City Infrastructure for the Digital Age

May 17, 2016

city street with car lights

One of the most fundamental missions for city leaders is providing infrastructure that allows citizens to live, work and play safely and efficiently.  The type of infrastructure that cities provide has continuously evolved as needs changed and opportunities arose.


In my last post, I called out the new Smart City movement and the opportunity to unleash urban innovation. Achieving this will take a new kind of urban infrastructure purpose built for the digital age


The earliest city infrastructure included things like walls to provide protection or wells for water. New systems for energy, roads, lights and even Wi-Fi came to fruition as leaders saw trends growing and realized there was a way to deliver these things effectively for the entire community vs. letting individuals solve for them on their own.


We are at the onset of another evolution in city infrastructure. This evolution has the potential to have the greatest impact of all because it can leverage the creativity and innovation of all citizens but in a way that benefits the masses.  This is the evolution to urban digital infrastructure. Urban digital infrastructure that allows us to see, hear, feel, smell (probably not taste any time soon!) key information from across the city.


Parts of this infrastructure are at work already. Roadway cameras help with traffic flow.  Environmental sensors check air quality. Microphones triangulate gunshots. These have been useful to City Hall in delivering better service to their citizens.


Today, each one of those sensors is deployed for a very specific purpose to solve a very specific problem for a very specific user. And the problem with that is that it is both very expensive to deploy special-purpose sensors multiple times across the city. Additionally, since each is deployed for a very specific use, they haven’t been designed to empower citizens more broadly.


Urban infrastructure must be open to all. Anyone can use roads and sidewalks. Water systems and energy systems connect to any buildings through utilities. Fire departments respond to all calls. Each can be used for many purposes and therefore the costs of that infrastructure are shared broadly across everyone uses them.


Can you imagine if we did this with other city infrastructure?


As the costs of digital equipment come down, this is becoming a closer reality. Current, powered by GE, for example, has efficient, intelligent LED streetlights that can incorporate environmental sensors, microphones, vibration sensors, public Wi-Fi capabilities, cameras and other sensors that can be shared for many purposes and can be widely, and cost efficiently, deployed.  We take the data from those sensors and make it actionable through the GE Predix platform, a cloud-computing platform specifically designed for the secure collection and analysis of data from real world sensors.


Cities retain control of what kind of data and how much of it is shared with different groups of users, but once the infrastructure is in place, creating new solutions for the data can be done much more quickly. For example, one city recently asked us to analyze when pedestrians are in crosswalks to make streets safer.  We hadn’t originally set out to solve for this, but we quickly created new code that solved for this need – and we know there are countless other applications that we haven’t even thought of yet.


That’s why we are creating digital infrastructure as an open platform and actively recruiting application partners and developers who can leverage data to solve problems and innovate applications. To leverage the smarts of the independent developer community, we launched our first hackathon at IoT World last week and opened our Intelligent World Hackathon to developers globally yesterday.


The opportunities before us are enormous, but if cities continue to think about technology as a way to solve one problem at a time, they will miss the opportunity. It’s time for digital infrastructure to impact cities as the open road to growth and economic prosperity. 


Interested in learning more about how cities can get smarter, today and in the future?
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About the Author: 

As Chief Digital Officer of Current, powered by GE, John is responsible for orchestrating an enterprise-wide transformation by leveraging the capabilities of GE's Digital business.


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