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Smart infrastructure: 6 keys to making your city smarter

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As we enter a new decade, cities at all levels understand that “digital transformation” is not about replacing legacy systems. Digital transformation is about leveraging technology to decrease the cost of operations, improve citizen services, and enable economic growth.

Cities that fail to pursue digital transformation strategies may realize unforeseen negative outcomes to their communities and citizens in the form of economic challenges that impact transportation system experiences, public health and social services programs, and at-risk communities.

City officials often prioritize public-facing services for digital investment, like online and mobile services, social service case management, and overall access to information. However, improvements in the management of infrastructure may have a greater impact. In fact, when the United Nations Economic Commission defined 90 performance indicators for “smart and sustainable cities,” 46 of them were related to government infrastructure (telecommunications, water and power utilities, transportation, or sanitation/pollution).

What is a smart city?

The term smart city has perhaps become a catch-all phrase for smart city infrastructure. There is no smart city platform, or a single city that could claim to be “smart”.  What we see is that key infrastructure within a city—sustainable lighting, traffic, safety, water management, waste management, social housing, and care can all be made smarter, more efficient, and responsive through the use of cloud, the Internet of Things (IoT), and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

“Smart infrastructure” is a great opportunity for cities to improve the quality of life for their residents. In addressing this opportunity, Microsoft sees six key elements that help drive successful outcomes for city digital transformation.

  1. Start with outcomes

As with many technology initiatives, it is tempting to rapidly implement new technology before there is a goal for how to use it. Microsoft has seen customers deploy IoT sensors before knowing how they will manage the resulting data, or what they really want to learn from the data.

For example, we came across a city that had a great project in having cyclists record the location of potholes as they rode around the city. The cyclists within weeks dutifully had logged every pothole in key districts. However, they were very disappointed to find that the potholes were not repaired within days of being reported. Most cities cannot allocate road repair in short order, there are fixed annual budgets for repairs.

Cities must first identify their goals and outcomes for their smart infrastructure initiatives. These goals should be in the form of measurable public results, aligned to the local and regional priorities of the government. As stated previously, a good source for sample metrics is the United Nations Economic Commission for smart and sustainable cities. Once goals are clear, there must be clarity on how to deliver the outcomes that are produced by the smart infrastructure insights.

  1. Design for security, privacy

Cybersecurity and data privacy cannot be protective measures added to a digital transformation initiative. They must be core principles designed into every solution from the get-go. When a government begins collecting data from thousands of previously disconnected pieces of infrastructure, the security of how that data is collected, transmitted, stored, and used—and how that data may reflect public activities that require privacy—must be understood and safeguarded.

Microsoft spends over $1 billion a year in cybersecurity infrastructure and data privacy practices within Azure alone. Tools and services within Azure can extend that security to edge devices, connected workstations, and the networks in between. Going a step further, solutions like Microsoft 365 Security Center, Microsoft 365 Compliance Center, Microsoft System Center, and Windows Defender, along with a strong identity management capability built on Active Directory, can give cities a level of data security and privacy/access control needed in today’s connected world. The Microsoft Azure cloud provides a great deal of control in data residency and compliance.

  1. Right thing, right time

For most growing urban centers, city infrastructure is ever-changing. It is very difficult to simultaneously upgrade a complex system like a regional wastewater treatment network or public power grid when the needs and uses of that system are evolving. Microsoft has seen a need for government customers to include in their digital transformation plans tools like digital twins and geospatial mapping to ensure effective management of their digital transformation plan.

For example, when Tel Aviv, Israel wanted to implement their smart city services for citizens, they integrated everything into their government geolocation system. Every service, therefore, exists in a specific place, and citizens interacting with the city through a mobile app are referenced in perspective to those services. In this way, the system can intelligently understand transportation requests and infrastructure issue reports within the context of location.

  1. Remove data silos

Many cities function with autonomy between various departments and agencies. However, meaningful insights that can improve government operations often exist in the area between these resulting data silos. When it comes to managing infrastructure, this may require integrating data from completely independent operations, such as financial procurement that manages the acquisition of equipment, a customer service group that receives complaints from citizens about failing services, and a public works or maintenance department that uses equipment to fix failing services.

The city of Lafayette, Louisiana removed data silos across the city as part of its effort to create a unified capability to improve citizen services. By integrating data through a unified citizen engagement service, they improved services ranging from transportation to education, to energy and water management.

  1. Think tactical and iterate

In many cases, managing infrastructure will involve the use of IoT sensors to monitor systems, seeking to sense performance anomalies before they become major problems. Before deploying IoT everywhere, however, it is best to define tactical priorities—maybe one service or one function—to learn how IoT will impact operations, data management, and service costs.

For example, when Miami-Dade County, Florida, started their digital transformation journey, they chose to begin with their sewage pump stations. They deployed IoT sensors along over 6,000 miles of sewer pipes, and at 1,000 pump stations. Then they brought that data into a managed environment using Azure IoT Hub as their collection and communications environment, and Power BI as their dashboard monitoring tool. By proactively managing water pressure, flow rate, and rainwater runoff, they reduced issue detection times from days to seconds and complied with a federal government mandate to improve sewage management practices.

  1. Get predictive

Investing in digital infrastructure pays off when cities move beyond the ability to simply monitor and respond to issues. Cities can use IoT to get real-time information about the state of their infrastructure, such as water and energy usage. Further leveraging external data sources, they can then use predictive analytics to create “infrastructure forecasts” to identify potential performance issues before they happen. From weather trends to social media and traffic patterns to event calendars, they can begin to model shifting infrastructure demands and predict estimates for time and severity of disruptions.

Recently, Microsoft helped Kaga City, Japan, address challenges with seasonal snow events. By using GPS to pinpoint snowplow location and progress, integrating data reporting about snow-related issues, and leveraging mobile terminals to deploy snowplows, all communicating with Azure IoT Hub, Kaga City is able to optimize snow removal and keep the city functioning during their worst winter storms.

Learn more

Microsoft has been serving government customers for over four decades and has technology, partner solutions, and consulting services aligned to government public works and infrastructure management.  You can also download this e-book, which dives deeper into these six key elements of smart infrastructure.