Want to be a smart city? Study hard

Article By : Brian Santo

Busan, South Korea is wiring itself for the IoT, but remaining at the forefront among international smart cities will require doing more homework.

Cities looking to take advantage of the IoT often lack the required expertise. They tend to have to rely on university, governmental, and corporate partners to help advance their smart-city plans. With this in mind, IBM began its Smarter Cities Challenge project in 2010, and over the years has sent 4,000 employees to work with over 130 cities worldwide in 40 different countries to provide exactly that sort of help. I recently spoke with a member of the IBM team that participated in a Smarter Cities Challenge project in Busan, South Korea.

There are hundreds of cities around the world that are striving to become smart cities. Busan (formerly rendered Pusan) stands out for being one of the few overtly branding itself as a smart city, and promoting itself as such. It recently put its smart city aspirations front-and-center on its official web page.

Busan dates its smart-city roots to a technological roadmap adopted in 2005 that started with plans for modern infrastructure, including building a high-speed broadband network (completed in 2007), the rollout of free Wi-Fi access, and the subsequent integration of a CCTV system with its network. In 2011-12, the city landed a data center cluster. The city’s own network complements commercial networks in the country, both wired and wireless; South Korea is one of the most well-connected societies in the world.

The city long ago established four broad smart-city categories it wished to pursue:

  1. Transportation & tourism infrastructure
  2. Reducing energy consumption/green technology
  3. Disaster management and public safety
  4. Citizen programs/quality of life

Starting in 2006, Busan has initiated dozens of IoT projects that build on the city’s broadband infrastructure. Smart parking is one, and a program for helping to track missing children is another. In 2014, Busan looked to further its smart city ambitions through a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with SK Telecom and Cisco that opened the door for ongoing collaboration on IoT projects.

When it recently applied and was selected for IBM’s most recent Smarter Cities Challenge, Busan had to choose what specific thing to ask the IBM team to focus on. It chose disaster management. (The other four 2017 selections were Palermo, Italy; San Isidro, Argentina; San Jose, California; and Yamagata City, Japan.)

IBM assembles cross-disciplinary teams of volunteers and sends them to perform an audit of candidate city’s needs and draw up an action plan. Each project takes three weeks from beginning to end. Tony Arcuri was a member of the team IBM sent to Busan. Arcuri, originally a software developer, now helps IBM integrate the software development companies it acquires.

The city of Busan is built up against hills and along South Korea’s largest river, at the point where it meets the sea, which makes it prone to several types of natural disasters. “In the case of Busan, their interest was around disaster management. They’ve had a couple of events in recent years where they had some challenges to their responsiveness. They wanted to focus on how to improve on that,” Arcuri said.

“They came in with a decent foundation. They had an organization, they had some good collaboration across the services involved with emergency management – fire, rescue, police. They had a control center. They were monitoring several points with CCTV. They were focused on flooding; they were focused on landslides. They were also interested in disasters that might come up. What if there was a fire in a large building? What if there was an earthquake? They have some nuclear plants that are relatively close. They asked IBM to come in and evaluate their approach.”

The IBM team took a week and a half to research, and spent another week and a half to draft recommendations. The city had sensors in place, but they weren’t collecting metadata. City bureaus weren’t able to analyze what they had, so IBM recommended implementing analytics. The team also recommended adding more sensors, “particularly with flooding and weather data; they didn’t have a lot of sensors in the water. Their nuclear sensing activity was already very good. We recommended building on top of all of that,” Arcuri said.

“Besides the technological aspects, the sensors, and utilizing the analytics, we suggested better forecasting. We wanted them to utilize the data they gather and then share it to improve responses,” Arcuri added.

The IBM team also suggested further leveraging communications capabilities already in place. “Everybody is extremely well connected in Korea. Everyone has a smartphone. Wi-Fi infrastructure is virtually ubiquitous. It’s easy to effectively communicate, but they weren’t really taking advantage of reaching out and gaining mindshare, in terms of how to deal with disaster management, prior to a disaster – being prepared for an event, training, and education,” Arcuri said.

With improved sensing and analytics, it would be possible to see potential problems developing, and then use geo-location capabilities inherent in smartphones to prioritize and deliver warnings directly to people in areas where the risk is highest.

The difficulty of scraping up funding for any new municipal project is an existential concern for cities. Another is locating the requisite expertise for more complicated projects. Doing both might be especially difficult when the project is multi-year, technology-based, and can conceivably involve literally every single municipal bureau and service. In short, any city that aspires to become a smart city will always have to scrap for resources.

I asked Arcuri about the extent to which those concerns factored in to IBM’s recommendations for Busan. “We identified the need for a more in-depth relationship with an IT consultant, so they can better understand what their potential is, and understand what kind of investment they can make,” he said. “With cities there are limited budgets, so there has to be a strong catalyst. It might be an event that causes a focus on it, or maybe a single individual or set of individuals who can champion those activities."

“What I saw in Korea – it was very clear – there was a champion: the mayor,” Arcuri continued. “He appointed a director of public safety, and created a focus on disaster management. There was concerted effort to build an organization, and then work with universities, bring in resources, ideas, to work with central Korean government and leverage their investment.”

IoT is a grand concept, and therefore potentially a hard sell, even for a dedicated champion of the approach. But perhaps that might be a matter of perspective, Arcuri indicated. “A lot of cities might be strapped in terms of finances, balancing IoT against social services,” he said, “but sometimes it comes down to identifying long term value: improving traffic, making services easier to achieve, making services more accessible. It’s building mind share so the appropriate investment can be achieved.”

Busan is ahead of the game in South Korea, Arcuri said. The team suggested that if Busan is able to follow through on its plans for disaster management, it will help establish best practices that would be applicable not only in South Korea but around the world.

Busan, South Korea has already implemented dozens of IoT applications, and has plans for many more. The city is focusing on improving transportation systems, energy consumption, disaster response, and quality of life.

Brian Santo has been writing about science and technology for over 30 years, covering cable networks, broadband, wireless, the Internet of things, T&M, semiconductors, consumer electronics, and more.

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