Internet of Things

No smart city is an island

Infrastructure

The Tower of Babel failed because the people building it stopped speaking the same language. Could the same fate await smart-city initiatives?

In an Oct. 22 presentation to the Information Security and Privacy Advisory Board, a pair of cyber-physical systems experts from the National Institute of Standards and Technology touted -- what else? -- standards. They warned of the missed opportunities that could result from smart cities failing to adopt a unified language across municipalities and within them.

The warning came amid an across-the-board federal push for smart cities.

"We're not trying to say how you design something or what it should have but how you should talk about it," said Martin Burns, an electronic engineer at NIST. He was explaining the purpose of NIST's draft Framework for Cyber-Physical Systems, released in September.

The framework describes those systems as "smart systems that include engineered interacting networks of physical and computational components" and says the Internet of Things is a subset.

Chris Greer, senior executive for cyber-physical systems at NIST, gave examples of how lack of a common language could handicap the long-term goals of smart-city projects.

London has smart transportation, water and energy projects underway. "Those are three different projects run by three different agencies," Greer said. "The people involved couldn't tell me who at the other agency was actually responsible for that project, and when I asked about how those things interact, the answer was, 'Well, they don't yet,' as if they would someday, but exactly how you would get there, I don't know."

The potential problem exists between cities, too.

"You might have cities that are side by side that are solving transportation management through separate contractors and in completely different ways," Greer said. "If D.C. and Virginia and Maryland all have a different solution, the Beltway isn't going to get any better anytime soon."

When cities take a narrow, customized approach to incorporating smart tech, he added, they can box out fellow towns and keep small businesses from contributing. If a single big integrator has all the work, there's no space for the smaller companies.

"I think it's a failure in a wide variety of ways, and it excludes innovation," Greer said. "As part of the Department of Commerce, [NIST is] supposed to use standards to promote competitive environments, and that's what we're trying to help with here."

Besides developing the framework, Greer and Burns said NIST has a variety of initiatives in the works to promote a well-considered national embrace of cyber-physical systems.

NIST created a Cyber-Physical Systems Public Working Group in 2014 and will host its second Global City Teams Challenge on Nov. 12 and 13. Greer said the agency would also like to host a smart-city hackathon.

All the talk of coordination aside, he wasn't above showing some local pride when a board member asked, "Who's the smartest city?"

"It's clearly Montgomery County, Maryland," Greer said, adding, "That was a setup."

About the Author

Zach Noble is a former FCW staff writer.

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