Data: The Key to Enabling Smart Cities.


Data is the lifeblood of smart cities. It flows directly between the cameras, sensors and meters that connect our community services, from transport systems to water networks. Using data to enhance the lives of their citizens, smart cities represent the future of urban existence. Yet for all the promise, cities across the globe are still failing to make the most of data and harness its potential within urban spaces. This will be fundamental to planning and designing smart cities around the world, with urban planners relying on data from both public bodies and private organisations to design and build truly forward-looking smart cities.

There are encouraging signs that society is embracing the potential of data in the development of cities. This is demonstrated by the fact that business leaders now understand the value it offers to revolutionise everything from transport to security and sustainability, helping improve lives. According to Lenovo’s Data for Humanity report, a quarter of executives say they want to use their data to benefit humanity, and more than two-thirds expect it to be highly important in improving transport networks. It’s therefore clear that data has an extremely important role to play in the development of smart cities, and there are real-world examples where this is already happening across the globe.

Transforming transport

Barcelona’s smart city pilot demonstrates how the smart application of data can transform everything from shopping to transportation, enabling services from autonomous driving to augmented reality. Its famous La Boqueria market, for example, was the site of an innovative 5G trial providing shoppers with a virtual shopping experience. This used augmented reality to create a unique link between real-world market shopping and ecommerce.

The pilot smart city programme is also using data to power experiments in how to monitor and control traffic, with an autonomous bus driving tourists to the Fira de Barcelona Gran Via venue and roadside cameras monitoring traffic for accidents. Data is also being used to investigate ideas such as ‘smart factories’ and ‘holographic’ teaching, where teachers appear remotely. The smart city uses 5G to transform lives without the high costs of wired installations – and the city pulses with data. 

Data is delivered rapidly where it is needed with the help of edge computing enabled by server cabinets dotted around the city. Edge computing is a distributed paradigm which brings computing power closer to the sources of data. It means that data doesn’t need to be sent to a far-away data centre for processing, enabling the sort of rapid decisions and responsive services which power a smart city.  

Learning to embrace the future

Seeing data used so effectively demonstrates the tangible benefits on offer to cities and businesses today. But are leaders bold enough to embrace this future, and what factors are holding them back?

Macroeconomic factors certainly play a role, illustrated by the fact that most leaders say the energy crisis will have a ‘moderate to severe’ impact on their business, yet only a minority are taking steps to deal with it. It is therefore clear that while executives are aware of the power of data, they are still cautious about using it to deal with real-world problems, or perhaps are simply unable to extract it’s true value to do so.

If data is used to its full potential, then it will be a major step-change in the evolution of cities, especially when it comes to harnessing the huge amounts of data generated by Internet of Things (IoT) sensors. IoT technology is pivotal to how smart cities work, delivering data on everything from local weather conditions to traffic information, harvested via networks of sensors across the city.

Smart city technology has the power to improve lives, but to deliver on this promise, private enterprises and governments need to work together harmoniously. For instance, transport companies and central government can improve services by rapid data-sharing at the network’s edge.

At present, business leaders have been hesitant to collaborate, with less than half of them sharing data with external partners, citing costs and security concerns as barriers. Despite this, many organisations that currently don’t share data still intend to do so in future to help build smart transport networks. Once again, the ambition and intention to utilise data in urban spaces remains intact.

Reshaping sustainability and security

Data’s potential will be limitless, and its benefits will extend beyond efficiency to support other priorities for city planners, such as driving sustainability efforts. For example, smart city technology could make transport networks ‘smarter’ by sending messages from traffic lights to cars, allowing drivers to travel in a fuel-efficient way by driving at the right speed to avoid stopping and starting at red lights. At city scale, this can make a huge difference to sustainability efforts.

Through the use of data, security also has the potential to improve. When data is applied to CCTV cameras, a scaled acquisition model can dramatically change the way security works across a city. Previously, networks of CCTV cameras would stream to a control centre where human beings would initiate responses, which can be hugely time consuming. Artificial intelligence (AI) is changing this in smart cities, with AI being able to scan for incidents, make a decision, then send that response to a human ‘handler’.

This change means cities can take a holistic view of security, and potentially transform the way it works at scale. Data, shared effectively, allows the human decision-making process to be boosted by technology, enabling faster, well-founded, and clearer decisions. 

The data-enabled future

It’s evident that data has a crucial role to play in the creation and development of smart cities. Whether this means improving transport networks or maintaining first-class security standards, data has become the common denominator that is pushing urban landscapes into the future. When looking at cities like Barcelona, data is being used to drive innovative new projects, helping societies realise new ambitions and giving urban dwellers unique experiences that weren’t previously possible. Other cities would be advised to take note of this potential or risk being left behind.

Tikiri Wanduragala, Senior Consultant for Infrastructure Solutions at Lenovo