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The Smart City Operating System

The idea of the city-as-platform was raised by Chicago City CTO, John Tolva, in an excellent review of Chicago’ s open data projects, and starts with the provision of an open application programming interface (API) to the city’ s data portal. Developers can use this to receive a continually updated stream of city data without manually refreshing their applications each time changes happen in the feed.  As Tolva says, this changes the city from a static provider of data to a kind of platform for application development. In turn, this leads to a rethinking of government’ s role in the smart city, moving from being a prime developer to providing a foundation for others to build upon.

A number of other projects can be considered as developing a view of the city-as-platform including:

  • The SmartSantander sensor network trial in Santander, Spain is looking to provide a common platform for a range of sensor-based applications. Barcelona is developing something similar with its Urban Labs pilots in the 22@Barcelona development. A number of start-ups are developing solutions for this new architecture, including Urbiotica with its “City Operating Systems’ for sensor network management.
  • The integrated networking services that are a core part of the Songdo IBD development in Korea are designed on a platform concept.  Cisco is building on its experience with the Songdo network to position the Cisco Unified Service Delivery Platform as an IT and communications platform for city-scale developments.
  • Living PlanIT’ s Urban Operating System a distributed middleware platform that provides monitoring and control over a network of intelligent devices, some of which may be buried in the city infrastructure.
  • IBM’ s Intelligent Operating System for Smart Cities is providing a framework for IBM’ s city solutions as in the recent announcement about the project in Zhenjiang, China and also being used in the case of Rio as the basis for a wider range of customer-driven City applications

The technical architectures and commercial models behind these approaches differ considerably, but they all aim to provide a development platform on which city agencies, suppliers and third-parties can build new applications and services for city management and citizen engagement.

Pike Research, in their model for smart cities, refer to these multiple capabilities as the Smart City Operating System   (SCOS).   The SCOS is not a single technical solution.   Instead, it consists of a number of different approaches to finding a means of making the smart city more than the sum of its parts.   To do that, it has to draw together diverse and ubiquitous systems. It is therefore not a single unified system itself but more a “platform of platforms,’ acting as a distributed middleware for linking different application areas ‘“ what engineering consultancy Arup calls an “urban information architecture.’ The city-as-platform concept also offers an alternative to thinking of the smart city as either a top-down or bottom-up project. One criticism of the smart city concept is that it is driven by a vision of grand projects suited to large property developers and global ICT companies. The early focus on smart cities was certainly more top-down as a result of the attention paid to ambitious new developments like Masdar and Songdo and also to the strong support offered by the likes of IBM and Cisco.  The rapid adoption of the smartphone as an intelligent end-user device and the growing importance of the Apple and Android apps markets has encouraged a resurgence of a more bottom-up view of the potential of urban computing platforms.

These different perspectives on city technology echo long-running debates about the nature of city planning, in particular Jane Jacobs’ famous counter-blast to the centralizing, mechanistic view of much 20th century urban planning. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs helped restore an appreciation of the messy, human, dynamic, and highly contingent, aspects of city living. The city-as-platform concept is a way for cities to encourage bottom up innovation while still making the necessary investments in the large-scale operational and infrastructure systems needed to meet the challenges of the future.

Find the original article from Eric Woods of Pike Research here.