Smart city standards: a collaboration challenge?

Cities today are called upon to deploy the potential of smart city policies. To guide municipal action, several international standards for smart cities have emerged. Nevertheless, the sheer number of players on the scene makes a unifying effort increasingly necessary.

By Emanuele Sala

The United States Conference of Mayors claims that no fully developed and executed smart city exists anywhere today. The definition of the concept itself is still evolving, and financing strategies and models are unclear. In this general setting, many local leaders are feeling smart city fatigue, as they are trying to make sense of the barrage of pitches from vendors and private consultants now populating this field.

The only way out of this effort seems to be the use of standards for smart cities, which should ease the work at the local level and make solutions more interoperable and marketable. However, the reality is somewhat different. Multiple actors crowd the stage of smart cities’ standards, making a single codification more difficult. Some valuable experiences emerge from intermediary actors ready to support the implementation of smart cities. However, to achieve consistency in standardization and measurement, the path of cooperation needs to be seriously explored.

The evolving concept of smart city

The International Telecommunication Unit (ITU) defined the smart city as “an innovative city that uses information and communication technologies (ICTs) and other means to improve quality of life, the efficiency of urban operation and services, and competitiveness while ensuring that it meets the needs of present and future generations with respect to economic, social and environmental aspects” [1]. This definition, adopted by the United Nations, emphasizes the ultimate goal of smart cities policies, namely improving quality of life. But it also reveals the breadth of issues that smart cities policies address. Therefore, the implementation is incremental and involves many public and private actors, infrastructure providers, product vendors, or policy-makers in constant communication and exchange. The exchange occurs only on the condition that the actors speak a common language. In other words, they must use the same consistent technical rules stipulated by technical standards. Cities need to refer to international standards to adapt to novel technologies or comply with international requirements.

A technical standard is an established requirement to repeat common tasks, providing regulations and conditions to adapt to the bespoke needs of the implementation.[2] The International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) describes standards for smart cities as “the first step towards the holy grail of an interoperable, plug-and-play world where cities can mix and match solutions from different vendors without fear of lock-in or obsolescence or dead-end initiatives” [3]. Suppose a city has the tools to develop a technical architecture or procure it through a specific vendor. In that case, it might become dependent on a technology that is not shared or bound to a sole vendor, with all the risks that could follow. Smart cities need a common language, and international organizations for the standardizations are there to codify this common language. 

A composite picture of the international standardization for smart cities 

The International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) are the four most widely recognized international standard organizations. They each produce thousands of standards based on the technical features of currently available technologies. They address multiple urban domains: energy, economy, environment and climate change, finance, governance, health, housing, population and social conditions, telecommunication, transportation, urban planning, water, etc.

However, as Attour et Aller refer, standardization is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for service interoperability. A functional application of standards implies cooperative solutions from the major business players and industrial players from different sectors (IT, telecoms, energy household appliances, mass retailing, etc.) under the strong incentive of political authorities.[4]

The role of two regional networks in the implementation of smart cities projects

The essential cooperation between suppliers and city administration is facilitated by an ever-growing number of city networks that try to make solutions interoperable and scalable. In particular, two of them, the World Smart Sustainable Cities Organization (WeGO), based in Seul, and Open and Agile Smart Cities (OASC), based in Brussels, have developed original instruments to help cities apply the fittest solutions. The first one is mainly present in Asia and Africa and features 158 members, while the second one’s 150 members concentrate in Europe and South America.

WeGO promotes the Smart City Driver, a framework conceived to help cities plan, finance, and deploy smart city projects. The framework includes three interconnected tools (Activator, Solution Finder, Project Implementer). The Activator allows to discover, plan and exchange smart initiatives. The Solution Finder is used to obtain a bespoke diagnosis of urban challenges and match cities’ needs with the solutions available for export by smart city strategic partners worldwide. The Project Implementer provides financial support and technical assistance for the transformation. These tools aim to create a junction to exchange the needed basics in setting up smart cities projects.

OASC proposes to its members the Minimal Interoperability Mechanism (MIMs), tools based on open technical specifications (a specific level of standardization that covers the technicalities needed to implement products and services), allowing cities to replicate and scale solutions everywhere. MIMs unlock the benefits of interoperability by taking minimal common ground to implement the smart cities standards. The further implementation can be different, but the basic interoperability points use the same interoperability mechanism. OASC also established a marketplace where solutions come together, providing the instruments for procurement and deployment to businesses and local governments. 

These organizations connect cities and businesses with the world of standards, making them accessible and more immediately applicable to smart cities projects. Nonetheless, interoperability and scalability are desirable only if it is possible to benchmark different solutions and evaluate their actual impact through measurement indicators.

Key performance indicators to measure smart cities’ initiatives 

With increasing budget restrictions, knowing the best opportunities to achieve specific objectives is paramount. Many different measurement frameworks exist to make solutions more quantifiable and adaptable. According to the OECD report on measuring smart cities’ performance, many institutions and organizations, even cities, developed their measurement frameworks and reported more than 1152 indicators of measurement.

Amongst them, the ISO has developed measurement frameworks for sustainable, resilient, and smart cities and smart infrastructures indicators. The ITU has developed a framework for KPIs, thanks to the project United for Smart Sustainable Cities (U4SSC), a UN initiative supported by ITU, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), and the UN-Habitat. CityKeys is an initiative for the measurement promoted by Eurocities, addressing only the European dimension differently from the counterparts ISO and U4SSC.

We see many indicators covering many different dimensions and different reaches. This variety of indicators raises a problem for the uniqueness of the language: too many regulators make a unified understanding more complex. A single measurement system is the first step in enabling exchange between cities and creating a single market for solutions.

Cooperation as a means of achieving unity in standards for smart cities

The amount of activity in smart city standardization is overwhelming. That is for the breadth and scope of smart city activities and because standards bodies are still trying to understand how they can best operate. Another reason for the equivocal nature of standardization is that each stakeholder wants to have a voice in defining standards, their implementation, and their measurement. Standards for smart cities describe today’s technologies and dictate the direction for future developments. Organizations that engage in standards applicability and facilitate their adoption, as OASC and WeGO, might also want to lobby in standards-setting. The same local governments, which are often disadvantaged in relation to the national scale, see in these organizations useful means to gather consensus around some standards and make them accepted.

Such multilevel governance made by local governments, intermediary organizations, and international organizations is beneficial if it first ensures the funding and tools necessary without imposing inappropriate priorities or redundancies. In this connection, the duplication of indicators remains a severe obstacle to a unique implementation of smart cities tools.

The only path to obtain a unified, fungible language and then relieve the pressure on mayors seems to be cooperation amongst standardization bodies and cities, with the involvement of the latter’s globally recognized institutional channels.

[1] ITU, 2014. Smart sustainable cities: An analysis of definitions. Focus Group Technical Report.

[2] City of New York. 2018. NYC Open Data Technical Standards Manual.

[3] ISO. International Organization for Standardization.

[4] Attour, A. and Rallet, A., 2014. Le rôle des territoires dans le développement des systèmes trans-sectoriels d’innovation locaux : le cas des smart cities. Innovations, 43(1), p.253.