Navigant Research Blog

An Internet Protocol for Smart Cities

Eric Woods — August 30, 2012

The list of smart city initiatives continues to grow.  Recent examples include the new EU smart city project fund; almost 400 U.S. cities competing for $9 million in awards for city innovation as part of the Mayors Challenge launched by Bloomberg Philanthropies; a £25 million ($40 million) Future Cities Demonstrator competition for cities in the United Kingdom; and a new smart cities network formed by 24 Spanish cities.  One of the most interesting new programs was launched in Barcelona in July.  The first City Protocol workshop, co-hosted by the City of Barcelona, GDF Suez and Cisco, brought together a diverse group of stakeholders including city councils, academia, suppliers and interest groups, all committed to the development of a “more sustainable, efficient, cohesive, innovative and smart city.”  Over 30 cities from across the world were represented, as well as around 20 suppliers, including Accenture, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Schneider Electric, Siemens, Telefonica, and Philips.

The City Protocol aims to enable cities that are “adaptive, learning, evolving, robust, autonomous, self-repairing, and self-reproducing.” The Protocol spans the whole of the city ecosystem including water, waste, matter, energy and utilities, mobility, goods, people, and information.  Taking its inspiration from the way Internet and Web standards have been delivered, it fosters a similar process of open, transparent, and robust collaboration on an international basis.  Leadership will be provided by the City Protocol Society (CPS), which will loosely follow the model of the The Internet Society,  addressing specific issues and delivering formal agreements, recommendations, technology standards, reference projects, policies, and certification models.

Of course, there are already many collaborative efforts on city innovation that focus on developing innovative solutions to common challenges.  The danger is that the City Protocol will be just another talking-shop on the fascinating challenges of urban renewal and growth.  There are two critical areas where it could make a real difference.

‘Anything Connected to Anything’

First, a well-defined and shared process for the ratification, incorporation, and further development of technology standards that meet the needs of smart cities would be a major step forward.  The City Protocol could make a significant contribution to enabling better integration of information flows and communications networks across multiple domains such as transport, sustainability, and public safety, for example.  This would make analogies to the Internet Protocol or to concepts such as the Smart City Operating System more than just metaphors.  Vint Cerf, one of the founding fathers of the Internet, told delegates to the first City Protocol Workshop that one of the biggest insights of the Internet’s early development was that eventual applications were less important than simply creating a platform where an arbitrary collection of computers could communicate over an arbitrary collection of networks.  Tim Berners-Lee had a similar vision for the World Wide Web: “Anything being potentially connected to anything.”  If the City Protocol can help develop a similar approach to connectivity across the diversity and complexity of urban operations, then it will be a major achievement.

However, the need to address practical issues around specific application areas is where the City Protocol most clearly diverges from the Internet Protocol.  This is also where its second major contribution can be made.  Participants in the City Protocol workshop recognized the need for better cost-benefit analyses that can reduce the risk and improve the repeatability of new programs in areas such as energy efficiency.  If the public and private sector can develop models for delivering financial returns and public benefits on energy efficiency programs or better managed transportation systems, for example, then it will be much easier to implement such smart city projects at scale.

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