Creating Future-Proof Smart Cities With The IoT

June 05, 2018

The Internet of Things (IoT) holds the promise of deliver a number of benefits to local governments, cities and citizens by connecting important devices and applications to the Internet. Because municipal infrastructure is so critical to our daily lives, cities must implement solutions that are robust, cost-effective and—most importantly—based on sound principles that make them reliable and future-proof. IoT networks must demonstrate specific characteristics across six key areas: return on investment (ROI), connectivity, standards, network architecture, security and data management.


Open standards-based ecosystems deliver improved interoperability, choice and competition among vendors, enabling cities to avoid vendor lock-in and encouraging innovation that delivers superior products at reduced price points. A proliferation of new IoT standards has made it difficult to choose among them, but field-proven, IPv6 standards-based networks provide a sound bedrock for future use cases. Selecting the standard on which a solution is based is as important as choosing the solution itself.

In addition to a number of non-cellular IoT standards, new cellular standards are emerging to allow service providers to enter the market.

Alternatively, as an example, Wi-SUN is an industry alliance that leverages IEEE 802.15.4g and has existed for years. While it doesn’t get as much press as recent standards or alliances, Wi-SUN runs a robust testing and certification program that ensures products actually integrate smoothly in the field.

Backwards compatibility is also crucial to future-proofing. A city cannot afford to update all of its infrastructure just because a vendor, or standard, doesn’t support previous versions. To make sure, cities should require vendors to refer them to others who have deployed multiple generations of hardware on the same network over several years.

Network Architecture—Star vs. Mesh

There are numerous network architectures to consider. However, mesh networks offer clear advantages over traditional star-based networks, such as cellular and Wi-Fi, that make them well suited for critical infrastructure. Star architectures require a clear line of sight to a base station from all devices, making them inflexible to changing conditions and leaving holes in coverage areas. Because each device adds a new network node that communicates with others, mesh networks increase in reliability and performance with each additional device deployed, forming multiple, redundant pathways. Conversely, star networks’ per-device throughput declines with each unit added.

Mesh networks are more flexible, extensible and efficient than their star counterparts and they are self-forming and self-healing, increasing flexibility by enabling devices to adapt to local outages. This modularity delivers extensibility for new applications to be added as needed, and communicating directly with one another at the edge forms rapid, efficient exchanges required for advanced applications.

Connectivity Type and Speed

Today’s largest IoT networks will seem small a decade from now, so new deployments should be capable of more than just meeting current requirements. More robust bandwidth, ubiquitous coverage and resiliency will be necessary. Many current solutions offer only one-way connectivity, but two-way communication improves network command, control, and visibility. It also allows for over-the-air software and firmware updates, enabling operators to interact with devices and preventing expensive field visits. Updates can be sent to enhance security, to program devices to send new types of data, or to simply send existing data more frequently for near real-time telemetry.

Cities should match the right connectivity to any particular use case. For devices that don’t send data frequently, some companies advocate for low-power, wide-area wireless networking solutions (LPWA). However, they are often unsuitable for critical infrastructure because they offer limited bandwidth and security, and lack standards-based interoperability. Together, these insufficiencies prevent the massive scalability needed to support future uses. In limited-data and remote use cases, a small-form battery-powered device with a long life may be better.

For powered stationary devices, solutions such as those offered by Wi-SUN can prove ideal. If cities want to offer bandwidth to the community or extend networks into the home, then Wi-Fi may be most suitable. For devices that are mobile and require very high data rates, such as for driverless cars or fleet telematics, cellular may be required. Often, a combination of these technologies is best—for example, cities may use Wi-SUN to connect devices in the field, then use cellular to aggregate and backhaul that traffic to a central location for management or analytics. 


Nearly everyone in security is aware of last Fall’s IoT security breach, when infected devices were used to attack Dyn DNS in the biggest DDoS attack to date. While that attack was inconvenient, it would pale in comparison if more critical municipal infrastructure had been compromised, where taking control of something as simple as a city’s traffic light could cause fatalities.

This is why smart cities must safeguard IoT with military-grade security, including authentication, authorization and encryption. Cities should look to industries where IoT security is field-proven — for example, if security is stringent enough for utilities, then the same concepts could be successfully applied to cities. Multiple layers of security and discreet division of systems and access roles are important for securing IoT infrastructure so that, even if a hacker compromises a device or monitor, they will not be able to control entire systems or access other parts of the network.

Incorporating tamper detection and resistance technologies into IoT endpoints, ensuring that each connection operates with separate smart grid security credentials, and requiring that its digital signature be verified before initiating any firmware upgrades are key IoT security components. Encrypting data transmissions between endpoints and applications, which reduces the possibility that inside personnel can issue commands across smart grid infrastructure outside of their jurisdiction, is a key element. The more complicated it is for hackers or their software to control entire systems, the better.

Big Data and Network Management

Cities need to not only manage their IoT networks and devices but to derive insights from the data generated by these intelligent endpoints to reduce costs, improve operations and increase citizen engagement. As insights are garnered, the process often drives an increasing need formore frequent—or near real-time—data.

Cities typically do not have the massive IT resources of large enterprises, but cities and enterprises share the need for connectivity-agnostic, easy-to-use, cost-efficient, public cloud-based network and data management platforms. Cloud-based platforms deliver the flexibility and scalability required for future growth and enable new use cases to be added as cloud capabilities and applications evolve.

ROI and Financial Sustainability

Street lights may very well be the most important smart cities application in existence. More specifically, they play a critical role in the development and deployment of smart cities applications because they are powered and elevated, delivering an extended line of sight for communication. Depending on its topography, in some cases networking just five percent of a city’s street lights can deliver a full canopy network. What’s important to note is that this use case has already demonstrated a well-defined cost structure and benefits to both municipalities and citizens. Once the initial canopy is funded and deployed, the marginal cost of adding other devices or new applications drops dramatically.

Cities are learning that smart city solutions, such as networked street lights, must demonstrate a quick ROI. Replacing existing street lights with LED-based lamps can cut energy and operations costs by 50 percent or more. Did you know that existing legacy, non-networked street lights can eat up as much as 40 percent of a city’s energy budget? Networking those LEDs delivers even faster ROI, reducing the payback period 25 percent – from eight years to six years – due to capabilities such as remote management and faster response to outages.

Additionally, newly implemented infrastructure must maintain a long life in real-world deployments, and must be massively scalable and integrate seamlessly with existing and future technologies and applications. The best IoT devices are built to last at least 15 years, including the battery. Cities should demand the same longevity and ease of deployment and integration from all aspects of the IoT network.

What’s Next?

The ideal cloud-based platform allows two critical uses. One is the simplified sharing of analytics-based insights with citizens, government, utility, and public agencies. The other is the ability to make these private networks public, leveraging existing network assets to potentially offer IoT Platform-as-a-Service. In areas where such a platform is deployed, it should become more entrenched as a vital IoT solution when deployments accelerate across the globe – delivering greater insights into usage patterns that can inform planning and other future smart cities infrastructure and application decision-making.

Soon, streetlights and other elevated assets will host numerous smart, sustainable technologies with shared benefits including: controllable smart LED lights, community WiFi, environmental sensing (e.g., temperature, air quality, light intensity), video cameras and shot sensors for public safety, and smart transportation, and parking or traffic management systems. Cities such as Glasgow, Bristol, Copehagan and Melbourne are already experiencing such benefits. Connected and controlled by an IoT backbone and managed by a cloud-based platform, data from these systems can be leveraged for a variety of benefits such as saving precious resources, as well as reducing ongoing operation and maintenance costs. However, without future-proofing today’s investments to deliver a robust smart city environment, the benefits and ROI required may not materialize in time for leaders to justify the ongoing expense to deliver on the promise of the IoT.

A key question for the future is how digital disruption will affect the smart city landscape. But one thing is certain: if municipalities don’t ensure that their IoT deployments are future-proofed, they may never see the benefits of such a disruptive platform, and could be left in the dust of digital disruption.

John Marcolini is the Vice President of Product Management for Networked Solutions at Itron.

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