How tomorrow’s ‘smart cities’ will think for themselves (with the help of edge computing)

Imagine a city that thinks for itself, ensuring that deliveries arrive the first time, ‘parting’ traffic to allow emergency vehicles to their destinations, and even reuniting people with lost pets.

That’s the promise of the next generation of smart cities – known as ‘cognitive cities’.

The first smart cities could sense but not act, but cognitive cities will sense and then respond. The key to this will be sensors and edge computing distributed through streets. Many of the smart cities of the future will be ‘greenfield’: new cities, built from the ground up to incorporate intelligence, with edge computing built into everything from streetlamps to bins. For the people that live in these cities, edge computing will deliver real, measurable improvements to their lives – from finding parking spaces instantly to cutting energy bills using predictive intelligence.

Emphasis on edge in cognitive cities

When creating a cognitive city, the fundamental need is to move the computing power to where data is generated: where people live, work and travel. That applies whether you’re building a totally new smart city or retrofitting technology to a pre-existing ‘brownfield’ city.  Either way, edge is key here. You’re dealing with information from sensors in rubbish bins, drains, and cameras in traffic lights. You need to react to these in real time, for example to address water problems or get frontline responders to the site of a traffic incident.

In today’s smart cities, the focus has always been on capturing data: whether that’s for monitoring traffic hotspots or looking for water leaks. But in years to come the city itself will respond dynamically to the changing physical world, adjusting energy use in real-time to respond to the weather, for example.

The evolution of monitoring has come from a machine-to-machine foundation, with the introduction of the Internet of Things (IoT) and now artificial intelligence (AI) becoming transformational in enabling smart technologies to become dynamic. Emerging AI technologies such as large language models will also play a role going forward, making it easy for both city planners and ordinary citizens to interact with the city they live in.  Edge will be the key ingredient which gives us effective control of these cities of the future.

To enable this sort of rapid, responsive service, edge is crucial: you need to move the computing power to the streets themselves. It’s part of a wider shift away from single-use analogue sensors, such as traffic or smoke sensors, and into the use of smart cameras, built to generate data but also preserve privacy.

Smarter streets

In the smart cities of the future, technology will be built to respond to human needs. Sustainability is the biggest problem facing cities – and by far the biggest contributor is the automobile. Smart cities will enable the move towards reducing traffic, and towards autonomous vehicles directed efficiently through the streets. Deliveries which are not successful the first time are one example. These are a key driver of congestion, as drivers have to return to the same address repeatedly. In a cognitive city, location data that shows when a customer is home can be shared anonymously with delivery companies – with their consent – so that more deliveries arrive on the first attempt.

Smart parking will be another important way to reduce congestion and make the streets more efficient.  Edge computing nodes will sense empty parking spaces and direct cars there in real-time. They will also be a key enabler for autonomous driving, delivering more data points to autonomous systems in cars. In the smart cities of the future, roads will be designed around autonomy, with vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication.

Edge computing can also help to get first responders to the scene of incidents faster. Smart city infrastructure can detect a fire in a building through vision-based sensors and trigger an alarm. Emergency services are alerted, and AI can preconfigure the safest and quickest route to get to the scene, rerouting other vehicles if necessary.

Privacy prioritised

Video is used to offer situational awareness of everything from overflowing bins to traffic movements, rather than for surveillance. Smart cameras will help reunite people with lost pets, for example, with AI identifying the pets as they move between cameras. In any smart city, privacy is the number one concern. The smart cities of the future won’t capture data for the sake of it, but for the purpose of delivering improved services. If citizens are trusting city planners with their information, they need to get back more than they give.

Edge can also help with sustainability in the home. Even the smartest of smart homes detects occupancy and only turns off the air conditioning when people leave. You could gain a huge amount by slowly turning it down in the hour before someone leaves, using sensors and AI to predict this. Cities will use advanced computing technology to monitor real-time activities in buildings, allowing authorities to match energy supply with demand.

The cognitive cities of the future will also provide augmented reality experiences which will help people who are visually or hearing impaired, delivering text-to-speech and voice-to-text with the help of large language models. Edge will be key here too: when it comes to a visually impaired person crossing a road, milliseconds count. Computing cannot be confined to a data centre – in a truly cognitive city, the streets themselves will pulse with data.

Nodes, roads and workloads

When building a smart city from scratch, you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of computing nodes, located all over the city. This requires planning. The nodes need to be part of the built environment, such as inside lamps on the street. Each device also has different requirements around cooling and latency: you can’t just throw a PC in a cabinet. When you build a new smart city, you’re able to integrate these far more effectively, so that they are less visible and easily accessible for service engineers.

But if you’re retrofitting, there are still ways to deliver computing power to where it needs to be, both in devices like smart streetlamps and in cabinets. In cities such as Barcelona, London or Paris, there is an abundance of service cabinets that are providing either mobile or telco services – or even access to water. Service engineers can adapt them to interact with the network. Believe it or not, these are your future data centres.

Cities of the future

Whether fitted to existing cities or built in ‘greenfield’ to incorporate smart technology throughout its fabric, the smart city of the future will be a truly human-centric place. Built around citizen engagement, these large-scale infrastructure projects will bring together key foundational blocks to support everything from communication networks and transportation to public safety and energy efficiency.

At the heart of this will be edge computing nodes on every street, delivering insights harvested from sensors and cameras to allow the city to ‘think’ for itself. Today’s smart cities are just the beginning. The cognitive city of the future will create a safer, happier, more sustainable way to live.

About the Author

Anthony Sayers is Edge IOT/IIOT Ambassador, EMEA Edge Computing at Lenovo. Lenovo is a US$62 billion revenue global technology powerhouse, ranked #217 in the Fortune Global 500, employing 77,000 people around the world, and serving millions of customers every day in 180 markets. Focused on a bold vision to deliver smarter technology for all, Lenovo has built on its success as the world’s largest PC company by further expanding into growth areas that fuel the advancement of ‘New IT’ technologies (client, edge, cloud, network, and intelligence) including server, storage, mobile, software, solutions, and services.

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