Verne Global

Tech Trends | Sustainability |

11 September 2017

Data centers are the foundation of 'Smart Cities'

Written by Adam Nethersole

Adam is Senior Director of Marketing at Verne Global and has worked within the area of sustainability for the last 15 years.

The 'smart city' is an approach to urban development that deeply integrates digital technology to make urban services more efficient, reduce resource consumption, and help facilitate communication between governments and citizens. The earliest smart city solutions were promoted by technology companies like Cisco and IBM, which were eager to bring their products and services to a new market.

These first-generation smart city solutions were technically forward-thinking, but often failed to produce substantive real-world outcomes. Over the last few years, a new wave of smart city investment, this time led by municipal governments, has brought the technologies further in-line with the needs of citizens, creating a renewed focus and optimism for the smart city concept. Today, the smart city is attracting major investment and support from governments, industry players, and private sector organisations including the UN, which launched the United for Smart Sustainable Cities (U4SSC) initiative in 2016.

While it is still too early to predict the extent to which smart cities will take hold across the globe, one thing is clear - data centers will be their foundation. Smart cities will generate huge amounts of data (which will grow exponentially) – so it is fundamental that they have both the technical infrastructure in place to store this increase in data and a suitable, abundant, reliable power supply to keep the everything working.

In a series of follow-up posts on smart cities, we’re going to take an in-depth look at some of the technologies that are most important to the smart city concept and see how they’re being used to improve the efficiency and sustainability of cities around the world. But first, we take a look at what’s driving the smart city movement and some of the key challenges for these ‘cities of the future’.

Rapid urbanisation and the resulting environmental problems are major factors. By the year 2050, it’s expected that at least 65% of the world’s population will live in urban areas that cover just 3% of the Earth’s surface. Because cities contain such a high percentage of the population, making them more efficient is a valuable opportunity to curtail man-made environmental damage, while also delivering a higher standard of living to a greater number of people.

Around the world, cities like Barcelona are leading this trend toward improved efficiency and livability. Since the former mayor of Barcelona, Xavier Trias, launched the “Smart City Barcelona” team to help spearhead new technological initiatives in the city, Barcelona has been boldly deploying big data and IoT technologies to make it smarter. One of the most successful of these applications, the ApparkB program, is a mobile phone app that helps drivers find and pay for parking in the city. Using the sensors installed in municipal parking spaces, drivers are able to use their mobile phones to locate and pay for empty spaces, which speeds up the parking process, saves fuel, and cuts emissions. The ApparkB system, which only requires motorists pay for the exact amount of time they used the space, has attracted over a half a million users in four years.

Singapore is another well-known hotbed for smart city development. Like many developed countries, the Singaporean population has a high proportion of elderly citizens. To help the younger generation maintain their duties to the older generation, without having to miss valuable work hours, the government there has rolled out an initiative called the Smart Elderly Monitoring Alarm (SEMAS). The system uses motion sensors that track the living habits of elderly relatives and alert caregivers via alarms and text messages when an irregular pattern is noticed. Since its trial in 2015, the programme has since been expanded from just a dozen or so homes to cover over 3,000 homes in one of Singapore’s largest public housing communities.

But these are just two examples of many. Elsewhere around the world, cities have started to use big data systems to process sensor data from water tunnels to make real-time decisions about municipal water usage, deploy smart street lights equipped with sensors that dim automatically to save energy, and make accurate predictions about the location of house fires and crime.

The demand for better cities is attracting huge investment in smart city technologies. According to Smart America, a partnership between Intel and The City of San Jose, investment in smart city technologies globally could be as high as $41 trillion dollars over the next twenty years. This explosive growth is already afoot. According to another report recently published by BCC Research, the smart city market reached $342.4 billion in 2016 and it’s projected to reach an estimated $774.8 billion by 2021, an overall growth rate of 17.7 percent. This rapid scale-up in investment presents a great opportunity for governments, as well private citizens and businesses.

Despite the growth and optimism, there are challenges on the road to smarter cities. As many municipalities across the United States and Europe operate on tight budgets, issues like financing and infrastructure are at the top of that list. Financing ambitious smart city initiatives will likely require a creative mix of investment from national governments, grants from academia, as well as private equity and VC sponsorship. Public-private partnerships are also a productive path for risk-averse government officials to modernise cities, as technology companies will sometimes share the cost of deployment in order to demonstrate value.

Other challenges include finding people with the technological skillsets to roll-out smart city solutions, public fears about reduced privacy, availability of utility services and broadband Internet (Barcelona and Singapore both have an admirably high broadband penetration rates), and ensuring that smart cities are inclusive and improve the lives of all citizens. And of course the challenge that most interests us at Verne Global is the necessity for smart cities to have a tailored data center strategy that balances current needs with the exponential growth in data. As smart cities grow in number and complexity they will place huge demands on the supply of data center and cloud resources. Smart city architects must consider data storage as a priority – at the foundation stage – and ensure that they put scalability, flexibility, security and future-proofing at the top of the list of smart city requirements.

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