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2020-04-06 14:10:00



By Ahsan Upal  Regional Manager, Business DevelopmentBurns & McDonnell

ENERGYCENTRAL How has the convergence of information and operating technologies lead to the concept of smarter communities and cities? How are some cities starting the process of becoming a smart city? Will we be able to wisely invest in a future that allows us to extract new and greater value from community assets such as city parks, field houses, streetlights, traffic signals, train stations, Wi-Fi network and more? Finally, how can we start the process of becoming smarter? Is there a roadmap? Are there funding sources and who are the natural partners for this transition? Smart Cities have much to offer all the diverse stakeholders in a community. The time to start is today.

What is a Smart City?

Smart cities use data and technology to make infrastructure use more efficient and safer while simplifying lives of residents. Improving utilization of civic infrastructure such as public buildings, parks, streetlights, maintenance vehicles, roads, parking lots and bus stops; removing inefficiencies from the everyday activities and systems we use today and using real time data to make smart decisions. Whether it is how healthcare is delivered, goods transported, buildings constructed, financial transactions made to how governments deliver their services.

Business Model has become Cost Prohibitive

For the longest time our cities have relied on population growth as the catalyst to build-out new neighborhoods. The expanding suburbs increased the property tax base paying for essential services such as the utilities, roads/bridges, parks, sports facilities, hospitals, schools, and libraries. That model is no longer feasible because the cost of sprawl has become cost prohibitive. The increased regulations have raised the cost of building infrastructure needed to support new neighborhoods build out; and raising property taxes to pay for it has reached taxpayers threshold. The cities need to work smarter and deliver greater services while keeping taxes low to attract and retain residents and businesses.

Consumer Demands Are Changing

Many millennials prefer living close-to-work in higher density neighborhoods and close to city amenities such as entertainment, parks, theater, public transit, restaurants and cafes within walking distance of home where they don’t have to do yardwork or shovel snow. Some retirees who are still healthy and wealthy prefer to live in similar high-density neighborhoods that put them close to work and play.

Convergence of Technologies

Technologies from supercomputing, instrumentation, communication to robotics have matured to the point that when combined they are able to produce intelligent systems that collectively work to automate mundane and routine tasks from our everyday labor-intensive activities. In a way, this revolution is no different than the mechanized industrial revolution of the 20th century that brought us kitchen appliances, vehicles/planes and factories. The logic has always been whoever can produce more for cheaper wins and the societies that embrace technology faster advance quicker than others. In the early 1900’s it was proliferation of electricity then mechanization that delivered that efficiency and productivity; in the late 1900’s and early 2000’s it was telecommunications and computing, and in the next several decades it will be the confluence of those four technologies along with portability of abundant energy that are merging to give us artificial intelligence and robotics.

A Glimpse into a Smart City

To understand how this revolution may impact the cities and our lives let’s consider a few instances of our everyday activities and imagine how those scenarios may change in a smart city.

For instance, imagine going out for dinner to a restaurant, and by the time you get there the restaurant already knows that you’re on your way, what you’re going to order, whether it is a work dinner or a romantic evening, where you prefer to sit based on your past selection and user preferences and just-in-time made hot meal is delivered to your table as you sit down. Once finished you walk out and your phone automatically transacts the payment on your behalf saving you time and frustration of ordering and making a payment, so you have more time to enjoy the meal and the company you’re with.

When you’re traveling out of the country your cell phone company may notice that you’ve entered a roaming zone. It knows the plan you’re on and whether you have roaming coverage or not and based on your plan what roaming rate options you have. When you land your phone gives you those options prompting you to choose your coverage. You select one of the options and now you’ve roaming coverage without the frustration of going online or logging in your app, looking for roaming costs and then making a payment. Not a pleasant experience for those of you who’ve gone through it and not something you should have to think about right before hopping on a plane for vacation.

For another application think of going to the airport and your phone has already checked you in, you walk thru a security screening zone where you don’t have to remove your shoes, belts and jackets, etc. and your phone already orders a ride-sharing taxi for you that’s waiting outside as you land and walk out at your destination making your airport experience much smoother and efficient.

Think of a traffic system in your city where based on traffic volume, predicted congestion zones and any accidents that have just occurred the traffic management system changes traffic signals automatically to direct or detour traffic through less congested or alternate routes that wouldn’t otherwise get used to get better utilization of the available routes reducing congestion on the main thoroughfares and saving you much frustration and time.

Implications in healthcare are tremendous. Next time you’re sick and feel the need to see a doctor imagine describing your symptoms to a phone app that can scan your body temperature, do a retina scan, a non-intrusive blood and glucose scan as well as a scan of any injury. The app uploads the information to a health supercomputer that can virtually diagnose your condition and based on severity of your condition determine if you need to rest at home, prescribe you medication sent automatically to your nearest pharmacy or determine that you need to be seen by a doctor for further diagnosis or go to an emergency. Now imagine when you go to the hospital there’s no need to check at the triage because the biometric scan at the entrance has already identified you and based on your app scan earlier your app tells you what unit you’re supposed to go to savings you and the healthcare system tremendous costs while delivering a higher quality and timely healthcare.

Now consider another application where your home appliances, furnace/air conditioner and water heater are smart enough to know what rooms are being occupied and when the electricity pricing is cheaper. Your house uses that knowledge to automatically move heat/cooling to the rooms being occupied, runs your laundry cycles, your baking oven and heats/cools the house to optimize energy usage maximizing comfort for when you’re home while minimizing the cost of your energy consumption when you’re not. Similarly, there are many such intelligent applications in the kitchen where your stove automatically knows based on the ingredients and tray you put in the oven that you’re baking a cake and it knows the temperature and humidity needed to get the texture and crust coloring you want and automatically stops the oven when the cake is baked. It notifies your phone of the baking progress and when it is done baking, so you can go about your daily activities. Similarly, your fridge automatically orders your groceries when it knows that you’re running low on milk, eggs, butter, ketchup, etc. It knows the types and brands of groceries you like, and it automatically orders them for you and they get delivered to your house. Your house that can intelligently detect a water leak, a fire or a robbery and it calls a plumber, notifies the fire station or the police as appropriate while you’re at work or on vacation and alerts you of progress leaving to focus on more important things such as family time.

Augmented reality has made big leaps and it continues to get better and better whether used through virtual reality goggles or via a handheld device. There are many applications of augmented reality, such as in training of new skilled trades in operating a new system, to remotely trouble shooting an equipment failure where an experienced person can guide a junior apprentice to troubleshoot an issue. Training of soldiers or police creating war or crime scenarios that soldiers can experience safely while being immersed in near life-like situation. Or use of a Star Trek type holodeck in treatment of psychiatric patients or violent criminal to calm down their nerves. Perhaps simulation of complex concepts or mechanical processes to explain to students.

Now imagine a school bus whose whereabouts you can look-up on your phone and as it arrives to your house it notifies the kids and parents that it is time to come-out.  It also notifies the parents when kids are dropped off at home giving them peace of mind. The same could apply to a public transit bus that sends similar notifications identifying its location and arrival time at a bus stop. Or when you want to take public transit the transit app tells you what number bus, train or subway you need to take and what stop you need to get off and if a connection is required where and what number to catch next to get you to your destination.

A major shift in the transportation sector is underway towards greater electrification and intelligence in our cars, busses, trucks and rail systems and proliferation of our autonomous driving vehicles. Perhaps in time as technologies mature we will find it cheaper, more convenient, safer, environmental friendly and more productive to have an autonomously driven taxi drive us to work, shopping or to visit a friend. Today’s private vehicle ownership concept could be much reduced especially in the urban areas. For example, when you need to go shopping you’ll order a taxi that will arrive within a couple of minutes. You’ll say where you need to go, and the self-driving taxi will autonomously take you to your destination while you read a book, play a video game or do work. Similarly, the public transit buses and rails will be driven autonomously and will be powered by batteries or electric overhead wires. We have already heard about the Tesla Semi that is championing the move towards electrification in commercial goods movement.

Many inefficiencies are simply waiting to be tapped in our current regulated rate models of the municipal utilities vs the competitive industries that are more efficient because they’ve had to remain lean due to market forces to stay alive while the municipalities have been sheltered in their regulated framework. Imagine roads and bridges, building or utility infrastructure that don’t need field crews doing annual or monthly inspections to check integrity of the system. There are sensors in place that monitor cracks, vibrations, rusting and coloring to determine health of the asset and notifies the municipal authorities when it is time to patch a crack in a bridge or fix a pot hole in the road.

We’re starting to get a taste of what these technologies of the future will look like. For example, Hydro Ottawa, a utility in Canada’s capital city has a call-in center like most other utilities where customers can call in to connect/disconnect a service or pay their bills. The unique thing about Hydro Ottawa’s call center is that it uses voice-recognition to identify their customers. Their system automatically knows based on voice who is calling them and gives them access to their information instead of a call center representative asking questions to verify their identity. Imagine application of this for banks, hospitals and your insurance call center. Another Utility in the Toronto area called Alectra is experimenting with blockchain to allow peer-to-peer transactions to allow, for example, a customer with rooftop solar to sell electricity to their neighbor down the street.

Oakville Hydro another utility in Ontario has implemented an advance distribution management system using an application called Fault Location isolation and restoration (FLISR). This allows the utility system to automatically identify when a powerline or a pole falls due to a storm causing an outage. The system automatically notifies the utility control center of the fault to send in repair crews. It identifies the street name and location where the repair is needed, making the repair much quicker than it used to be before when the utility had to wait for a customer to call in to report an outage and then the crews had to drive around the neighborhood trying to determine where the fault is and what is causing the issue, whether it is a blown transformer, broken conductor from a fallen tree or if someone backed into a pole bringing it down to the ground. It improves reliability of the power system making the residents happy while allowing the utility to function more efficiently keeping the electricity rates low.

First Step Starts with Identifying Inefficiencies

The lines of delineation are blurring as newer technologies allow utilities, municipalities and technology firms to overlap in each other’s traditional territories. How far those lines will be stretched and who the winners or new market entrants may be no one can say with certainty today. However, to understand what a smart city can do for you think about the routine and mundane tasks you do in your life from paying a utility bill to interacting with your bank or with the government agency for a service. Then think of the inefficiencies in the system and how those inefficacies could be removed, or how poor utilization of an asset could be improved such as utilization of your car. An average vehicle gets used only 10% of the day, the remaining 90% of its life it’s either sitting in your garage or parked at work or in parking lot of a mall. Would it not make sense for Uber to provide you transportation? You could link your schedule with Uber and it automatically sends you a car when you need to go to work or go to a doctor’s appointment or go to the airport for vacation.

A great example that demonstrates efficient use of an asset is the use of batching in the oil transmission pipelines industry to transmit liquid fuels. Pipeline operators routinely intermingle different batches of commodities back-to-back like the cars of a train carry different goods from one car to another. For example, the pipeline operators will routinely inject a batch train of jet fuels for several hours into a pipeline then switch to a batch of diesel for the next day followed by gasoline the following day. This allows an operator to use the same pipeline to transmit many commodities that otherwise would have required different dedicated pipelines for each type of commodity. Now, there’s a complex batch scheduling and measurement process at both injection and deliveries points to ensure various commodities are delivered at the right delivery point in the right quantity and of correct specification. However, innovative thinking and technology allows this to happen; a single pipeline asset is utilized very efficiently minimizing the energy consumption, land disturbance, environmental impact and the toll costs. It is this kind of thinking that needs to transcend to other assets to get maximum value out of our infrastructure.

The reality is that no one knows when technology will proliferate but being engaged in it will help you take baby steps and gradually ramp-up at the pace of innovation otherwise moving into this space when technology has fully evolved will be difficult and even finding the right skilled resources may be hard and perhaps at a premium

The Roadmap for Adoption of Smart Technologies

With time this puzzle will get solved as the various pieces slowly come together. Given the conservative natures of municipalities from exposure to public scrutiny, property tax implications and election cycles the change will be gradual as technology continues to prove itself. This will likely happen in the private sector first paving the way for stronger business cases to be built. It will need to start with municipalities and technology firms identifying the areas of low efficiency and/or high safety risk and determining the low hanging fruit to initiate pilot testing in smaller controlled environments to prove the application, validate the technology and its benefit, and confirm the expected operational savings. Then weigh the costs in operational savings and/or in enhanced safety vs maintaining the status que to determine the expected payback period to build a business case justifying investment at full scale. Increasingly municipalities will find that the technologies have matured to the point that costs have come down and issues have been worked out. Many of the solutions are starting to be off the shelve type products where the providers are getting closer to determining the timelines, associated costs and pay-back timelines. Increasingly banks will be willing to loan funds as more case studies get published with the proven results that have been achieved by the early adopters.

Municipalities and Utilities are Natural Partners

Utilities and municipalities need to be partners with the technology firms and consultants and participate in the R&D developments and pilot testing. Electricity and telecommunication are two basic building blocks that any aspect of the smart technologies will need, this makes the local electrical and telecommunication utilities a natural partner for the municipalities in planning and roll-out of pilot projects. Partnering this way, they will also help shape the development of technologies, so the final products are shaped to work for their needs. At the same time, they will gain valuable insights and experience with the new products when they do hit the market. Equally important, the city and utility engineers will be able to sketch their long-term plans to better position their future utility, public and transportation infrastructure with provisions to be able to readily adapt the new technologies when they hit the market.

As convergence of technologies paves the way we will see many changes over the next decade in how our cities and municipalities function and how residents get their services. Technologies badged under the marquee of smart cities, electrification, automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, are starting to unfold giving us a glimpse of what the smart city may look like. The benefits are becoming more apparent as early adopters are leading the way. However, in time cities will start to differentiate themselves in the types of services they provide and the top talent and employers they are able to attract. Many countries are offering grants to help their cities, municipalities and utilities to start planning towards becoming smarter. The time to act is now or you risk being left behind, and the technology gap will only grow larger and become harder to overcome.


This thought leadership article was originally shared with Energy Central's Digital Utility Community Group. The communities are a place where professionals in the power industry can share, learn and connect in a collaborative environment. Join the Digital Utility Community today and learn from others who work in the industry.



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