The Future Is Now for Smart Cities

Municipalities across Europe are tapping into RFID and related technologies to deliver new and enhanced services.
By John Edwards

Defining the New Metropolis
As the smart cities concept gains adherents, city leaders, system suppliers and technology analysts are struggling to reach a definition of the term. "Smart cities are quite broad, covering a wide variety of applications and services, and different people see things a little differently in their smart-city applications," says Hannu Penttilä, deputy mayor in charge of real estate and city planning for Helsinki, Finland, a municipality that's well on the way to becoming a smart-city leader. "I would say that smart-city applications make living easier in cities, and they are greener than older applications or the old way of doing things."

The goal of the city's Forum Virium Helskinki, for example, is to develop digital services in cooperation with companies, other public-sector organizations and residents. One project enables passengers to access Helsinki Region Transport with a Near Field Communication-enabled travel card or mobile phone, as well as post their experiences on a virtual messaging wall. Another project in which the travel card doubled as a library card was so popular that plans are now under way to make the travel card a customer card that residents could use to access various city services, such as museums and swimming halls.

"A smart city is not an end state," declares Paul Bevan, secretary general of EuroCities, an organization representing more than 130 European cities. "It's more of an ambition to use technology to make your city sustainable, more livable, more successful, and to reduce its climate footprint by innovating." One of the organization's 2013 priorities is smart cities, as it works toward a "common vision of a sustainable future in which all citizens can enjoy a good quality of life."

It's difficult to create a one-size-fits-all definition for a smart city, because there are so many different aspects to building, creating and running municipal services, says John Devlin, security and ID practice director for ABI Research. Still, he gives it a try: "The basic definition is the employment of new technology and more intelligent processes to enable a cleaner, quicker, smarter way of life." Yet, Devlin adds a footnote. "It has to be available, it has to have scale, and it has to be largely standardized so it can be applied to other... cities as well."

The widespread availability of sophisticated wireless communication, identification and location technologies is inspiring more cities to plunge into smart-city development. RFID, real-time location systems and NFC technologies can all be considered basic smart-city tools, says Michael Liard, VP of auto-ID at VDC Research. Cities are drawn to smart-city technologies for the same reasons as private businesses—to identify, track and manage assets (including human resources), as well as to streamline processes and improve productivity, he says. "There's also a desire by localities to enhance and provide new services, plus there's an ongoing requirement to improve safety and security."

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