This article was originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of The Record.
As more of the global population come to live in cities and megacities, cloud services are proving vital to help manage the pressures on resources, says Kat Willson, director of Cities Solutions at Microsoft.
“The cloud brings the ability to analyse urban systems, transport, electrical grids, water systems and building stock, along with the human aspects of cities, such as social care and education systems,” says Willson. “It makes things far more efficient and reveals opportunities to deliver new services that maybe we hadn’t thought of because we weren’t looking in the right way.”
The ability to get new information from existing data is a major benefit of cloud services in the administration of urban systems, she says. “The possibilities are really quite stunning in terms of being able to extract insight from the tsunami of data that our world is now creating.”
City decision makers are increasingly troubled by the prospect of demand for services outpacing supply – and it’s already happening in some US cities, says Willson. “We are seeing people leaving California; they just don’t want to spend four hours in their car every day trying to get to work because they can’t afford a house any closer. It’s going to have an impact on San Francisco and Los Angeles if people start to leave, and that will affect the sustainability of the cities.”
Fixing the resource problem is not a simple matter, but Willson believes that the cloud and in particular the Internet of Things (IoT) will be crucial in this process. “By taking the computational horsepower available in the cloud and adding to that the capabilities of the IoT, we can harness data scattered throughout our environment. Devices are becoming more intelligent over time, able to process data locally, for example within a traffic light or autonomous vehicle.”
The resulting possibility of enhanced situational awareness enables city planners to make informed decisions, says Willson. “Artificial intelligence, computer vision and machine learning offer techniques for turning data into something useful. Those are tools for insight we need to make systems run better than they do today.”
Microsoft’s CityNext technology portfolio has much to offer city planners in tackling the specific local challenges they face, she says.
“If you’re a city leader, you’re responsible for a lot of things: health, transportation, safety, water systems, buildings and infrastructure, services out of city hall, finance, tourism, recreation and culture. We’ve devised a portfolio of solutions from all over the world that spans 50 solution areas. Cities can find solutions and partners for their unique needs.
“In the UK, they might want to focus on social care for the elderly, while in Delhi they may need to really focus on traffic – or in the US, on emergency response in hurricane season. Cities have common problems but don’t always want to work on the same problem first.”
CityNext helps planners see how everything is connected in the real world, says Willson. “Transportation systems are connected to the built infrastructure which is connected to the electrical grid, and public safety systems flow through it all. Having a portfolio that provides that kind of breadth helps us connect digital infrastructure so we can access data, analyse it and solve problems.”
The concept of ‘smart cities’ already has a history, she points out, and city planners need to be ready for the next stage in its evolution.
“The world has been having this conversation for going on 15 years now. Cities are not just starting to adopt solutions but have been doing so for decades, even in the old ‘siloed’ systems before the internet. Yet even now, with the IoT and the barrage of devices and wave of data coming at us, we’ve got a myriad of solutions designed to address one problem, not connected to anything else. We now have to bring together all these isolated solutions and this firehose of data.”
So what’s the next wave going to look like for Microsoft? “We’re talking about the intelligent cloud and intelligent edge, to maximise the value of data we can share between systems with data privacy maintained,” says Willson. “For example, if the traffic lights have a relationship to autonomous cars and emergency response vehicles, then we will get more efficiency out of the system. Over the next 10-20 years, the next wave is going to be: how do we connect these systems together so that they operate as a fabric and give us even more insight?”
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