This article first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of OnWindows.
Thousands of delegates headed to Barcelona in November to discover the latest ideas and innovations at the Smart City Expo World Congress 2015. Microsoft’s CityNext initiative was a major draw, showcasing solutions from 42 partners that are empowering governments, businesses and citizens to create more sustainable, prosperous and economically competitive cities. A number of key themes emerged during the three-day event, reflecting hot topics for cities around the world and the wealth of solutions available to address them.
Digitising the city was a common theme in many conversations. “There is a growing movement to use phone data, CCTV and sensors to help create a real-time digital experience of a city,” says Paul Hart, director of government marketing at Microsoft. “If you can digitise the analogue, you can digitise the city, and now we’re seeing the application of the internet of things (IoT), smart apps and the amazing ability of the cloud to store, manipulate and analyse the massive volumes of data. For example, there are mobile apps that enable citizens and their phones to act as the sensor and digitiser, taking a photo of an issue such as pot-holes or graffiti and sending data to the relevant authority to fix the problem. Now, we are seeing innovations that can detect issues without having to rely on humans. Cameras and sensors constantly detect and monitor things such as vehicle and crowd movements, air quality, building energy usage and the availability of parking places. And with machine learning analysing the data stream to spot patterns, anomalies and predict outcomes, the city gets smarter.”
Smart use of automatically captured data, and the appropriate privacy treatment of this data, can enable more inclusive interaction between the city and its citizens, says Hart. “Smart technology helps attract a vibrant population to the city either to live and work or just to visit, but cities also need to make sure everybody – not just social media savvy users, or those who can afford technology – is included. Innovations need to benefit all sectors of a city society, enabled by the software, analytics and cloud technologies that make it all viable. That can help those with different needs, such as older generations, to interact and benefit.”
Tourism was also a hot topic at the event, as cities look for ways not only to attract visitors, but also to inspire them to spend money. “Many cities have a dependency on tourism to drive their economy,” explains Hart. “If your city’s residents visit other places during vacations and spend their money elsewhere, it’s imperative to balance that by attracting high spending visitors to your city. We had a lot of demonstrations of proximity-based apps that respond when you arrive in the city and tell you where to get a coffee, taxi, bus or where to stay, as well as apps that help to guide crowds around the city and its attractions.
“For example, delegates were able to see how CityNext Partner Bismart has worked with Microsoft, Barcelona City Council and the Sagrada Família to transform the visitor experience by enabling the analysis of massive amounts of real-time data from the city’s IoT sensors. Insights from that data enable the Smart Destination app to help tourists and city residents plan their Barcelona itinerary based on their interests, budget and available time.”
With so much emphasis on the movement of large numbers of people, transportation was another major highlight. “There was a lot of focus on enabling green transportation, from bicycles to trains and, of course, cars,” says Hart. “The challenge of cars sparked discussions around traffic management and parking. We saw a lot of activity around using sensors to address these issues and visitors were able to explore Altran’s IoT-enabled car at the Microsoft booth.”
Security is a top concern for cities, and public safety was high on the agenda. “Security of the population and visitors is a vital ingredient for a good economy,” says Hart. “We saw a lot of solutions for public safety, including the ‘first responder’ exhibit at the Microsoft booth, where our partners demonstrated how technology trends such as cloud computing, body-worn cameras, CCTV, digital evidence management, analytics and public safety broadband are revolutionising solutions in this space.”
The strength of Microsoft CityNext was amply illustrated at the 2015 World Smart City Awards, which numbered several Microsoft partners among the finalists. The Innovative Idea Award was presented to Findeter for its Digital Diamond project in partnership with Microsoft Citynext partner Fundación Metrópoli and Microsoft. The project combines urban intelligence with digital technology to enable competitiveness and eco-development in Colombia.
Across the event, there was clear evidence of the innovation and expertise that is making the smart city vision a reality. “The smart city is a subject that generates a lot of imaginative future thinking, technology innovation and aspirations for positive societal impact, equality and sustainability,” concludes Hart. “But it’s clear from this year’s Smart City Expo World Congress that we are now moving beyond the hope and aspiration and into execution and delivery mode.”
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