We marked a milestone on October 31, 2011 by hitting a human population total of 7 billion. Most of the world’s population lives in cities, and nations have been planning to make them as livable, sustainable, and resource-efficient as possible. For instance, China now has more than 220 cities that number over a million inhabitants. Contrast that to the USA, which has 9 cities and 41 urban counties that reach that mark, or Europe which has 35 such population centers. More than 100 Chinese cities including Beijing and Shanghai have signed on to projects to build smart cities – which
leverage Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) to build egovernment infrastructures that deliver cost-effective and convenient services to citizens. Smart cities, like Smart Grids, are subsets of the Internet of Things (IoT), and China and Europe have much activity ongoing in forms of policy development, standards development, and actual pilots while the USA lags behind.

Regardless of global location, culture, or language, smart city projects share a few fundamental characteristics:

1. Exploration and comprehension of citizen needs and expectations for service delivery – to ensure citizen engagement.

2. Need for systems thinking - business process reengineering and realignments must be done as a complete ecosystem.

3. Reliance on ICT – particularly in sensors and actuators to monitor and control environments as well as cloud computing.

Presenters at the uWorld conference in Dalian reinforced the importance of communications to ensure success of smart city projects and agreed that this is the most important and most difficult challenge to address. One project called the Smart Aarhus Initiative is getting underway in the second-largest city in Denmark, and will embed technology and business process changes as part of planned urban upgrades.

According to Martin Brynskov, assistant professor at Aarhus University in charge of this project, these upgrades include major overhauls of the waterfront area, creation of a large hospital complex, and new urban housing. Brynskov noted that “project planners must ensure that ICT choices interoperate with legacy infrastructure; define data collection and useful analytics for effective operations; and build and maintain citizen engagement. And beyond mere engagement, citizens must be enlightened with education to understand the timelines of long-term projects and the alignments of civic, business and personal interests to project milestones.”

In China, many smart city projects start with the buildout of a cloud computing center, which reflects the focus that this nation’s projects put on sensor networks and volumes of data. Wuxi, also known as “little Shanghai” in the Jiangsu province is working on a national sensor network demonstration as part of their IoT pilot. Sensor applications include environmental sensing for air or water quality monitoring to wireless signaling between buses and bus stops to accurately communicate bus arrival times. If you’ve seen traffic in some of the cities in China, you understand that this is an important bit of information.

What was particularly telling is that even the most technical resources at the conference understood that technology alone can’t improve urban living unless it is embraced by its constituents. The common consensus among the conference attendees was that of all challenges, communications to educate constituents about smart city projects s will be the toughest obstacle to success. Smart city projects are lengthy and complex, and defy simple soundbites to explain the impacts to citizens when oftentimes impacts themselves organically evolve and transform over time. These projects don’t always offer up the “quick wins” that are a hallmark of successful long-term projects conducted in private enterprises. “We used to take decades to build a cathedral, and we need to take long views again to set expectations about smart city projects”, said Brynskov.

It’s no surprise that smart city projects – other microcosms of the IoT - mirror the characteristics and challenges of Smart Grid projects. There’s been more than enough digital ink spilled in postmortems about utilities in the USA that haven’t always performed well in understanding their constituents or communicating with them, and haven’t reoriented their processes to be consumer-centric. The bottom line is that for any project – whether it is Smart Grid, smart city, reducing energy consumption, or an IoT initiative – project goals need to be defined and communicated in terms that will be understood by some subset of 7 billion people.