Navigant Research Blog

The Smart City Operating System

— March 26, 2012

Following on my recent blog I am returning to the concept of the city-as-platform. The idea was raised by Chicago City CTO, John Tolva, in an excellent review of Chicago’s open data projects, and starts with the provision of an open application programming interface (API) to the city’s data portal. Developers can use this to receive a continually updated stream of city data without manually refreshing their applications each time changes happen in the feed.  As Tolva says, this changes the city from a static provider of data to a kind of platform for application development. In turn, this leads to a rethinking of government’s role in the smart city, moving from being a prime developer to providing a foundation for others to build upon.

A number of other projects can be considered as developing a view of the city-as-platform including:

  • The SmartSantander sensor network trial in Santander, Spain is looking to provide a common platform for a range of sensor-based applications. Barcelona is developing something similar with its Urban Labs pilots in the 22@Barcelona development. A number of start-ups are developing solutions for this new architecture, including Urbiotica with its “City Operating Systems” for sensor network management.
  • The integrated networking services that are a core part of the Songdo IBD development in Korea are designed on a platform concept.  Cisco is building on its experience with the Songdo network to position the Cisco Unified Service Delivery Platform as an IT and communications platform for city-scale developments.
  • Living PlanIT’s Urban Operating System a distributed middleware platform that provides monitoring and control over a network of intelligent devices, some of which may be buried in the city infrastructure.
  • IBM’s Intelligent Operations Center for Smarter Cities is providing the basis for a number of smart city projects, as in Zhenjiang, China and in Rio de Janeiro, where it’s the foundation for a wider range of customer-driven City applications

The technical architectures and commercial models behind these approaches differ considerably, but they all aim to provide a development platform on which city agencies, suppliers and third-parties can build new applications and services for city management and citizen engagement.

In our model for smart cities, we refer to these multiple capabilities as the Smart City Operating System  (SCOS).  The SCOS is not a single technical solution.  Instead, it consists of a number of different approaches to finding a means of making the smart city more than the sum of its parts.  To do that, it has to draw together diverse and ubiquitous systems. It is therefore not a single unified system itself but more a “platform of platforms,” acting as a distributed middleware for linking different application areas – what engineering consultancy Arup calls an “urban information architecture.” The city-as-platform concept also offers an alternative to thinking of the smart city as either a top-down or bottom-up project. One criticism of the smart city concept is that it is driven by a vision of grand projects suited to large property developers and global ICT companies. The early focus on smart cities was certainly more top-down as a result of the attention paid to ambitious new developments like Masdar and Songdo and also to the strong support offered by the likes of IBM and Cisco.  The rapid adoption of the smartphone as an intelligent end-user device and the growing importance of the Apple and Android apps markets has encouraged a resurgence of a more bottom-up view of the potential of urban computing platforms.

These different perspectives on city technology echo long-running debates about the nature of city planning, in particular Jane Jacobs’ famous counter-blast to the centralizing, mechanistic view of much 20th century urban planning. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs helped restore an appreciation of the messy, human, dynamic, and highly contingent, aspects of city living. The city-as-platform concept is a way for cities to encourage bottom up innovation while still making the necessary investments in the large-scale operational and infrastructure systems needed to meet the challenges of the future.

 

Middle East Tensions Point to Clean Energy Solutions

— March 21, 2012

In his March 15 “State of Energy” address, President Obama strongly defended his clean energy policies and ridiculed Republicans like Newt Gringrich, who has referred to Obama as “President Algae” for his support of R&D on biofuels.

Referring to “a lot of the folks who are running for a certain office,” Obama said, “They dismiss wind power.  They dismiss solar power.  They make jokes about biofuels. They were against raising fuel standards. I guess they like gas-guzzlers.  If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail, they probably must have been founding members of the flat earth society.”

In a fair world, this ought to be an optimistic time for U.S. energy supplies and security.  Natural gas production is surging to record highs, even as the price of natural gas remains low; the United States last year became a net exporter of petroleum products for the first time since the late 1940s; the number of operating oil rigs has quadrupled in the last year or so; prices for solar photovoltaics continue their rapid falls; the U.S. economic recovery is gathering steam, benefiting the oil majors and opening up new opportunity for clean energy innovation.

The world, however, is not fair.  Oil futures rose again last week as the possibility of military action against Iran – once considered a Strangeloveian fantasy – took on an ominous air of inevitability.  Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows has been charting the “Iran Drumbeat Watch” in his blog and recent installments have been alarming, if you credit sources who point to, among other things, naval deployments (the Enterprise Strike Group has sailed, the Navy is doubling the number of minesweepers in the Persian Gulf, etc.)  As a result, average gas prices hit $3.80 a gallon and show no signs of moderating.  Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron reportedly discussed tapping each country’s strategic petroleum reserves in their meetings last week.

Unfortunately, pouring more oil onto the U.S. market wouldn’t do much about gas prices at the pump, which are driven by worldwide market forces.  And if you think four dollar-a-gallon gas is eye-opening, just wait and see what happens if, say, Israel launches an air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.  “I think you will see $5- and $6-a-gallon gas,” energy consultant Andrew Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates, told Washington political blog The Hill.  Other analysts went even further: a doubling of gas prices in the United States is well within the realm of possibility if the Israel-Iran conflict breaks out, the Iranians begin blocking oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, and the U.S. finds itself dragged in.

The possible worst-case scenarios, according to former White House counterterrorism director Richard Clarke, include “a huge energy crisis,” terror attacks in U.S. cities, cyber-attacks on U.S. power grids and oil refineries, and other equally sobering thoughts.

From the clean energy perspective there’s only one immediate response: it’s a lot harder to disrupt distributed solar arrays, biofuel plants, and wind farms (not to mention natural gas plants running on domestic supplies) on U.S. territory than it is to blow up an oil tanker in the Persian Gulf.  The shift to domestically produced, renewable sources of energy would be the single greatest boon to national security any presidential administration could deliver.  The governments in Jerusalem and Tehran could deal a serious blow to Barack Obama’s re-election prospects by launching a regional war that drives a worldwide spike in oil prices.  Such a disastrous conflict, though, would likely also spark rising public demand for and renewed political acceptance of new and less vulnerable energy supplies.  Speaking in Boulder City, Nevada, on March 21st on a Western swing to promote his energy policies, President Obama once again affirmed his support for clean energy technologies.  It’s a message that resonates more powerfully as tensions mount in the Middle East.

 

Smart Grid Communications’ Awkward Adolescence

— March 21, 2012

While communications technology was used in the electrical grid long before we started labeling it as “smart,” integration of these communications networks into a common fabric is an essential characteristic of the smart grid.  This integration requires adapting existing standards or creating new ones to meet the specific needs of the grid applications.  That process is well underway – as documented in Pike Research’s new report, Smart Grid Networking and Communications.

There are two particular areas of progress to note: the evolution of a standards-based radio frequency (RF) mesh network for field area networks, and broader mainstream adoption of cellular communications.

The RF mesh network used for AMI networks and some distribution automation applications has historically been one of the most proprietary domains of grid communications.  Silver Spring Networks carved out a leadership position in the wave of AMI deployments starting in 2008-2009 by offering an IPv6-based system.  However, due to a lack of available standards, the radio and mesh protocols underneath the IP-layers remained proprietary.  The IEEE and IETF, with the participation of many of AMI vendors, embarked on development of the appropriate standards embodied in IEEE 802.15.4g , 6loWPAN , and RPL specifications.  Even as these were jelling, Cisco and Itron partnered (leveraging the Arch Rock technology acquired by Cisco) to develop a fully standard AMI network implementation, which was finally unveiled at the beginning of this year.  Virtually every other AMI vendor has released IP-based roadmaps and meters promising the flexibility to be “IEEE 802.15.4g ready.”

In parallel with the emerging standardization of private field networks, public cellular technology is making significant gains, supported by broader 4G technology availability, more focused (and cost-effective) offerings by carriers, and more open cellular-based systems provided by vendors.  SmartSynch won one of the largest AMI deals in the United States at Consumers Energy, and was ultimately acquired by Itron.  RF Mesh innovator Silver Spring Networks released its Gen4 lineup featuring seamless private/public network integration, which may allow greater access to markets outside North America and Australia.
Though multivendor, standards-based, interoperable RF mesh networks and bullet-proof cellular offerings may not be quite here yet, we are getting very close.  Some of the vendor solutions still have all the grace of pimply-faced teenagers, but it is clear that the trends identified in 2009 are becoming reality.

On March 27-28 I will chair the “Smart Communications for Energy Management 2012” conference, created by our friends at Smart Grid Update, in Atlanta.  A solid collection of leading vendors and utilities will gather to examine the issues around smart grid communications implementations, roadmaps, and standards.  Join us if you can.

 

Maturing Cleantech Sector Faces Tough Questions

— March 15, 2012

In today’s maturing cleantech marketplace, cleantech companies are going to increasingly face resistance and deeper questions about their products, and should be prepared.  By no means have cleantech companies gotten a free pass on the health, environmental, and safety side of the ledger to date – but in general, it’s fair to say that the view of the general public, led by early adopters and advocacy groups, was that cleantech installations = carbon reduction = good.  But now that cleantech has moved (in the view of the general public) from an intangible intellectual and political exercise to the public’s backyard, many are asking, “How clean is clean technology?”

There is no complete answer to this question, but the trend is clear: The more that wind farms and other cleantech installations become part of the landscape, the more of an uptick we’ll see in the number of spectacular technology failures, accidents, complaints, and research into the effects of living with these new technologies at scale.  One of the most interesting trends in the 2010 and 2011 editions of Pike Research’s Energy & Environment Consumer Survey was the eroding support among consumers for clean energy concepts.  As with any ubiquitous technology, these issues are inevitable and they will have to be adequately addressed at risk of delaying or delaying or permanently damaging an entire industry.  The issues generally fall into the following categories:

  • Feedstocks & fuel sources: Corn-based ethanol is the poster child for the importance of considering the full lifecycle of a fuel and the dangers of reallocating agricultural land.  Similarly, although plug-in electric and hybrid-electric vehicles are head and shoulders cleaner than gasoline, even when powered by coal power, in some cases plug-in electric vehicles produce more GHG emissions than hybrid electric vehicles.  Furthermore, the growing demand for lithium to make advanced batteries is resulting in a flurry of mining interest in remote parts of Bolivia that could pose serious human rights and environmental issues.
  • Manufacturing processes & labor practices: As more and more cleantech manufacturing is ramping up in China, will companies ensure their facilities maintain similar levels of worker safety as in the US or Europe? The American public briefly looked up from their iPhones to take notice of investigations into Foxconn’s poor labor practices, and workplace conditions could be damaging to many companies if similar conditions are discovered at cleantech manufacturing facilities.
  • Siting & malfunctions: The desert tortoise (and the importance of its habitat) stalled the installation of massive solar farms in the Mojave Desert, pitting former allies against each other as environmental NGOs and clean-tech developers sparred for years.  Also, several rare but catastrophic wind turbine failures have resulted in mounting opposition to new developments in many communities around the world.
  • Public health & product recycling: Companies rely on potentially toxic chemicals, including mercury for compact fluorescent light bulbs, cadmium telluride for thin film solar panels, and cadmium for batteries, to drive down costs and increase efficiencies.  Numerous independent and government studies have concluded that these technologies are safe when used correctly and company recycling programs are adequate.   But as solar becomes a commodity and we increasingly look to batteries for storing renewable energy, the potential for public health concerns mount.

None of these are close to being deal-breakers for cleantech, and the impact on the planet of NOT installing clean technologies at scale and quickly far outweigh the risks of doing so.  Still, the industry must address these critical issues if it wants to reduce costs and avoid potential pitfalls and political blowback.

 

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