Cities of today are increasingly being populated with new digital artifacts. Sensors, displays and networks constitute the eyes, face and nervous system of the digital city. Vertical departments, such as transportation, parks, or cleaning buy and deploy their own “smart” management systems, each with a different technology of sensors, networks, databases and software.
A year ago, we published an article that stated the need to deploy a new infrastructure capable of collecting and storing all sort of signals from various and different sources in a coherent way. This new infrastructure might be just as simple as an integration bus that polls sensors and sends information to a database, or as complex as a system capable of providing comprehensive business intelligence, a complete city performance dashboard and, ultimately, a data-driven decision system.
However, we live in an uncertain world that moves astonishingly fast, and cities are no exception. Agile methodologies and lean start-up thinking teach us the advantages of quick prototyping and early failure. Besides, we are skeptical about data-driven automatic decision systems. Unless somebody proves otherwise, humans are still the smartest part of the smart city. Thus when it comes to smart city horizontal platforms, “keep it simple” would be a first key message.
Another important criteria to consider would be interoperability. Let’s face it, with every smart city department deploying their own management systems, every city of the world will become a true babel tower of sensors, protocols and languages in the next few years. And there is very little one can do about it. Thus the battle is not homogeneity but interoperability. And if your integration bus is open as in “open source”, then you will not be probably alone in this battle; there is a chance that your interests coincide with those of the community.
Some of the most sophisticated urban platforms in the market promise to behave as the true operating system of the city, or the “brain” of the smart city. We still believe that us, citizens, are the brain of the smart city, and we don’t feel entirely comfortable, to be honest, with the fact that an IT giant monitors and controls our daily errands. Cities can not be built without the IT industry, but it would not be wise to let the IT industry run cities.
As our friend Anthony Townsend puts it in its last book “Smart Cities”, cities need urban platforms that act like a web more than like an operating system, tools that “create more opportunity for competition and make it easier to new players to bring innovation to market”, so, he concludes, “when you create urban software, make it simple, modular, and open source […]”
As part of our roadmap to a smart, open source city, we are evaluating Sentilo, a sensor management platform used by Barcelona, the city that was recently awarded with the European innovation capital award. It’s simple, it’s working, it’s powered by a growing community of cities, vendors and developers, and it’s open source. It’s worth giving it a try.