An open source cityscape

A smart city is a sensitive city, positions Katie Foster, Director, International Marketing, GitHub.

When we talk about smart cities we view them as an abstract concept. We believe they will be created from scratch by future generations, bringing to life outlandish depictions of city life from pop culture, such as Futurama’s ‘New New York’.

However, the reality is that smart cities are already being created around us. You may not have noticed yet because most real world smart city implementations make better use of existing infrastructure rather than comprising fantastical new developments. But, if you are looking in the right places, you can already see elements of the fictional ‘smart city’ springing to life.

In New York, for example, rubbish bins and recycling units developed by Bigbelly, a US-based technology and waste management company, can automatically notify collection agencies when they are full. In the UK, the Bristol is Open project is exploring how big data can be used to solve problems such as air pollution, traffic congestion and assisted living for the elderly. These both sound like exciting initiatives but before this type of smart service becomes standard there are a number of challenges that need to be solved.

Demand for developers

As the examples above illustrate, the smart city uses a network of connected devices to harvest data. This data will then be categorised and analysed, enabling infrastructure to make autonomous decisions about it own operations. At the heart of smart city initiatives will be developers, who create the technology layer that underpins these services. They will need to work with civil planners and engineers to create projects that work at a social and technological level.

However, turning a city from a collection of silent structures to an interactive ecosystem is no small task, and will require an army of developers to implement. Automating everything from parking to power generation is a huge undertaking, so considering the ‘Digital Skills Gap’ in the UK, sourcing and onboarding the requisite digital talent may represent a huge challenge.

A likely side effect of this demand for digital skills may be the recruitment of people with a high level of technical knowledge, but fewer formal qualifications than traditionally expected for ‘professional’ roles. This represents an already growing culture shift. Through the proliferation of open source platforms and collaborative development, younger generations are increasingly gaining their interest in STEM subject matter through gaming, coding and programming in their free time, rather than in a textbook at school.

Securing smart cities

Another challenge in developing smart cities is security, due to an exponential increase in the number of connected devices that exist on the network. This increases the number of potential entry points for cybercriminals looking to exploit consumer and corporate data.

The severe consequences of data breaches are well documented; for example, the December 2015 hack which took several Ukrainian electricity substations offline. With the proliferation of interconnected city-wide networks, there is a real risk that we will see more of these incidents.

Although the security of smart cities poses one of the most serious challenges to the concept, I believe it is one the development community can rise to. The key to doing so will be collaboration. The sheer volume of access points to the city network can seem daunting and even the most experienced developer or security professional could fail to spot every vulnerability. However, if the code for smart cities is created using open source platforms, it would allow the worldwide development community to peer-review and patch flaws – vastly reducing the number of vulnerabilities that would go unnoticed.

This could be taken one step further to develop future global standards for certain smart city initiatives. After all, just open sourcing smart code doesn’t guarantee its adoption. Getting buy-in from numerous developers on core smart city projects around the globe will go a long way to drive standardisation with enhanced security.

A smoother city experience

There are many reasons why so much public investment is already being made in smart cities. The main benefit of course is that the better connected and more interactive a city is, the smoother and more ‘seamless’ a person’s everyday experience.

For example, imagine you are driving into an unfamiliar city in the dark. Sensors in streetlights could detect the presence of your car and light your way. Sensors transmitting to your car could also guide you to the nearest available parking space. And in the event of a breakdown, the appropriate services could be notified, all done seamlessly and automatically.

But aside from reducing everyday irritations and frustrations that are often a byproduct of city life, smart cities can lead to change on a much greater scale. Energy usage will become much more efficient, saving money and resources. Congestion and pollution can also be reduced, making our cities not just cheaper to run, but also healthier to be in.

Best of all, the advent of smart cities means that we can all play a role in the development of our future. It is up to the tech community at large to challenge governments and contractors to develop against established standards and with open source tools, publishing open source results. This will advance collaboration with the wider population, meaning everyone gets a say in how a city is, quite literally, run. A rose-tinted vision? Perhaps. But with the technological pace of change and continued uptake of open source by companies and state institutions across the globe, I am hedging my bets that the future of the ‘smart city’ looks to be a bright one.


Edited for web by Cecilia Rehn.