5G will bring smart cities to life in unexpected ways

5G has the potential to help cities improve citizen engagement and build an intelligent urban ecosystem around services, ambience, sustainability, inclusion, and equity.

5G has been a hot topic for years, but 2020 will be the year we begin to see 5G come to consumer devices at scale and become a force for digital transformation in the enterprise. These next-generation mobile networks will push forward the evolution of technologies like autonomous vehicles, IoT, edge computing, data analytics, and smart cities. I spoke with Bettina Tratz-Ryan, VP Analyst with Gartner, about how 5G will affect smart city technology and change how cities engage with residents and visitors. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Bill Detwiler: Bettina, before we start talking about 5G and smart cities, give me a definition of the term "smart cities."

Bettina Tratz-Ryan: And this is a very, very important question because smart city in its essence really means a much more technology- and data-driven definition in a way that local governments or urban districts have been implementing smart traffic lighting or smart technology. But if you look into smart cities today, many of [the] smart city leaders today want to actually create an environment that is actually engaging with citizens, with [a] greater ecosystem around services, ambience, sustainability, even inclusion and equity. The smart city definition of today for many cities actually [goes] beyond technology and encompass the service experience, and that's becoming important when we talk about 5G.

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Bill Detwiler: One of the things about 5G is that it provides, hopefully, higher bandwidth. It provides a greater connectivity to build upon...being able to collect more data and being able to do more data analytics. How do you see 5G affecting smart cities in general in the near term, think of one to three years, if at all?

Bettina Tratz-Ryan: Yeah. Given that we look into the smart city experience from the way we as users, citizens, industries are actually experience our environment, 5G from a bandwidth, from a processing perspective becomes important when there's a lot of data and analytics that we need to process and transfer at the experience level. But if you look today, a lot of the services, parking meters, lighting systems, they don't need the high bandwidth. They may need it in the future when we have autonomous systems on cars, sensors connecting to connected cars and smart buildings. But right now, I would say quite honestly in the next one to three years, you will be hard-pressed to find a good service model that actually would require 5G.

Bill Detwiler: What about beyond that three year-time frame. What are the technologies that cities are looking at that really would benefit from the higher bandwidth that you get with a technology like 5G?

Bettina Tratz-Ryan: There's an interesting trend that we see developing, and when you look into smart city, we actually got and I like to call it also intelligent urban ecosystem. We started to look into not just government engagement with citizens but also all the private sector stakeholders like the vehicle manufacturers, the real estate development, the construction companies, the lifestyle and leisure companies, tourism.

If you start to connect to a smartphone, all these data streams and experiences together as you look for maybe a semi-autonomous car to look for the right parking, close to the museum, for an elderly person that doesn't speak the language, so you see how that processing comes together, then 5G might as well be a very good venue to actually allow that technology and that process to apply a very good service experience for that elderly person.

We have cities that, from a location perspective in smart streets or smart districts are starting to develop strategies to a smart post, for instance, where you have multiple sensors for security, sustainability, air quality but then also crowd management, parking, waste management and so on. If you connect this together and you create a location "bucket", then you'll actually have the requirement for high bandwidth and maybe on-the-edge computing. And cities like Toronto with the Google Sidewalk Labs or in London with the Datastore, these are cities that are considering it.

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Bill Detwiler: As someone who is always talking with city leaders, agency heads, and private companies, how are decision makers looking at 5G and which use cases do they think make the most sense?

Bettina Tratz-Ryan: They're looking basically at some of the changes that are occurring with respect to demographic development. There is a change of how we're going to construct roads and buildings because of, let's say, climate change initiatives. Buildings become much more engaged with entities with our authorities or a Google map, to connect maybe [individual] window settings or shade settings for windows in the building. You have based on the location, based on certain user patterns or demographic patterns, climate change pattern, you connect very well locations to future events. And this is what we do with 3D or 4D modeling today, and city to do digital twins of cities.

And then you look into the data requirements that you need to make these models actually come to life. You need 5G for that. You need to backhaul maybe incidents or event-level type of data, crowdsource data for these models. All [these] modeling capabilities are quite necessary because cities build on these models. They are future investments. You talked about many years. Do we need all these parking spaces in the future when we have autonomous cars or could there be recreational facilities like we have in Paris or alongside of the Seine. These kind of questions can be answered through the model.

Another very exciting technology and approach that cities are taking is about creating that citizen engagement model. Cities like New York for instance, they're using their Link kiosk to actually start to have a communication portal with visitors, but also with citizens around services that are within the vicinity of that kiosk. It could be just an information center. It could be also a guidance environment for people that don't speak the language because you may have a chat bot at the other end that actually translate language or distress, maybe confusion and so forth, cultural environment.

You see that the technology and the processing that sits behind technology, the data that is becoming very exciting is a major trigger for all of these new service experience, but that also leads us to the question around data privacy and who has access to the data? The challenge will be that we also have processing again in place that actually allows us to understand this is the more personalized question that maybe requires some additional authentication, or maybe this is a question that multiple people within the last hour have posed. This could be crowdsource and it will give them random and more aggregated answer. This is also, again, intelligence that cities are putting into the systems so they can engage on an interactive level with people.

Bill Detwiler: As we move forward and as cities try to build those better citizen engagement experiences, 5G technologies that provide greater bandwidth and allow a greater flow of information will become more important as we move there, correct?

Bettina Tratz-Ryan: Yes, and you have to backhaul, so 5G has different spectrum and technology levels. On the one hand, you will be using certain technologies just to backhaul. Instead of having all these different digital kiosks and you need to backhaul them to fiber. And then maybe you're in the middle of Rome or the middle of Jerusalem so you cannot dig the fiber. You can use 5G to actually fast-forward that implementation.

Or you can actually create new districts. We see a lot of universities already that are becoming very interested in how to look into data-rich applications, innovation programs. And here, you can actually build out pilot infrastructure fairly quickly. Or you can see it in industrial manufacturing in smart cities where you actually look into 3D printing and new forms and ways of urban manufacturing because now you have innovation in place, you have infrastructure in place. You can see that 5G potentially can trigger and open the doors for new skill development, new GDP development, whole new characteristics because now you'll have the bandwidth to do this.

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