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The application of ICT in a city environment can bring about a significant increase in productivity and well-being. However, smart city solutions seem to be fragmented across cities and sectors, leading to a situation in which innovations do not diffuse widely and reach their full potential. We envision an open and modular interoperability environment across cities and smart city sectors to address this problem. We elaborate on the basic concepts around this vision, namely, innovative practices for public actors, a multi-actor multi-vendor business environment, and a modular ICT architecture that leverages synergies across different smart city sectors and enables the creation and better diffusion of existing and new services across cities.

Vision of an open smart city interoperability environment

Background

Cities are increasingly being empowered with ICT. As the city core infrastructure and systems become instrumented with sensors, and as these systems are interconnected to other systems, new levels of intelligence and services can be reached. ICT has the potential to help address the problems that we see in our cities today – like congestion and wasted energy – and to offer new consumer experiences and convenience and help stimulate much-needed economic growth and job creation. However, the smart city concept has received much positive attention if we look at the current reality and the landscape around smart city solutions, an observation can be made that they are heavily fragmented. Artificial silos exist between sectors (e.g., mobility, built environment, and energy), and there is very limited cooperation across cities.

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Furthermore, a city often partners with a company that then operates and manages the smart city services on the city’s behalf. This often leads to the city planner becoming a rather passive entity and a vendor lock-in situation. Overall, in this kind of market structure, innovations do not diffuse, and redundant, isolated solutions are repeatedly built for the same problems and needs.

Key themes for enabling interoperability

Thus, it seems clear that there is a need for an open and modular interoperability environment for smart city solutions that span across cities and sectors. In such a model, cities would be able to define a modular architecture together with infrastructure vendors and service providers, which would form a basis for multi-vendor solutions, continual innovation, and progress. To address fragmentation across sectors and cities, we see three important horizontal layers of new markets. On the demand side, entities pro-in which modular and open processes need to be planned:

  1. Common innovative practices for public actors related to, e.g., innovative procurement, regulation, and opening of common resources (e.g., data) for the citizens’ use.
  2. Multi-actor business ecosystems with multiple buyers, vendors, and service providers all deliver their solutions over the same modular ICT architecture.
  3. Modular ICT architectures with commonly agreed on open interfaces, standards, and an established interoperability certification mechanism for vendor products.

When planning these processes, important lessons can be leveraged from other fields where, e.g., the open interoperability environments around GSM-based mobile communications and the Internet can be used as examples.

Discussion

Overall, such a modular and open interoperability environment for smart city solutions could potentially connect demand and supply more effectively, increase the size of the existing markets and even create completely curing systems that could potentially remain better in control of the systems and more easily combine and switch between providers, thus inducing competition and diffusion of the best ideas. Furthermore, when many entities in the market buy standardized solutions, vendors and service providers can leverage economies of scale and do not need to tailor solutions to each customer. Nonetheless, the environment would need to remain modular so that smaller actors’ market entry barriers would be low, and novel innovations combining functionalities from the different smart city sectors would be possible.

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