Connecting state and local government leaders

Openness Is Critical for Smart Cities

The intersection of Yonge and Dundas streets in Toronto.

The intersection of Yonge and Dundas streets in Toronto. Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

Cities need the flexibility to choose solutions that best fit their infrastructure and don’t limit their future options for innovation.

KITCHENER, Ontario — As cities around the world adopt new technology to become “smart,” they are implementing a wide range of applications from traffic lights to autonomous vehicles to wastewater sensors and much more. However, the most important decision city leaders have to make in the early stages isn’t about lights or sensors; it’s about which type of system to choose as the foundation on which all the applications will be built.

Cities essentially have three options to choose from:

  1. Incumbent architecture that is closed, siloed and limited by proprietary standards and legacy systems.
  2. Monolith architecture that comes with large, multinational companies that act as system integrators to glue all the different pieces together while keeping systems closed and locking cities into one vendor.
  3. Open architecture (or standards-based architecture) that keeps systems secure while opening them up to outside developers to build new applications that improve services and quality of life for residents.

If you’re a policymaker or procurement officer, you’ve no doubt run into challenges with vendor lock-in. For example, maybe you’ve contracted with a private company to provide street lighting and later wanted to change that vendor for whatever reason.

Twenty years ago, it wouldn’t have been much of a problem; the new company would simply take over as the service provider. But today, if your city is trying to take advantage of technology to become smarter, you probably aren’t familiar with the software that runs those street lights. That becomes a big problem if you want to connect your street lights to, say, a smart traffic application.

If you have an open system with standards-based architecture, it’s a relatively easy to connect them. But if you don’t, you’d be stuck with the old lighting company or picking a new one that would have to start over, therefore requiring more time to implement and higher costs. Innovation becomes more difficult and more expensive.

In today’s world, that is unnecessary. Cities need the flexibility to choose solutions that best fit their infrastructure and don’t limit their future options for innovation. Open architecture not only avoids the vendor lock-in problem, it also enables third-party developers access to the information and needed to create innovative solutions to age-old infrastructure problems. Issues typically left to expensive proprietary vendors can now be solved with the well-trained clicks of a keyboard.

For example, using my company’s open API, an ambitious student developer who interned with us this summer used traffic data collected by the company’s cameras and sensors to build three life-changing apps in just two weeks.

One enables police to quickly scan video footage of a specific intersection after a hit-and-run accident, saving time in an investigation. Another tells drivers the optimal speed to drive through city streets to minimize stops at red lights, cutting down on driver frustration while improving safety for drives, pedestrians and cyclists. The third helps visually-impaired pedestrian safely cross the street by giving them audible directions from their smartphones telling them when it’s safe to cross and how many seconds they have until the light changes.

All of those apps not only increase safety, but also avoid spending taxpayer dollars by avoiding expensive hardware-based solutions required with incumbent or monolith architectures.

Cities around the world are holding hackathons to encourage developers to create solutions to further their smart city aspirations. The more minds working to solve problems, the more likely cities are to develop solutions that serve all residents at less cost to taxpayers, which makes them accessible to cities of all sizes. That simply isn’t possible without open architecture as a foundation.

Kurtis McBride is the CEO and co-founder of Kitchener, Ontario-based traffic data collection and signal operations company Miovision.

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