Smarter cities are evolving, according to iMinds professor

Bob Emmerson, a freelance writer and IoT industry

The smart city concept goes beyond the use of information and communications technology to provide better use of resources and minimise emissions.

It means smarter urban transport networks, upgraded water supply and waste disposal facilities, and more efficient ways to light and heat buildings. However, people live in cities, more and more people every year, and they need to be engaged, need to know what’s in it for me. In a nutshell it comes down to the improvements in services and an infrastructure that lead to a sustainable environment that provides job opportunities and a good quality of life.

Steven Latré (pictured), assistant professor at iMinds - University of Antwerp, Belgium
Steven Latré, assistant professor at iMinds – University of Antwerp, Belgium

Here Steven Latré (pictured), assistant professor at iMinds – University of Antwerp, Belgium, talks about smart cities to IoT Now’s regular contributor, Bob Emmerson.

Bob Emmerson: There is an on-going debate about the term ‘Smart Cities’. It’s ambiguous and it gets interpreted in different ways, which can be confusing. Is that why you refer to the IoT experiment that is taking place in Antwerp (Belgium) as a ‘City of Things’? You are positioning this development as a large-scale testing ground and Antwerp as Europe’s place-to-be for IoT experiments.

Steven Latré: I agree that the term is ambiguous, it even gets used when cities offer subsidies to consumers who install solar panels on their roof and it often also implies a governmental top-down approach. Therefore, we decided to use the term City of Things to describe our own twist on the concept, which is anyway different to other Smart City initiatives. One difference is that we narrow it down to Internet of Things technology: we focus on updating the city with IoT solutions. However, that doesn’t mean that our concept is only bottom up or only top down: it’s both.

A second difference is our use of the so-called ‘quadruple helix’, which brings government, citizens, academia and industry together in order to build smart cities in a way that combines the advantages of the top-down approach, safeguarding public interests, with the bottom-up approach, which facilitates creativity.

We want to avoid doing a technology push and this approach enables people to have more control over their lives, their work and communities, through the intelligent use of Internet-based communications and applications.

The third is significantly different: we’ve extended the concept by building a test bed facility that will be embedded in the IoT infrastructure, which we intend to open up to international researchers. This means that tests can be conducted in a real world environment. We want Antwerp to be Europe’s go-to-place for large scale IoT experiments.

BE: One application with which you are starting monitors traffic patterns on two pre-selected routes and a second measures air quality in the city in real time. That will allow you to establish the relationship between traffic and air quality. Does that indicate you are starting with a set of intelligent, silo-type applications that can be integrated later, as and when it is needed?

SL: Yes, right now we are showcasing those two independent applications, but before that we had to focus on creating a backbone network based on LoRa, the Low Power Wide Area Network specification, and on building it out in order to realise citywide coverage. However, we didn’t want to limit our City of Things initiative to a single network technology.

Right now there is a battle going on between SigFox, Wi-Fi HaLow, regular Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Bluetooth, Bluetooth Smart: there are several more contenders. Therefore we are deploying over 100 multi-technology gateways across the city that will be able to accommodate LoRa and the other protocols.

This will allow us to showcase applications using different communications technologies and in future it will facilitate integration, which is what the IoT is all about. It will also demonstrate the intrinsic flexibility of our City of Things initiative. The traffic monitoring and air quality solutions will run on this network as well as street lighting, connected cars, connected fleets, intelligent parking, water, waste and so on.

BE: Low power, wide area communications are ideal for Smart City applications, but technology is just a means to an end, which is surely the creation of an environment that addresses the needs of citizens and local businesses. Ultimately Smart Cities should make the world a healthier, happier, fairer and more sustainable for everyone. Is that blue-sky thinking or is it a long-term deliverable?

SL: Technology is clearly an important component but that is not our focus. As you say, it’s a means to an end, which is something we factored in from the very beginning. In addition to the test bed facility there is a research lab that is examining different aspects of our initiative.

One research track involves the technology; another is a “Living Labs” model that involves the ideas and needs of startups, SMEs and big companies. Making the world healthier, happier, fairer and more sustainable for everyone is a commendable objective, but it’s not one that iMinds can do on its own. We need the involvement of those third parties and get their feedback.

I’d like to emphasise that this integrated concept, which pulls everything together, distinguishes the City of Things from most other Smart City initiatives. We’re positioning it as an open platform and as an academic organisation we’re technology neutral, therefore able to create a wide-ranging ecosystem and eventually glue everything together.

BE: How do you see the City of Things initiative developing?

SL: In general we want to position Antwerp and Flanders as the reference testing zone, from both a technology and Living Labs perspective. With respects to technology we are part of the European FIRE (Future Internet Research and Experimentation) initiative, which facilitates strategic research and development of new future Internet concepts and enables research organisations like iMinds to conduct large-scale experiments on new paradigms, for example Smart Cities.

What we bring to this table is the integration with mobile applications, users and the multi-technology approach. In addition the scale on which we can conduct network, data and user tests – a surface of 80 square kilometers – and the thriving ecosystem of start-ups and SMEs that can use the network to test their services, represent a unique value proposition.

BE: A final question. Could you say a few words about the European Smart City Model?

SL: The key objective of this model is to create a European model that federates individual Smart City initiatives. The EU has recognised that many initiatives are fragmented and sometimes the goals are not clear, other than deployment of the infrastructure.

Moreover they often fail to address current challenges and needs. I’d like to conclude by saying that the City of Things initiative started out with clearly defined goals and being an academic organisation meant that we were not constrained by technology or commercial agendas.

BE: Thank you, Steven.

The author of this blog is Bob Emmerson, a freelance writer and IoT industry observer

Comment on this article below or via Twitter: @IoTNow_ OR @jcIoTnow


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