Insight

Future of Smart Cities Lies with Communication Technologies

From transit updates to city-wide alerts, scalability and omnichannel capability are essential to timely communications.

September 26 2017

Tokyo is currently home to over 33 million people and New York 18.5 million. The world’s biggest cities have evolved rapidly, influencing how we work, commute, shop, and spend our free time. But those very changes that make cities exciting and vibrant, are also threatened by the enormity of their sheer scale. Cities have become so large that they can’t efficiently manage systems as basic as transportation or infrastructure. As problems increase, the allure of large cities fades.

As cities grow more complex, new technologies have emerged that promise to connect people to information on larger and larger scales. From helping solve traffic jams and emergency earthquake alerts to improving services like garbage collection and parking, new solutions help take the pressure off people and onto technology.

This is what powers our idea of connected cities – making things simpler to keep the livability high. And it isn’t easy. People have less personal space, commuting takes up too much of our time and our interactions have to be made on the go. It’s a reality that isn’t going to change, so the way we communicate, interact and acquire information while doing our daily living has to change.

For us, it’s not just about ensuring that you get that geo-targeted notification telling you that your sneakers have arrived. That’s one aspect of convenience, sure, but enabling communications that streamline critical and tedious aspects of people’s lives is what will make an actual difference.

How communication impacts everyday human living

These vast spaces of human interaction require tremendous coordination between systems that communicate, alert and notify people during their daily routines. If you love taking the train, you know that once you’re on the platform, the first thing you’re looking at is the dashboard showing the arrival time of your train.

What you probably fail to realize at that point in time is that the timetable on the dashboard is interconnected with a vast grid of systems that allow for that data to be accurately represented and showcased. Still, the only thing the future passenger is really interested in is - will there be a delay? Will my train be on time?

Punctuality is key. Because delays are often caused by external factors, an efficient way to mitigate negative passenger reactions is to point out these factors in an excuse. That and actually communicating the delay. Research has shown that effective, real-time communication has a major impact in how the passengers deal with that delay. Even minor adjustments to the communication strategy of public transport organizations can reduce passenger loss and frustration.

Now, you’re driving in a car, in desperate search for a parking spot in New York after working hours. You indicate this to your car over a voice command. Your car then pings the network, finding available spots nearby and sends you an SMS message that tells you the location of the spot nearest to you. By simply responding “Yes” to the text, you reserve that parking spot and you’re done.

Taking this to another level  - some of you might remember the big traffic jam in Chicago back in February 2011. A mid-winter blizzard had hit the city during the evening rush hour, with over 20 inches of snow falling. Naturally, there was a lot of dissatisfaction coming from the people stuck there - traffic jams in big cities are always a huge pain.

All of them wanted to be appeased, to hear something about what’s being done to solve the traffic jam or, in case they ran into it, to have previously received an A2P SMS or push notification warning them to take another route home. If we go a step back, most would have really liked to receive a critical weather forecast notification informing them of the blizzard as soon as possible and preventing them from using their cars to get anywhere, at all.

If Chicago had had a smart city telecommunications system in place at the time, that would have been possible and a lot of the anger, damage and complaints from the citizens would have been prevented. Furthermore, if they had been using our omnichannel platform, they would have made sure that their citizens received a message regardless of the channel available to them amidst the chaos due to the advanced failover system we offer. This is a great example of how traffic jams can be resolved - or, at the very least, how the various damages they cause can be minimized.

But again, convenient as this is, there are other important aspects to consider in these scenarios.

The importance of deliverability, dependability and scale

Without deliverability, you have inconvenience rather than convenience  - as convenience isn’t very convenient when the message supposed to inform you of your train getting delayed is delayed for 15 minutes, itself - or isn’t delivered, at all. Same goes in case of a failed parking spot reservation, or a delayed notification with information intended to help solve a traffic jam in a big city.

With such a large number of people commuting and driving cars every day, let’s say you multiply the dissatisfaction of one by a few hundred thousand.  You’d have people filing complaints, protesting all over social media, giving up on using public transport and generally placing the person who came up with the whole system that isn’t working pretty high on their not-so-well-liked list.

Now let’s take this a step further and imagine if people were trying to call 911 but couldn’t get through to the operator. Not to sound overly dramatic, but you’d have a riot on your hands; and lives would be seriously endangered . If you delve into the potentially tragic consequences of critical notifications such as fire, monsoon or earthquake alerts not being delivered on time, as well, you have more than just inconvenience - you have a disaster.

Dependability is another factor key to avoiding that in smart cities. Imagine if you used a platform that malfunctioned or dropped off the grid just as you were about to send emergency earthquake alerts. Lives could be lost, not to mention all the other damage that could be done. When signing up for something like earthquake alerts, people expect to receive them on time. Otherwise, it’s pointless and dangerous for them to rely on this.

Of course, if we’re talking cities that need to become smart, we’re talking big cities - smaller cities wouldn’t need this as urgently and wouldn’t see as much of a saving grace in these solutions intended to make overpopulated places more livable.

Around 41% of New York commuters using the subway - and we’re talking about a city of 18.5 million. If you’re using a platform that breaks after a certain number of messages to notify users of delays, you would have been better off not doing anything, at all. Scale is a must have for the platform you choose if you want to avoid that outcome.

All these 3 factors - deliverability, dependability and scale - are crucial if you want to streamline the communications in a way that would make your city smart. Because you want to do it the smart way, too, don’t you? And this is not a small thing. Once you jump into it, It’s an enormous responsibility on your hands. Making sure you pick the right provider that has a dependable, safe platform that won’t leave you hanging in the most dire of moments is part of doing it right, if you’re already doing it.  

Our platform offers all this… but it also resolves one of the key issues citizens could find in the whole concept of smart cities -  security.

Tackling the security challenge

Something as big as what we’re talking about here is bound to change how we think, work, communicate - actually, that’s the whole point of what it should do, except we’re all thinking about this in a positive light. Looking at the other side of the coin, it’s a real possibility that cities could lose some of the charms they currently offer, and become places to avoid rather than flock to despite the smooth solutions resolving messy aspects of lives there.

There can be comfort in chaos - smoothness and organization make for just one part of livability. For some reason, regardless of intense traffic jams, we still like living in the city.

A lot of people find big cities thrilling because they can get lost in the crowds, bond with other passengers over a random train delay they weren’t informed of, retain their anonymity in the masses.

You don’t get lost in the crowds enough to merge with them with GPS tracking your every move, you don’t get to accidentally meet cool people when you miss your ride when you get omnichannel notifications about said ride and time of departure...and in all that, you definitely don’t get to feel like you’ve retained your anonymity and like your privacy has been left intact.

From the perspective of someone looking to create a smart city and make it work - what can you do about this? How can you reshape your city and the way it works without tearing its proverbial heart out?

It might take a lot to reassure people about their private information being safe and not being abused or misused. Trust is earned, not given - and it takes one second to lose it after building it for a long while. So you have to make sure that you earn the citizens’ trust by making sure the solution you pick has all the security standards in place, vouching for safe handling of confidential information people find scary to divulge (and information you need if you’re going to cater to their needs and give them what they need and when and how they need it in a smart city).

That way you can prove yourself to them in the field, not relying on just fancy words and promises to break their fear of the new and unknown.  

If you go about it that way, it will eventually be like cameras in shopping malls - a couple of decades ago, everyone was horrified and mistrustful of them. Now, who even notices them there anymore? Except, unlike with cameras, you have a better chance of vouching for the confidentiality of your citizens’ information by using our platform with all its strict security standards in place, already, easy for people to see and, when push comes to shove, actually working.

All set, ready to go?

Maybe not quite, not yet. Shaping a smart city would, after all, make for a giant project that would consume a significant amount of time and effort, as well as require a lot of adapting from all sides involved. But like all great things that are meant to last, it has to be planned in advance. The sooner you start thinking about a city - wide communications plan, and its many details, the sooner you will flesh out a viable strategy.

In the end, it all starts with finding a provider that is able to tackle all the technological challenges and truly stand behind citywide communications.

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