We expect PCs, mobile phones and even modern cars to run on operating systems. But as the number of sensors and internet-enabled devices in our cities increase, it may not be long before operating systems start helping to marshal traffic and run buildings in urban areas.
Hoping to make the intelligent city a reality sooner rather than later is technology firm Living PlanIT, which has developed what it calls the Urban OS (UOS).
UOS provides cloud-based middleware that can monitor the state of a city and control it via its links to sensors and actuators built into cars, buildings and the wider urban landscape.
So confident is the company in its UOS that it purchased 1,700 hectares of land just outside Porto in Portugal, where a city is being built to test the platform. PlanIT Valley is being built at an estimated cost of $10bn and will house about 225,000 people, most of whom will work for Living PlanIT's technology partners such as Cisco and Microsoft, by the time it is finished in 2015.
PlanIT Valley will combine intelligent buildings with internet-connected vehicles - all overseen by the UOS. The city's digital overseer will help with managing electricity demand, routing traffic and assisting with parking to name but a few tasks.
Steve Lewis, CEO of Living PlanIT, compared the UOS to the software used to manage Formula One cars, which constantly monitors data from the car's systems and adjusts their behaviour to maximise performance: "we've done the same for urban environments," he told TechRepublic.
"The UOS came out of looking at how to improve the way buildings and urban spaces function, by converging technologies that control, actuate and sense those spaces," he added.
The UOS is built on multiple technology layers; the sensory layer made up of sensors generating data on what is happening in the city and actuators controlling equipment; the controls layer that collects and monitors data from sensors and controls the environment by relaying commands to actuators; and the supervisory layer that combines data collected from the city with its understanding about the physical environment to issue intelligent commands.
The supervisory layer is able to make informed decisions thanks to its ability to be aware of a host of factors about the city, including the materials that buildings are made of, the physical location of the buildings and the movement of people and traffic.
For example, the supervisory layer might notice the sun is warming the interior of a building to an uncomfortable level - thanks to its knowledge of the building's temperature and orientation, as well as external temperatures - and relay a command for a charge to be applied to the smart glass on the building's exterior to turn it opaque and reduce the sun's warming effect.
As well as managing individual buildings, the UOS' understanding of the state and the layout of the wider urban environment will allow it to intelligently divert and store resources across the city. For example, say a solar array is generating more electricity than a building can use, the Urban OS could spot this and store the electricity by using it to pump water uphill between terraced lagoons and extract it later using micro-hydro power generation.
Alongside the intelligent oversight provided by the UOS' supervisory layer, the controls layer continually monitors and regulates the environment to maximise operating efficiencies - for example matching air con levels to factors like whether a building is occupied, weather conditions and humidity.
One of the more interesting future uses for the UOS will be how it could help traffic flow more smoothly and minimise disruption from unexpected events such as car accidents.
Lewis envisages a scenario where the UOS will talk to computers on board cars as they travel through the city, allowing traffic streams to safely flow through each other at junctions in a way not possible today.
"Many vehicles in the next five to 10 years will have this sort of sophisticated autonomous control system," he said.
"The infrastructure knows where the car is and also knows where other cars and pedestrians are. So it's better for the urban OS to provide the control of the vehicle when it comes to exits to promote greatest amount of traffic flow."
The UOS will be able to be put to a wide range of uses, thanks to an API that allows third party applications to interrogate its data and interact with the smart city via the UOS.
Lewis predicts that the UOS will spawn a range of apps:"No one company in the world can deliver all of the elements so we built the Urban OS with a set of web service interfaces [which work with wide range of programming languages]," he said, adding he expects apps covering "real estate, hospitality and retail, healthcare – you name it".
Lewis said that the UOS is set up so it is easy to extract data from the city using a simple, query based language, giving an example of how a security app might pull information from the UOS.
"You could say as a query 'Give me camera data from building one that's got a face in it' or 'Give me the camera data from the front desk in the hallway' or 'Give me all camera data that has a face in'. You don't need to know the make of the cameras, where they are or any of the underlying stuff - I just subscribe to a stream that the Urban OS gives context to," he said.
A hub for the development of the UOS and apps has been set up in Greenwich in London. The research centre will focus on helping small and medium sized enterprises to develop retail and transport apps for UOS. It will also house a partner hub to support Living PlanIT's major partners in porting existing building control applications, like Philips retail lighting control applications and GE's home automation and energy monitoring products, to the UOS.
If smart cities are to work then a range of technologies will need to be deployed throughout the urban environment, and Living Plan IT is working with a range of partners to integrate their products and services with the UOS, including Cisco, Microsoft, Philips, McLaren and thousands of smaller companies.
The research will be funded by Living PlanIT and its private sector partners, and partly by a Technology Strategy Board grant under the £1.5m RAPTOR project.
The enthusiasm of other tech firms to get involved with Living PlanIT is perhaps unsurprising given estimates that the sustainable urban development and regeneration market will be worth trillions over the next 10 years, and a Pike Research study estimates that investment in smart city technology will total $108bn between 2010 and 2020.
Integrating the UOS into a new or retrofitted urban environment is made easier, Lewis said, by the fact that it runs off commodity hardware and uses standards-based protocols, as well as being compatible with 3,000 classes of sensors, from simple heat to sophisticated air quality sensors, and major control systems from the likes of Siemens and Honeywell.
Living PlanIT offers the UOS as an appliance-based system running on a mix of Cisco UCS clusters and Cisco ISR routers, as well as offering a separate embedded appliance for use in cars. Data transmitted over UOS systems is protected using "military-grade encryption".
Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.