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Smart cities vs “locked-in” cities


As more and more cities launch projects to become smart, a substantial need is emerging: the ability to share the various models across the world so that they can be replicated anywhere.

The basic concern is to avoid cities or districts becoming self-contained, “locked-in” islands, captive of a single company that holds all the enabling technology.

Let’s take an example. A municipality commissions a public utility to provide street lighting. If, at some point in the future, it decides to choose an alternative provider, there would be no problem in a traditional city: the new company would simply replace the former system.

However, spreading digitalisation in smart cities is making it difficult for alternative companies to take over if they are unfamiliar with the software previously commissioned. Moreover, linking an air monitoring system to a previously installed lighting system is only possible if the latter is an open system that uses standard procedures.

Consequently the municipality will either be stuck with the previous company for the new service, or the new company would have to start from scratch, meaning higher costs and longer time frames.

Several initiatives have been taken to avoid this so-called “vendor lock-in” phenomenon that jeopardises the development of smart cities.

An example is the agreement between Italy’s ENEA (National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development), the Italian Ministry for Economic Development and the American NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology). They envisage open platforms to encourage the collection and sharing of data and technologies across Europe and the United Sates.

In particular, the results of some experiments that the Italian Agency for Energy Efficiency is currently carrying out will be shared, like the Bari project where IBM and TERA (electricity utility) have installed a system for monitoring energy consumption in the City Hall, in a school and in five houses.

From a technical standpoint, the platforms collect data in real-time from all the applications and this information is then used by the various utilities, the city administration and citizens. This is particularly applicable to cross-sector services such as night-time traffic data being used to control the intensity of street lighting.
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