Navigant Research Blog

Australia Picks Up the Smart City Challenge

— October 26, 2015

Recent U.S. government support for smart cities research and the announcement of the selected cities for the Indian smart city program are just two signs of the continuing momentum behind urban innovation across the globe. Such developments only increase the pressure on other national governments and city leaders to clarify their own programs and ambitions around urban development. Australia is a good example of how that pressure is hard to avoid.

Despite being one of the most urbanized countries in the world, with around 90% of the population living in urban areas, Australian cities have played a relatively subdued role in the development of smart city ideas. However, there have been a few high spots. The Smart Grid, Smart City project in Newcastle is one notable smart grid pilot attracting global attention, but despite positive results, the follow-up has been limited. Sydney and Melbourne have also been leaders in promoting building energy reporting and energy efficiency, and a number of cities also have sustainability goals, such as the Sustainable Sydney 2030 program. However, there has been little in the way of a significant focus on the issues of urban innovation and sustainability. A recent report from the Australian Council of Learned Academies, for example, highlights the need for Australian cities to put much greater emphasis on clean and efficient mobility solutions if they are to sustain their growth and citizen expectations.

Waking Up to the Challenges

That report is among a number of signs that Australian cities and the Australian federal government are waking up to the challenges presented by globalization and climate change, as well as the opportunities offered by new forms of urban innovation. Adelaide, for example, has launched a number of initiatives including the creation of an Internet of Things (IoT) hub in association with Cisco. Melbourne has recently created a new post of Chief Digital Officer to lead its Smart City Office and has also presented its plans to become a smart city to a committee of the Australian parliament. The federal government is also taking cities more seriously. The new prime minister appointed the first Minister for Cities and the Built Environment in September, reversing the lack of focus on urban development issues shown by the current government so far.

Despite the environmental goals set by some Australian cities, the country’s record on emissions reductions remains poor compared to other developed economies.  Australia has one of the worst records for per capita climate emissions, on a par with the United States. However, whereas the United States has been making reductions in recent years, Australia has done little to mitigate its emissions. The rejection of a number of clean and efficient energy programs by the previous prime minister has not improved the situation. Australian cities have the opportunity to pick up the baton and show there is a better way forward.


Slower Networks May Be the Answer for Cities, Utilities, and Buildings

— May 29, 2015

A communications technology that promises lower bandwidth and higher latency seems an unlikely proposition in an age when the demands for speed and capacity are rising inexorably. However, low-power wide area networks (LPWANs) are set to play an important role in expanding the possibilities for the Internet of Things (IoT) in cities, buildings, and utility networks. LPWANs are targeted at applications that have low or infrequent data throughputs but which benefit from low-cost modems (less than $5), cheap connectivity (a service cost of a few dollars per year), long-range access, deep penetration, and an extended battery life for devices (around 10 years on a standard battery).

LPWANs come in a number of flavors. In February of this year, the LoRa Alliance was launched by a group of technology suppliers and telecoms operators that support the LoRaWAN specification by developed semiconductor company, Semtech. Initial supporters of the Alliance include Cisco, IBM, Sagemcom, and Semtech, alongside telecoms such as Bouygues Telecom, KPN, SingTel, and Swisscom. One of the first project announcements is partnership between French IoT supplier Actility and Swisscom to deploy a LPWAN around the cities of Geneva and Zurich.

Other players in the LPWAN space are focusing on the evolution of 4G LTE standards that will enable low-cost, low-power communications to support machine-to-machine applications. Several telecoms and equipment providers have announced what is referred to as LTE-M projects, including Nokia and Korea Telcom. Vodafone has also announced its own low-power IoT service, dubbed the Cellular Internet of Things, which it has developed in partnership with Huawei.

Another significant LWPAN initiative comes from French communications company SIGFOX, which is working globally with network system operators to deploy LWPANs using its ultra-narrowband technology. In the United Kingdom, for example, Arqiva is rolling out a SIGFOX-compatible network to 10 cities initially.

Do the Pros Outweigh the Cons?

LWPANs offer the prospect of sensors and other intelligent devices being able to connect instantly into a communications network at a cost of a few dollars a year. LPWANs are suitable for applications where high bandwidth and low latency are less important. LPWANs are not suited, for example, to applications requiring high bandwidth (such as video streaming), low latency, or the continuous tracking of moving objects. LPWANs are largely complementary to existing network technologies, but may present competition to radio frequency (RF) mesh technologies for applications such as smart street lighting and smart parking, and even some forms of smart metering.

LPWANs allow for low-cost piloting and easy scaling of innovative applications. A supplier developing a smart city solution, for example, could quickly demonstrate the benefits of an application for air quality monitoring. Similarly, a utility could use a sensor connected to a LPWAN to monitor assets that lack local power (such as gas and water pipelines) or where the business case does not justify a more expensive solution. A facility manager could use LPWANs to fill gaps in their existing building management system or to retrofit sensors to older buildings.

The LPWAN market is in the innovation phase, where an explosion of different approaches is to be expected and indeed welcomed. However, multiple versions and standards are likely to confuse potential adopters, and industry players need to push ahead on the development of open standards and interoperability models. Over the longer term we will see a growing focus on the so-called HetNet environments in cities, which will allow seamless integration across network protocols depending on location and requirement. In the meantime, low-power networks can be an important accelerator for smart cities and other IoT markets.


Bristol, U.K. Plans To Be Open, Programmable City

— May 20, 2015

The City of Bristol’s selection as the European Green Capital 2015 is an example of the increasingly visible role that U.K. cities are taking in the evolution of smart city ideas and solutions.  The title may be largely symbolic, but it is one that many European cities covet as a validation of their innovation in sustainable living and development.  As with all such awards, there is plenty of skepticism as to how far the realities match the rhetoric, but the scope and ambition of the city’s program are impressive. Bristol has been keen to build on the award and use it to add significant momentum to an already impressive list of projects cutting across the energy, transportation, building, and technology sectors.

A good example of Bristol’s ambition is the recently launched Bristol is Open, a joint venture between the city council and the University of Bristol to develop an open, high-speed network that will foster innovation across multiple city applications. The project has funding support from the U.K.’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport and Innovate UK, and is also building on the supercomputing capabilities of the University of Bristol.

Experimentation as a Service

A core element of the project is a City Operating System (CityOS), developed by the University’s High Performance Networks research group. The CItyOS will manage the machine-to-machine communications across the city using a software defined network (SDN)  approach to improve manageability, integration, and accessibility.  The network is being developed according to OpenDaylight standards as part of the project’s commitment to openness, which extends to procurement and data management, as well as hardware and software.  All the data generated will be anonymized and made public through the city’s open data portal. The project team will also proactively share its findings with other cities, technology companies, universities, and citizens. The network will be used by technology companies, research organizations and small and medium-sized enterprises to develop and experiment with new solutions in urban mobility, energy efficiency, environmental monitoring, and health. The team has defined its approach as City Experimentation as a Service.

The project will make use of three networks: a 30-GB  fiber optic network, a series of Wi-Fi wireless networks along the Brunel Mile area of the city, and a radio frequency mesh network based on city lampposts.  The aim is to eventually expand the networks beyond the city center into the wider city region, creating an open, programmable region covering one million people. Among the partners already signed up for the project is Silver Spring Networks, which is providing the  mesh network technology to connect the city’s streetlights and to provide a platform for other applications, such as traffic monitoring, air quality control, and safety cameras.

Creating the Digital City

The Bristol project is an example of how  the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart city concepts are coming out of the labs and small-scale pilots and onto the streets of major cities.  Other examples include an extended smart street lighting network in Copenhagen and Barcelona’s plan to develop a multi-application Urban Platform.

If successful, the Bristol model could be a showcase for how network infrastructure and a CityOS can provide a shared capability for access and innovation.


Congestion Charging Makes a Comeback in Major Cities

— March 31, 2015

Congestion charging—and similarly ambitious programs for traffic management—are once again on the agenda for the mayors of large cities struggling with traffic jams, rising pollution levels, and shortfalls in transport funding. The fact that a traffic pricing scheme is again under discussion in New York is a significant indicator of the changing mood, and there are reasonable grounds to believe that this time it might happen.

Other cities are also stepping up their programs to manage or reduce private vehicle use. The mayor of Paris is considering a series of restrictions on high-emission vehicle use in the city, starting with a ban on older diesel engine vehicles. Madrid—another city suffering from poor air quality caused mostly by diesel vehicles–has introduced intelligent parking meters that charge higher fees for more polluting vehicles (there is no charge for electric vehicles [EVs]), and there are plans to extend the current controlled areas for vehicle access to other parts of the city. Beijing’s city leaders are also considering a form of congestion charging, though public resistance continues to be a considerable barrier in the Chinese capital.


Singapore led the way on road user charging in cities in the 1970s, but it was the introduction of the London Congestion Charge in 2003 that seemed to herald the wider adoption of such schemes around the world. However, enthusiasm waned after similar projects were rejected in cities like New York, Manchester, and Edinburgh. For most city leaders, such large-scale projects were seen as politically risky. So although road charging is used on many highways around the world and is becoming more attractive as an alternative to general road or fuel taxes, the reference cases for urban congestion control remain relatively few. Alongside London and Singapore, Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Milan are still the most notable examples.  While many cities still grapple with basic arguments over congestion management, Singapore continues to evolve its approach and is now proposing a new system, which will give it almost total visibility on vehicle movements in the city.

Political Courage

Gaining acceptance for a congestion charging scheme requires strong, even brave, political leadership and the willingness to engage with citizen and business concerns. Apart from a common resistance to paying for something that was previously free, many citizens and businesses are wary of schemes that are not linked to improvements in the transport system. The London and Stockholm schemes, for example, were both linked to funding improvements in transport infrastructure, and this is a key part of the recent proposals for New York, as well.

It’s also important that a city can offer viable alternatives in terms of connected and reliable transit scheme. The growing acceptance of EVs in cities (which are excluded from many charging schemes) and the availability of electric car-sharing programs like Autolib’ Paris means that there are now ready alternatives to commuters who can’t or don’t wish to abandon their own vehicle.

Congestion charging schemes today are part of a much broader debate on the nature of urban mobility, with better information and more alternatives available for many city travelers. Once again, we are looking to see if New York will pick up the baton.


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