Plug-and-play distributed intelligence for smart cities
Plug-and-play smart cities? An open source platform jointly developed by Japanese and EU-funded researchers is facilitating the deployment of smart city technologies in urban centres worldwide to tackle urban challenges ranging from air quality and energy use to traffic congestion and infrastructure upkeep.
© Absiskey, 2019
The EU-funded BIGCLOUT projects solutions are already improving quality of life for residents in cities across Europe and Japan, while the Urban Technology Alliance, a new global non-profit organisation, is growing the international community of end-users. Urban administrations, local companies and citizens will soon start building their own applications, innovation ecosystems and business models in addition to BIGCLOUT tools, which offer a scalable, upgradable and cost-effective approach to integrating the myriad technologies needed to make a city smart.
You can think of BIGCLOUT as a plug-and-play platform for cities to deploy new technologies to address urban challenges and improve citizens quality of life, says project coordinator Levent Gürgen, from the Commissariat à l'Énergie Atomique et aux Énergies Alternatives in France. Our biggest innovation was to build a modular framework made up of various technical components that can be personalised according to the specific needs of each city.
Plug-in components range from smartphones and Internet of Things devices, such as smart traffic lights, air-quality sensors and street cameras, to powerful big-data processing and analytics tools alongside cloud- and edge-computing solutions. The resulting system, which builds on the results of an earlier EU-funded project called CLOUT, is greater than the sum of its parts, giving a city a form of distributed intelligence that becomes smarter as more devices and services are added.
Good services for citizens
Combined, these components from the IoT, cloud/edge computing and big data domains provide a powerful platform and set of tools. This has been successfully demonstrated with trial applications in Grenoble in France, Bristol in the UK, and Fujisawa and Tsukuba in Japan, Gürgen says. These partner cities are very happy to have participated in the project. Grenoble is still using the platform and is extending it with new features. Similarly, the city infrastructure management application in Fujisawa is now being replicated in other cities.
For urban residents and local businesses, the numerous technologies and data sources integrated via the BIGCLOUT platform coalesce into a range of convenient and attractive services accessible via seamless, smart city applications. A mobile app, for example, might provide a user with restaurant recommendations, make a reservation at one that is not too crowded and offer the most efficient transport option to get there. Other smart city features ensure easy access to the destination by dynamically optimising traffic flows to ease congestion and reduce pollution, or by alerting city authorities to fix potholes and broken street signs. It could even give the user peace of mind about energy use by ensuring his or her home or office electrical devices are switched off in their absence.
Transparent to end-users, BIGCLOUTs real innovation is behind the scenes in the form of an interoperable software backbone that is capable of gathering and processing vast amounts of heterogeneous information from diverse sources.
Comprising three layers, the platform first collects and unifies data from all those IoT devices and smartphones in the real world and databases and websites in the virtual one. The second level processes this data for analysis and visualisation, for both online and offline use. Then, on top of the third and final layer, applications can easily be built by third-party developers, which could be city authorities, businesses or citizens themselves, with a set of service-creation tools.
Urban innovation ecosystems
Cities typically have two routes to become smart. They can launch a large project, engage a big company and build a top-down monolithic solution saying make my city smart. The other option is to become smart gradually, following a progressive step-by-step approach and bolting on smart city features as they are needed, become available or as the technology improves, Gürgen explains.
The latter approach, underpinned by scalable and modular solutions such as BIGCLOUT, is seen as more cost-effective, efficient and upgradable. Following a bottom-up approach also has the advantage of supporting citizen participation and engagement, while open source deployments can foster the creation of new innovation ecosystems, business models and, ultimately, local businesses and jobs.
Improving citizen satisfaction is the principal motivation for urban areas to embark on smart city projects, and that means improving quality of life. In addition to tackling social and economic challenges, it also means addressing environmental challenges. Smart city technologies will therefore have an important role to play in the transition toward a low-carbon future, Gürgen says.
Through the Urban Technology Alliance, the BIGCLOUT partners are looking to spread their ideas and solutions worldwide, helping to create an international community not just of smart cities, but of their core component: citizens striving to build a smarter, greener future.
In taking their results to a global audience, the project partners are building on successful international collaboration within the project and between the EU and Japan more broadly.
Jointly funded by the European Commission and Japans National Institute of Information and Communications Technology, BIGCLOUT reflects ongoing close cooperation between the EU and Japan on cloud, IoT, big data and security technologies. Through sharing knowledge, resources and aligning technological approaches and standardisation efforts, this collaboration has led to novel applications in sectors such as smart cities, e-government and e-health focused on tackling future economic and societal challenges.