air quality. However, variations exist between cities given that they each have their own priorities and different speeds at which they can introduce change. For this reason, Mulquin suggests the use of a smart city benchmarking maturity model.

City challenges

From the canals of Amsterdam to the traffic gridlock in Bangkok, each city has its own peculiarities and challenges. As Mulquin recognizes, cities are all unique. Consider the vast differences – in terms of climate and culture - between the cities of Moscow, Rio de Janero and Shanghai.

Cities are also very complicated. They are comprised of many different systems that interact with each other in many different ways. It is not possible to separate the economy from the education, health or transport systems. Society, both civil society and government, is replete with interactions which are influenced by the surroundings including infrastructure and the environment. Mulquin remarked that, "any change made to one system will have a wider impact and affect many other systems as well".

Yet, despite the peculiarities and complications, cities are all required to deliver the same set of services - such as shelter, water, education and security – to their residents. "Cities must also address similar challenges," noted Mulquin, "whether extreme weather conditions or inward migration". Recognizing their commonalities on issues like climate change, many cities have set up initiatives, such as the Global Parliament of Mayors and the C40 Cities, where they can share experiences and work together.

Cities also benefit from the same advances in technology including digital connectivity and the availability of large volumes of data that can be analyzed.

Transformative solutions

Smart cities require transformative solutions. "Smart solutions are not about simply replacing one element with another that is merely better, or faster or cheaper", remarked Mulquin. Rather, smart solutions are introduced when "new uses of technology or data changes the way things are done". He added that "this transformation requires a change throughout the stack and interoperability at every layer".

Standards can help cities to transform. Already, standards help cities work by providing the framework on which basic infrastructure such as electricity grids and transport networks are built. At a next level, standards can be used to develop common approaches that enable incremental improvements through synergies. They can provide cost savings, efficiency and support sharing. Ultimately, smart city standards can enable fundamental changes in the way that a city functions. The development of this package of standards will address the transformation. According to Mulquin, "cities can use standards as building blocks to become smarter".

IEC activities

In 2015, the IEC set up a Systems Committee (SyC) on Smart cities with the objective of coordinating the electrotechnical systems Standards that are needed to move cities towards greater connectivity, efficiency and safety. Specifically, this SyC will work together with IEC technical committees and other system committees to develop overarching smart city standards as well as ensure that existing standards adapted from the needs of cities.

Mulquin recognizes that SyC Smart cities will need to collaborate with the many stakeholders, including other international standardization bodies to develop coherent packages of city standards as well as city groups, such as governments and industry, to better understand key city needs. For Mulquin, it will be essential to "develop an active pool of experts to bring in wider expertise".

Alongside its physical meetings, SyC Smart cities is planning to organize workshops. The next one will be held in Varanasi in partnership with the Bureau of Indian Standards.