They say that necessity is the mother of invention. With all the need that exists in the world today, I’d say we’re in for a lot of innovation.

The world is facing some tremendous challenges – both natural and man-made: earthquakes and tsunamis, epidemics and drought, civil unrest and social disenfranchisement, infrastructure breakdown and sweeping population shifts.

By the middle of this century, the number of people living in cities is projected to climb from 4 billion to more than 6.5 billion people. Asian cities are at the center of this urban flux. India and China’s combined urban populations are projected to grow by 700 million people by 2050. In 10 years, Indonesia’s urban population will reach 183 million, up from 120 million today. Greater Jakarta (Jabodetabek) will grow to more than 40 million by 2050 from the current 27 million inhabitants today – more than 9.6 million currently live in Jakarta (DKI) proper.

Providing safe drinking water is a challenge in many cities in many developing countries, as well as other issues like traffic and flooding. The impact of these challenges creates a critical need to tailor urban service offerings and deliver them to those living and working in cities around the globe now and into the future. The time is right for a robust global urban services marketplace to address cities’ challenges and deliver the right services.

What must we do differently going forward? 

To successfully seize the opportunities associated with the current shifts and anticipate what’s coming, city leaders need to view challenges differently. Typically, issues such as education, healthcare, traffic, parking, lighting, security, waste management, and water management have been assessed and addressed in silos. What if they were seen and addressed in an integrated fashion?

City leaders must look at the root of the challenges their cities face and ask new questions – what are the causes of traffic, the real costs of medical treatment, the limitations of the current education systems – and recognize and address the interrelationship of these challenges in seeking solutions.

To keep up with the rapid influx of new city dwellers, the constraints on resources and budgets, the effects of climate change – both environmental and political – and other critical factors, leaders are turning to technology – which, as other costs rise, continues to become more powerful and less expensive.

Already cities around the world are realizing that the moment is now to invest in a smart digital infrastructure, one that can support a city’s physical infrastructure along with its processes, people, systems and data, and can leverage mobile, video and sensing devices. That same infrastructure must also help to enrich the livability of a city by providing a means for citizen engagement and a respect for resources, the environment, and the nuances of a city’s cultural identity – the stuff that makes it different from other cities. And it must do so in a way that makes the city more economically viable and sustainable, too.

The good news is that both citizens and government recognize the need to get smarter about the coming challenges and the resources it will take to address them. Both want to improve the way urban services are offered and seek opportunities to collaborate to fine-tune the way these services and city agencies work, and how well they work together. Entrepreneurs and businesses can also benefit from these shifts, but to realize these opportunities for new solutions, they have to keep up with the technological changes.

Harnessing the power of the internet 

With the cost of computing, storage and bandwidth dropping, the use of technology to address challenges is opening up new possibilities. Faster, smaller, smarter devices are bringing together data in new ways. The connectivity of smart objects – and there may be as many as 75 billion connected devices and machines as well as objects and people  by 2050 – is already beginning to demonstrate some tangible benefits. According to the technology industry analyst firm Gartner, almost 1.1 billion of those connected things will be used by smart cities this year alone: buses, light poles, traffic signals, garbage cans, park sprinklers, water pipes, the list of objects and processes becoming connected is nearly endless.

Increasingly, the Internet of Everything offers new ways to make our lives as citizens smarter, more efficient and more informed – while, at the same time, delivering cost savings to government. Connected infrastructure – from toll roads, to parking places to utility meters – delivers real-time “actionable” information around costs, conditions, usage and utilization to citizens and government alike. Citizens can find available parking immediately or reduce electricity use at home, while government can allocate the right resources at the right time to a wider range of citizens and charge appropriate fees, deliver services, and manage public infrastructure.

For connectivity to have impact – and do so in ever-evolving ways – big data, devices and applications must seamlessly interact. Solutions must support and enhance those processes that connect citizens to government by executing back-office actions (triggering alerts, creating service requests or producing utility bills, for instance) based on real-time data from connected devices. The end result is improved efficiencies, more citizen engagement, and ultimately the emergence of a truly smart public sector.

The synergistic value for the Internet of Everything has been estimated at $19 trillion over the next eight years – with $4.6 trillion of that figure attributed specifically to public-sector activities. Already today, the real-world solutions and opportunities created by the exponential, new combinations of hardware and mobile devices, software and applications, and the data and actionable information are visible.

We’re so appy…

In 2007 there were slightly more than 3,000 mobile apps total. In 2010 the number of apps for iPhone reached 250,000 and this year the number of apps for Apple and Android devices alone has topped 2.5 million. Applications represent an unfathomably large new market opportunity and are already gathering and presenting a slice of “big data” on every conceivable topic. Applications are cropping up everywhere that mash up myriad data sets with maps to deliver guidance and decision support to individuals (“When will my bus arrive?”, ”Where is the closest gas station?”) to city officials (”Where are the biggest traffic bottlenecks?”, ”What crew is available to fill those new potholes reported today?”). And this is just the beginning of an enormous new market.

Public sector organizations can leverage Internet of Everything capabilities for more direct citizen engagement and feedback, and to make high-impact changes to how services are delivered. The plethora of data from sensors, cameras, social media, and many other sources has already arrived and the rush is on to build all manner of applications that can make sense of the data onslaught and deliver actionable, context-relevant information both to humans and to other machines. Not only will we and our ecosystem of partners continue to strive to develop solutions for cities, citizens and businesses for smarter traffic, smarter parking, smarter lighting, smarter and easier access to government information and other services, but we will have a lot of company.

Opening up legacy and new data streams has already begun stimulating a new economic tour de force in the form of throngs of application developers around the globe – in big and small companies, in start-ups and incubators – busy crafting applications that can make sense of the data onslaught and deliver actionable, context-relevant information both to humans and to other machines, an enormous new urban services marketplace.

Let’s take a look at some examples…

Bridge over troubled water

Water is a critical concern for all humans. Even Californians have had to confront shortages with the latest drought. But the challenges are particularly keen in the developing world where poor-quality water regularly results in illness and death. Did you know that 443 million school days are lost each year due to water-related diseases? That half of the world’s hospital beds are filled with people suffering from a water-related disease? That poor-quality drinking water kills the equivalent of 20 jumbo jets filled with children every day.

Water for People is a non-government organization to help people worldwide gain and keep access to clean water. It was born of the vision of water technology leaders at CH2M and Black & Veatch and the American Water Works Association (AWWA). Water for People’s mobile-based programme called FLOW allows individuals in developing nations to collect and share location data and photos of clean water testing and processing facilities in their regions over the long term so the information can be analyzed and shared with investors, donors and other stakeholders in more than 300 organizations where it is being used for field monitoring, and so that successes can be duplicated in other areas.

Applications are available or under development to address many water issues including consumption, quality, leakage and waste water management.

Another application that was originally developed for NASA to test water quality for astronauts in space has now come down to earth. mWater is a free system that leverages an open database, uses a mobile phone’s built-in camera to capture microscopic images of water over time, and compares the image to a database in the cloud to colonies of coliform and E. coli bacteria grown on glass plates.

I spoke in late April at the Smart Water Network Forum in London on smart water and smart cities. The conference drew city leaders, researchers and technology experts from around the globe. The many presentations and discussions that followed explored fresh and waste water issues, water policy and the innovations that rely on the use of myriad sensors, video, and connections to mobile and satellite equipment.

Smart water initiatives not only deliver more reliable benefits to citizens and cost savings and efficiencies to a city, they can also extend the information impact to other agencies and industries that rely on water – fire safety, parks and recreation, manufacturing and healthcare. Applications – current and upcoming – can harness integrated data to present unrealized relationships, resource patterns and opportunities for optimization and even additional revenue generation.

And of course water is just one area the many interrelated “verticals” that city leaders must keep in check for their citizens.

Scaling the marketplace from local to global

Suppose your city requires urgent assets at short notice, such as an extra firetruck or an earth mover, and a nearby city has these available. New technologies would allow the need to be surfaced and the surplus to identified more quickly. And applications could perhaps even manage the transfer and usage agreements with equitable terms benefiting both cities. Suppose this type of business exchange could happen with a reach further than the next town over.

When cities take their operations to a connected digital infrastructure to address local challenges, there is a secondary benefit, one that extends the impact of local data beyond the local city limits – even beyond country borders. When the data is made available via the internet (in accordance with security and privacy options), it’s no longer necessary to rely on management solutions or providers that are proximal to the systems or the challenges. Once digitized, data can readily flow across a city’s vertical agencies and to citizens and businesses via wired and wireless devices, across standardized interfaces and data structures, into applications of every stripe. But it can also flow across physical city boundaries to analytical and management experts wherever they reside.

Let’s take the water use example again. In Israel – where water management is a matter of daily survival – water-management vendors TaKaDu and Hagihon have joined forces and are taking their combined expertise to the global urban services marketplace. Connected leak-detecting acoustic sensors, ERP systems, mobile app technology and advanced analytics (via SCADA and GIS systems) allow the two companies to provide water management for Jerusalem and other towns in Israel, but also to other far-flung cities: Adelaide, Bilbao, Singapore, Santiago and others. Smart water management and conservation solutions integrate leak-detecting acoustic sensors.

Opportunities for improvement and growth

Effectively transforming challenges into positive results and new opportunities takes the combined efforts of government, industry, academia and individual citizens with innovative ideas to make it a reality. It will take many layers of expertise.

That is why Cisco is already working with a growing number of partners with expertise in many areas. We are now working with technology and process experts worldwide in, say, water sensors, road sensors, GPS, video cameras, image analysis, seismic metering, gas spectrometry, and many others to develop application program interfaces (APIs) that can capture and harness the data coming from these devices.

The growing urban services marketplace will welcome thousands of application developers – who will have the opportunity to harness data for needs that range from hyper-local to hyper-global and everything in between. The sensor development market will also continue to evolve – as devices get smaller and smarter. The energy storage industry is also evolving, creating batteries that will draw power from alternative sources and retain power longer.

It is a very exciting time. And, it’s going to get even more exciting as time goes on.

Author: Anil Menon, President, Smart+Connected Communities, Cisco

Image: Water drips from a standing pipe on Boucher Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland December 30, 2010. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton