How cloud computing will power smart cities

The mass of data produced by smart cities will require significant computing capacity.
4 June 2019

Smart cities will run on the cloud. Source: Shutterstock

It’s easy to dismiss the significance of 5G – which has now launched in the UK for EE customers, and will soon be available across all major networks– as overblown, and its purported influence on our lives to be gradual, rather than revolutionary.

But though it’s possible that the fanfare is undeserved or premature, it’s highly unlikely, not just because of the immediate effect of the technology itself— average download speeds of around 1GBps are expected to become the norm— but because of the other technologies it enables. The implications of 5G for the Internet of Things and for artificial intelligence (AI), to name just two hugely exciting areas of technology, are far-reaching. And perhaps most exciting of all is the way in which 5G allows for the creation of smart cities, where technology uses real-time data to improve the lives of citizens. Maybe Steven Mollenkopf, the CEO of wireless tech company Qualcomm, wasn’t exaggerating when he said that 5G’s impact would be ‘similar to the introduction of electricity or the car, affecting entire economies and benefitting entire societies.’

Cloud computing in smart cities

The smart cities that will be so central to those ‘entire societies’ will be underpinned by 5G but also reliant on a number of other technologies to function well. And this is where cloud computing comes in. Such is the volume of data that these cities will generate and collect— six billion people are predicted to live in smart cities by 2045— that significant computing capacity will be necessary. Cloud technology will provide the digital infrastructure for smart cities: in other words, a city’s cloud will function as a storage and analysis system for the data used in everything from autonomous vehicles to farms. PCs and server files, web page meta-data, images and video and data created by machine-to-machine communication will all be housed in the cloud.

This says nothing of the importance of cloud computing to businesses. Already, the cloud promises increased flexibility for businesses whose bandwidth requirements vary, and a better safety net for data: the cloud is the ultimate back-up location for files. Clouds are inherently low-maintenance for those who use them (since the cloud computing company will manage it and install any necessary updates), and also more secure: if you lose a device or laptop, for instance, you can still find the data contained on it on the cloud.

The cloud also allows for the easy transfer of information between colleagues and employees, and easy access, so you can work wherever you happen to be. It doesn’t need to be pointed out that businesses drive economic growth, particularly in the places where they happen to be. ‘Small business,’ ran a Forbes headline, ‘is the engine of the city.’

Migrating cities to the cloud

But cloud provision in a smart city isn’t solely about making that city efficient. In the short term, data may be stored, analyzed and used by administrators and governments to take the right actions. But in the long term, certain data and data-driven insights from one cloud may be sold to cloud providers in other cities, in time leading to the creation of a ‘template’ management system that could transform a ‘normal’ city into a smart city relatively quickly and with decreasing need for human involvement. Though the immediate challenge is to take the steps necessary to create a single smart city, we can anticipate the establishment of entire networks of smart cities that cross borders, pool data and insights, and improve each other in real-time, all enabled by cloud computing.

The cities of the future will improve the lives of their citizens; if they didn’t, their existence would be pointless. But we may already be underestimating the extent to which smart cities can do this. When the consulting group McKinsey published a report on the ways in which existing smart city initiatives are impacting the lives of citizens, the author, Jaana Remes, expressed her surprise at the ‘sheer size of the potential impact on some quality-of-life indicators— and not only in mobility, public safety, and environmental quality’. The report found that smart cities reduce urban fatalities, cut commuting times, improve public health and have a beneficial effect on the environment.

What seems clear, then, is not only the smart cities are on the horizon, but that they stand to change lives for the better. And central to those cities is cloud computing, which will store, analyze and share data in a reliable, secure and cost-effective way.