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Smart city project management: Avoiding common pitfalls

Smart city projects can be challenging for project managers, and in many respects they are different from other IT projects. Alex Grizhnevich, ScienceSoft, looks at ways to avoid common pain points.

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Let’s face the truth: managing a smart city project is a challenging task. When launching a smart city initiative, the city administration wants timely and cost-effective implementation. While this requires mature technological capacity, the biggest challenge is not technology. It is political and financial complexity.

 

Smart city projects require multiple departments to cooperate, and this can make it difficult to rank priorities, especially when there are limited funding options. Further, stakeholders may become skeptical because ROI is not guaranteed, etc.

 

Let’s look at some of the aspects of smart city projects which are most challenging, and how to thread your way through them.

 

1. You have to plan long-term

 

IoT-based smart city development is not a one-time delivery – it is an evolutionary process.

Smart city projects are ongoing and usually comprise several sub-projects, e.g. smart lighting, smart water, smart traffic, and each of these may be implemented with significant time gaps between them. This leads to the problem of allocating resources.


To address this challenge, work out a clear, comprehensive roadmap focusing on the key factors that will enhance long-term planning, such as:

  • Scope
  • Requirements
  • Expected deliverables
  • Duration
  • Budget

To deal with a project’s complexity, it makes sense to implement smart city solutions iteratively, building a flexible core solution and then expanding it. For example, instead of implementing several services at once, you can roll out a basic IoT platform (sensor network, data storage and analytics) and then build it up with deep analytics tools, control applications and service management solutions.

After that, you can connect more smart services to the existing platform, saving money and effort. It will help you to build a comprehensive smart city platform gradually. This, coupled with a number of intermediate goals, will keep the project team motivated.

 

2. You have to think of ways to avoid huge investments in field components

Smart city projects are not fast in terms of pay-off. At the same time, they require substantial investment. Cities have to deploy an extensive network of costly field components (sensors, field gateways, etc.). This raises the question of how to reduce the cost of field components without losing functional performance.


To address this challenge, try to involve “collective sensing” – that is: use data gathered by citizens’ mobile phones or derived from citizen portals, social media and the city’s mobile app.

 

For example, to monitor traffic in a city, two approaches can be applied: a sensor-based approach and a floating car approach. A sensor-based approach requires road construction works in order to deploy a sensing loop system, comprising a loop, an extension cable and a detector. When installing a loop system, the smallest detail can mean the difference between reliable and intermittent detection of vehicles. The sensor-based approach requires time and substantial investment.

 

On the other hand, with a floating car approach, with the citizens’ permission, cities use GPS data from drivers’ mobile phones to track vehicles – they don’t need to invest in new sensors, which significantly reduces implementation costs.

 

3. You have to ensure the smart city platform’s flexibility

Cities are living organisms that constantly change and grow. Starting IoT-based smart city development, project managers have to think about future expansion. This is a challenging task, since smart city infrastructure expands in two dimensions - vertically and horizontally.

 

Vertical expansion is connected to improving the smart city architecture, e.g. adding more storage capacity, improving business logic, etc. Horizontal expansion means integrating more services with an existing infrastructure.


Addressing this challenge is closely bound to designing a thought-through project architecture. The selected architecture has to ensure a project’s scalability. The key to this is a flexible cloud-based platform, which will allow the ramping up of new services and integration of new technologies.

 

4. You have to choose suitable connectivity


A reliable connectivity network is an essential part of a successful smart city project. Project managers should think of ways to ensure secure and effective thing-to-cloud communication.

Addressing the connectivity issue, they should think strategically and come up with ways to provide reliable, secure and flexible networks.


The list of connectivity technologies for smart cities varies from traditional 2G and 3G to more specific 5G, LPWAN and LoRaWAN. They differ in terms of coverage, data rates and the extent of power consumption. The choice of connectivity depends on the business model and the services you implement. For example, to implement a traffic monitoring solution that tracks vehicles across the city (including in remote districts), you need to ensure adequate coverage and make sure vehicles are not “lost” in remote areas.

 

5. You have to think about engaging citizens

Citizen participation helps to avoid additional civil works and excessive investments. For smart cities, citizens’ engagement means more data and, consequently, more savings.

 

Take the floating car idea discussed earlier. In that example, engaging citizens saves investments in costly field components – sensors and field gateways.


Now the question of how to engage citizens arises. One way is to make smart city benefits more visible. For example, say a citizen spots that a streetlight is out and reports the issue using a mobile app. It is natural that the citizen wants to be informed when the issue is resolved.

Sending a notification in such a case will make the citizen feel the benefits of smart city services.


Another way of engaging citizens is through citizen portals and online communities. Citizen portals ensure communication between city administration and city dwellers, help citizens to find and access relevant information about connected things and how they work, as well as provide the opportunity to report issues.

 

6. You should integrate smart technologies into the existing physical infrastructure

When implementing smart city services, project managers have to come up with ways to integrate smart services into the existing physical infrastructure, keeping user-centricity and the availability of resources in mind. Thus, building a smart city requires not only implementing IoT solutions, but also creating the right environment for them.

 

For example, a Brookings report shows that a quarter of Americans live in “low subscription” neighbourhoods, in which less than 40 percent of residents have access to broadband. It makes telecommunication one of the biggest infrastructure challenges.


To address this challenge, city governors need to incentivise and encourage telecoms operators to develop a mature infrastructure across the city.


Let’s brush up


Here are some of the possible ways to deal with six key pitfalls of smart city projects:

 

1. Convene stakeholders to develop a common smart city vision. Keep an iterative approach in mind – it will help you to get value faster.


2. Search for ways to reduce investments on field components. For that, try to involve “collective sensing”, i.e. using data from citizens’ devices.


3. Think about future expansions at the earliest opportunity to ensure that the smart city platform is scalable. For that, a thought-out platform architecture is crucial.


4. Make sure that you choose the right connectivity technology, suitable for the services you implement. The coverage area, energy consumption and data rates are the criteria to concentrate on.


5. Try to engage citizens. It will help to avoid excessive investments, including investments in field components, and will make a smart city more livable.


6. Finally, find ways to integrate new technologies into the existing physical infrastructure. The key is not to ruin what you already have, but to adapt it to new technologies and conditions.

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