1st May, 2017Gareth Simons

Connecting the dots with Smart City standards

The British Standards Institute (BSI) has unveiled a series of Smart City standards and publications developed as part of their Cities Standards Institute.

You’re not alone if the mention of standards initially triggers a fight-or-flight response out of trepidation for mountains of technical jargon or concern that vested interests of industry incumbents might bias the formulation of such standards. Further, would such standards lead to overly rigid constructs that could stifle start-ups and grassroots tinkering? Instead, the BSI is quick to assure that standards are not dry technical humdrum telling us what to do but rather provide a broader decision-making framework to help arrive at the correct answers. The aim is precisely not to standardise the things that might yet change but rather the types of things we might subsequently build on.

The development of Smart Cities standards includes several layers ranging from higher-level strategic thinking to very detailed specifics. Much of the initial content underpins discussion outlining processes of city management and procurement. These are provided from the points of view of what a Smart City is, how to plan such cities to facilitate smart and resilient development, and how to procure Smart City services in such a manner that data and services remain open and interoperable.

The current Smart City standards stack as gleaned from a slide shown at a recent BSI smart cities standards presentation:

Level 1: Strategic level

  • Guidance for city leaders (PD 8100)
  • Planning guidelines (PD 8101)
  • Decision-making framework (PAS 181)

Level 2: Process level

  • Data sharing framework (PAS 183)
  • Guidelines for project proposals (PAS 184)

Level 3: Technical level

  • Data concept model (PAS 182)
  • Internet of Things implementation (Hypercat PAS 212)
  • Building Information Modelling (BS/PAS 1192 series)

But do we really need Smart City standards?

It may initially seem that Smart City standards will create lock-in and additional complexity; however, it can also be seen to lay the groundwork for longer-term collaboration and innovation. In fact, it could be argued that the evolution of the Smart Cities and urban planning industries is hamstrung until this happens.

We can look to the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industry and the evolution of Building Information Modelling (BIM) to better understand why. Whereas industry adoption of computers took root decades ago, the way projects and workflows were approached initially didn’t change much at all. In other words, computers were really just glorified pencil and paper. Instead of smudging shirt-sleeves while crouched over drawing boards (or breaking and replacing the delicate and rather pricey nibs of drafting pens!) it became possible to point and click to send multiple copies of a drawing to a plotter instead of choking on the ammonia fumes leaching out of blueprinting machines. The point is that the industry was essentially doing the same things using the same workflows, just with newer and more convenient technology.

At some point, something significant began to happen. Information and standardisation entered the equation, and this information could be connected in spatially and functionally meaningful ways to other details. This heralded the arrival and subsequent evolution of BIM. Though the initial models and templates can take substantial time to create, they can help automate much of the previously painful tedium involved in producing construction documentation while paving the way to advanced performative modelling of everything from structural design to energy performance. BIM has consequently led to a more holistic and integrated approach extending from conceptual stages to design, construction, and the whole lifespan of a building’s performance and management. (I realise it’s not always this rosy…)

The opportunities and challenges now faced at the urban scale are somewhat similar to the advent of BIM. New tools have arrived but are mainly being applied to the same old workflows. One of the reasons for this has been the lack of a cohesive framework wherein we can combine data and processes without spending the bulk of time getting different city departments, service providers, data APIs, and “Things” (as in the IoT) to talk to (or understand) each other. The effort of finding, cleaning, importing, and connecting urban data can easily take many times the amount of effort otherwise required for the subsequent modelling, analytics, and visualisation. These data munging workflows are not only tedious but also brittle, meaning that much of this work often has to be thrown out when changing to a different source or format of data. In other words, the critical tipping point where information connects seamlessly and meaningfully to other sources of information (i.e. Digital Twins) has yet to be reached.

A big thorn in the side of BIM is that it developed as an assortment of proprietary software and data formats, something that has cost the AEC industry billions in lost productivity a year, and which is still being resolved. Yet, BIM was still able to hobble along because buildings are relatively self-contained. In contrast, nothing is self-contained at the city scale. For any kind of significant co-evolution of Digital Twins, a unified and transparent information framework is needed that not only organises random assortments of data but that knows how one item might relate to another. This is why smart cities need data standards, interoperability of systems, and open procurement baked-in from the get-go.

Standards as a springboard for innovation

The hope is that standards will permit sustained innovation by embodying earlier steps as a springboard for subsequent steps, allowing new effort to be directed towards synthesising data and ideas instead of endlessly reprocessing data. Thus, in a perfect world, the explorative processes of innovation would occur in lock-step with the consolidative development of standards, neither of which should be static or existing in isolation. Lean too heavily in the explorative direction (i.e. too little support from standards), then too much energy is wasted in re-inventions and butting-of-heads due to a lack of compatibility. On the other hand, lean too heavily in the consolidative direction (i.e. standards become too rigid), then you stifle innovation. For standards to remain relevant and helpful, they will need to remain open to stakeholder feedback and flexible to change.

Given the relative youth of Smart City standards, much of the current documentation is broader and higher-level discussion, and the more technical documents remain agonisingly abstract. The challenge, at present, is how to extrapolate this framework into tangible tools and services that deliver new levels of efficiency and insight to urban planning workflows without sacrificing interoperability and transparency.