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Digital Transformation – A Digital Platform for Smart Cities

The technology investment in smart cities, globally will keep growing over the next 4 years (in the graphic the CAGR between 2017 and 2022). Although the most impressive CAGR is estimated in personal wearable (for cities officers) one should note that the investment today in this areas is basically zero, so any growth will have a significant CAGR. Notable the CAGR expected in Smart City Platforms (22.9) and in Open Data (24.6). A digital platform is actually embedding both and we already have significant investment today, so such a CAGR means big bucks. Source: IDC Worldwide Semiannual Smart Cities Spending Guide

Let’s now consider Digital Platforms designed for specific application areas, starting with Smart Cities.
Just to point out the interest existing in this area a search on Google (on February 11th) returned over 200 million references! At the Smart City Expo World Conference (Nov 2018 in Barcelona) the theme was “Digital Transformation: When bridging Digital and Physical means Smarter Living” a number of companies presented their own Digital Platform tailored to Smart City needs. Among these,

  • Huawei presented the result on traffic in Shenzhen (its headquarter city) when its platform was deployed to control city red lights: a decrease of 17% in traffic jams;
  • ST Engineering was assigned by the municipality of Singapore the task to deploy its smart city digital platform to the new green area of Punggol Digital District in Singapore;
  • SAP presented its vision of future cities, achievable through their flexible digital city platform;
  • EIT Digital presented CEDUS, the pan-European digital platform for smart cities, developed and deployed by a consortium led by Engineering.

You get the gist! I can go on forever listing initiatives (at least far beyond the point that you would be so bored to stop reading), products and companies operating in the digital platform area for smart cities. This should not come as a surprise. There is a huge amount of money being spent for the “smartification” of cities and that amount keeps growing year over year to reach some 158B$ in technology investment in 2022 (according to IDC). Notice that this is just about investment in technology, if you include investment in digging, pouring concrete and the like the investment will be close to 1 trillion $. That’s big money.

Now, these big numbers are the result of a multiplying factor, i.e. the number of cities around the world committing investment to their smartification. A major part of that investment is not “reusable”. If you have to dig to lay optical fibre the cost of digging (and the one of optical fibre) is localised and cannot be reused. That is part of the world of atoms and its economy.

However, some 10% of the overall investment around the world is made on bits, in creating applications. This is part of the economy of bits, and it is to a great extent reusable in different context. This is where the Digital Platforms play a role: making possible to reuse applications in many cities. This is why there are so many players and initiative in the Digital Platform space. These platforms are the enabler of the cities Digital Transformation and by shifting them into the economy of bits can dramatically decrease cost.

The problem, of course, is that today we have “TOO MANY” platforms and they are –usually- incompatible with one another.

The fact is that whilst everybody agrees that having a Digital Platform is the way to go no-one seems to agree on a single platform. It is like in the smartphone domain rather than having 2-3 de facto platforms (Android and IOS having the lion share) we had millions of platforms. Immediately the potential market for application developers would become fragmented and no longer appealing.

To avoid this fragmentation, the European Commission invested a significant amount of money, over 300 M€, to develop a common, open platform, that could be used in several application areas, smart cities being the most obvious one: FIWARE. As any cooperative project the result was a set of compromises that although valuable in a scientific perspective required a focussed approach to create an industry savvy product. This is what the FIWARE Foundation set out doing.

The FIWARE Foundation consists (end of 2018) of over 50 members, and the jury is still out to determine if in the end it will be able to become an attraction point for cities around the world. The numbers are good: over 100 cities have expressed interest in using the platform, over 1,000 start ups are now developing services for that platform and there is a very intensive effort by the Foundation to keep growing and spreading the gospel through a variety of events.

The EIT Digital is supporting the effort in making the FIWARE Platform a reality through out Europe through one of its innovation activities, CEDUS.

At the core of all digital platform is an Open Data Framework and for each application domain an ontology is required. This part is likely to be standardised, and the evolution of artificial intelligence hold promises to implement these standards at a semantic level.
This may be a crucial turning point for digital platforms in the area of digital cities. The application domain, and the specific requirements are so broad that I personally feel that standards restricted to the syntax of the data ontology will not be sufficient. Standardisation activities, like the ones carried out at ITU SG 20 are surely important (they also define a common metrics) but I fear they may not be sufficient. Moving the next step to the semantic layer may lead to a solution that can aggregate most of the players.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.