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NOV 13 2019

Let’s turn sustainability into a standard for cities?


More than half of the world’s population currently lives in cities, thus housing, economic and social challenges have been significantly increasing, leading municipalities to suffer from a major pressure towards the implementation of measures to help them achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), introduced by the United Nations (UN) in 2015.

After all, when evaluated on a global scale, cities are currently responsible for 70% of the pollutant substances emissions into the atmosphere and for 60 to 80% of the energy consumption, even though “only” covering 3% of the planet’s territory. One of the UN’s ultimate goals is to turn cities more inclusive, safer, more resilient and sustainable. To this end, it envisions, for example, to achieve an overall improvement of global road safety and enable accessible, safe, sustainable and affordable transportation systems by 2030, through the expansion of the public transportation networks, a measure that will also play its part on reducing the negative environmental impact, with a special focus towards air quality and urban waste management.

Thus, it makes sense, that we’re seeing cities constantly investing in infrastructure and technological solutions that collect and digitize urban data from sensors, platforms and applications. These solutions have been implemented to assist cities on solving these challenges and aiming at, on one side, to optimize operations and processes and on the other, to reduce the consumption of resources and the environmental impact of these services. When looking back on some of the Smart Cities magazine editions it’s easy to find several use cases implemented in Portugal: parking monitoring and traffic management, waste collection routes optimization, rewarding systems associated with citizens’ sustainable behaviours and share of air quality, noise and weather conditions data, as well as investment in cycleways and bike-sharing systems. These are just some examples of the applications that our smart cities have been successfully implementing.

However, aside from being typically oriented towards the application domain (mobility, environment, energy), these solutions are often proprietary, thus fostering some kind of vertical “silos”, blocking the interoperability with other systems and consequently limiting the access to information essential for empirical decision-making.

As an organic ecosystem comprising several entities with different needs, cities must follow an integrated approach, in which these smart systems are able to communicate with each other and allow data crossing, in order to offer a holistic perspective on the impact of decision-making (for example, by alerting citizens, drivers and logistics operators of traffic congestion on specific roadworks, correlating its environmental impact with traffic, or even coordinating irrigation and public lightning systems according to weather conditions or events organized within public areas).

This is precisely where standardization can make the difference, through open specifications for services and processes that enable data exchange between all systems (breaking the so called “silos”), and this way, allowing the calculation of indicators for sustainability and offering recommendations or guidelines for the implementation of technology to smart cities. Typically oriented by entities associated with industry and investigation (which has brought great outcomes into sectors like telecommunications and infrastructure), standardization initiatives aim to advise cities with open specifications that can add new replicability and interoperability capabilities to implemented services. ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute) was originally funded by European Commission towards the establishment of standards in the telecommunications market and now has been increasingly driving its efforts into the challenges faced by cities.

On one hand, it has been promoting an open specification to enable search and exchange of information between systems (databases, mobile apps or sensor networks), adding context to it and allowing the accurate establishment of relevant information, its format and meaning, while, on the other hand, aiming at collecting contribution of projects co-funded by the European Union and other European and international standard initiatives, but also of the own cities, in order to be able to give the best possible advice on relevant strategies and standards accordingly to the challenges faced by municipalities. A specific example would be Open and Agile Smart Cities (OASC), a non-profit international network of cities, which adopted Minimal Interoperability Mechanisms (MIMs) based on ETSI standards, among others. MIMs consist in an open interface for real-time sharing of information with context, a set of data models for the standardization of information and a platform working as a digital marketplace of data and services, already adopted by some of the cities integrating this network, among which Porto, Eindhoven, Santander and Carouge. By following this path, cities are able to guarantee that they’re not attached to a specific vendor, the technology they’re adopting has been previously validated on other regions, and that they are facilitating the development and integration of solutions in their ecosystem (the mentioned replicability), as well as the data analysis by artificial intelligence algorithms to, for example, dynamically calculate the indicators of quality of life and sustainability, specified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to guarantee cities compliance with the SDG.

Despite all the benefits that standardization can bring to technology and business in cities, it’s not surprising that meeting and engaging people on the adoption process of this kind of strategies still represents a major challenge, either due to the fragmentation of many of the existent activities, or to the lack of time left to investigate these question in agendas overloaded with current challenges. Initiatives such as OASC or the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities among others, have been capable of reducing the barriers between the different concerned parties, by aggregating the offer and demand towards the visibility of the European and international standardization activities and the identification of the cities’ needs for validation. However, there’s still a lot of work to do, particularly concerning the fact that the citizens’ needs, for example, related to their data usability, accessibility and safety, are not being adequately addressed in the process. With this purpose, it’s being elaborated a technical report to identify the citizens’ needs and correlate them with the standardization activities and bring recommendations to the different groups (ETSI, ISO, etc) on the requests and needs of the inhabitants and visitors of smart cities.

This is the perfect moment for all of us to speak up and contribute. By accessing, it’s possible to answer a few questions that will support our cities to become even smarter. Let’s do it?

Note: This article was written by Ricardo Vitorino, vice-chairman of the Cross-cutting Context Information Management group of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) and Smart Cities and R&I Manager at Ubiwhere, and was originally published Smart Cities magazine. Get to know the original publication here.