Communicating traffic lights, smartphone seismographs, anti-flood sensors: cities worldwide are keen to use digital transformation to become better places to live. Companies such as Siemens, IBM and SAP sense a business opportunity.
If you want to get from A to B fast in Nanjing, you take the bus. You don’t take a taxi, and you certainly don’t drive. If you do, you’ll find yourself crawling along in the slow lane, while the bus cruises comfortably between stops in a dedicated lane of its own. And whenever the bus approaches traffic lights, they switch straight to green. That never happens to cars. Bad luck? No – it’s done on purpose.
Nanjing is the second-largest city in East China after Shanghai. Almost eight million people live and work in the metropolis, and one million cars are registered there. “The more people use their cars, the more traffic there is and the greater the risk of smog,” says Zheng Lin, Director of Nanjing Development and Reform Commission. Nanjing, like Beijing, suffers from major air pollution. At the end of 2015, smog shrouded the city in a magenta haze – and Nanjing became much more environmentally aware as a result. “We asked ourselves: how can we motivate people to use their own car only when there’s no alternative?” explains Zheng Lin. Appeal to people’s consciences? Impose driving bans? “We think it’s smarter to get people to choose an alternative because they see its advantages.”
Bonus points by bus
Nanjing’s answer was a new transport concept built on a digitally supported mix of public transport, bicycle and car. Would-be users need two cards: the “Citizen Card”, a Smart City ID and digital multitalent that combines functions for banking, medical appointments and tickets of all kinds, and the “Vehicle Smart Card”, for in-car data capture on vehicle use. An easy overview is provided by the “MyNanjing” app, which navigates users in real time through the various travel options. More than two million users have already installed the app on their phone. Zheng Lin outlines how it works: “I just tell the app where I want to go, and it shows me what options I have to get there.” The phone display doesn’t just show the fastest, easiest way to get from A to B; it also tells travelers which is the most environmentally friendly or healthiest choice. Travelers who go green and healthy are rewarded with points that can be redeemed for vouchers or discounts – a reduced price on gym sessions, for example. “The busier the roads are, the more points people can collect by traveling by another method,” says Zheng Lin. “People will then actively choose to take the bus or metro.”
To draw the right conclusions from the data, we do need IT.
In order for the system to work, Nanjing planners must genuinely understand the traffic flows in their city. And this is a Herculean task: the metro is one of the largest in the world, and there are 230 kilometers of highways. 300 kilometers of transportation lanes are reserved for buses, with 2,000 stops at which passengers can board and disembark. From a bird’s eye view, the labyrinth of roads and railway lines might look like chaos of unmanageable proportions. “But we do know what’s going on,” says Zheng Lin. Some of the data is provided by users themselves: the smart cards are equipped with RFID chips, and the MyNanjing app shows where and how people are traveling in Nanjing. There’s also the information from the cameras and sensors that are placed all over the city and provide Nanjing public administration with 20 billion items of data every year. “We’re talking about huge volumes of data,” says Zheng Lin. “Our task is to draw the right conclusions from this data. And to do this, we need IT.“
Becoming known, generating business
MyNanjing app guides the user through the city like a compass (Image: iStock.com/South_agency)
The city didn’t pull off this major project on its own. The data is analyzed and made usable by a SAP system. The SAP software group also provides the Chinese with the Internet-of-Things applications to ensure traffic lights communicate with each other, for example, and enable Nanjing bus drivers to benefit from green waves. Nanjing is testimony to how mobility can function in a smart city, and what role IT plays. From SAPs’ viewpoint, the framework is ideal: the city is equipped with numerous cameras, and issues such as data protection and anonymity of user data are nowhere near as high on the agenda in China as they are in Germany. This creates greater scope and choice for implementation.
We are experiencing a democratization of data.
Digital systems as problem solvers in cities are in demand all over the world. SAP isn’t the only company pitching its products and services to municipalities. Other major players such as Siemens, IBM or Microsoft have also set their sights on smart cities. One reason is because city projects are good for the company image. But they can also bring in lucrative private-sector projects once the systems have earned their spurs in the urban space.
Faced by the complexity of billions of items of data and communicating machines, could local and regional administrations be discouraged from making a start at all? SAP has developed an IT platform that aims to dispel these fears:
SAP Leonardo is a kind of super-software that combines services in Big Data and Internet of Things, and lowers the access barriers for users. The competition has similar approaches: Siemens offers cities a “City Performance Tool”; at Microsoft, the platform is titled “City Next“; at IBM it’s “Smarter Cities“. What they all have in common is software that can merge data captured from sensors and city residents and turn it into useful intelligence.
A closer look at the SAP system shows what the companies are all aiming for. SAP Leonardo was primarily developed to help business customers on their digital transformation journey, but SAP is confident Leonardo can do much more. This also explains why providers are zeroing in on cities and regions. “We are experiencing a democratization of data,” says Tanja Rückert, President of the IoT & Digital Supply Chain Business Units at SAP. “With our products, we are helping our partners to capture digital data and make it useable – with the aim of improving the quality of life for people or protecting them from dangers.” The company does make more money through private-sector business, but its involvement with local and regional administration offers a different advantage: SAP can demonstrate the performance of its software. The Nanjing narrative, for example, is an ideal success story. It also makes the SAP brand more visible. Even though millions of people use the company’s software every day, they aren’t necessarily aware of it, because only famous brand names appear in the front-end of websites, not the SAP logo. With Leonardo, the company now wants to increase its global visibility. IT competitors such as Microsoft and IBM already have a lead. SAP aims to catch up – and a few authentic stories will certainly help to spread the word.
Smartphone as seismograph
Someone else with an authentic story to tell is Yoichi Tanaka. He places his smartphone on the table and wiggles it gently. “Level three.” Then a firmer shake: “Level four to five.” Next, he rocks the entire table from side to side, before breaking off the experiment. “I still need my phone.” Tanaka is CTO at the Hakusan company in Tokyo. “We’re a small company, but we’re Japan’s largest supplier of the seismographic equipment that measures the magnitude of earthquakes.” 1,700 seismographs are distributed throughout Japan, providing the authorities with data on minor and major quakes. Because four continental plates collide off its shores, Japan experiences earthquakes more frequently and violently than anywhere else on earth. The Japanese defend themselves as best they can. There are building regulations and alarm systems; as early as elementary school, children learn what to do when the earth shakes. “But what’s lacking is significantly more data,” says Yoichi Tanaka. “And being an IT person, I wasn’t going to stand for that!”
The perfect seismograph is on the bedside table.
What Japan urgently needs is information about the intensity of shakes in residential buildings, giving the construction industry and state authorities insights into how buildings respond in the event of a disaster. “If I know what a house will do in a level three earthquake, I can figure out what impact a stronger tremor will have.” To capture all this data, essentially every living space in Japan would have to be equipped with a mini seismograph. “But why install a new device when the perfect seismograph is right beside you on the bedside table while you sleep?” Taking his smartphone in his hand, Yoichi Tanaka explains: “Mobile phones are perfect for what we’re aiming to achieve.” Hakusan developed the app “i-Shindo” (“My Seismograph”), a simple app that records vibrations and instantly forwards the data to a central database. The system analyzes the information and transforms it into queryable intelligence that authorities can use to identify which buildings are at risk. In a major earthquake, the smartphones could also help to locate people trapped in rubble.
SAP especially shows its IT skills in the cities (Image: SAP AG)
Hakusan is assisted by SAP, in a commitment that is part of SAP’s “1BLives” initiative, which the company launched in late 2016. “1BLives”, or One Billion Lives, supports three selected social benefit business ideas with business and technology expertise as well as startup funding. In addition to Hakusan in Tokyo, the initiative is supporting a data project at a Cancer Research Foundation in India, and a health organization in the Philippines.
Sensors against the flood
Providers of smart-city solutions seek and find partners for such projects all over the world. Like SAP in Buenos Aires, for example. The capital of Argentina is known for its marvelous harbor, but the geographical situation has two problems: the water that falls from above – and the water rising from below. For several years on the run, the metropolis at the mouth of the Rio de la Plata has experienced record rainfall. What’s more, the megacity – Greater Buenos Aires numbers 13 million inhabitants – is built on nine subterranean rivers. One third of the population lives in areas with a high risk of flooding. In 2013, a flood disaster cost the lives of almost 100 Porteños, as people from Buenos Aires are called. With the city continuing to grow, and climate change bringing new record rainfalls, the threat of flooding is severely testing Buenos Aires.
It matters to respond quickly and get information to people right away.
It is clear to city government that a disaster like 2013 cannot be allowed to happen again. The city began installing safeguards in 2014. “We knew at the time there was data available that could help to prevent flooding or at least mitigate the impact,” says Rodrigo Silvosa, whose remit at the Ministry of Infrastructure in the Province of Buenos Aires includes water management. “But the information was only available on paper and its use was limited.” So the city turned to SAP: the company helped the city to install a system of more than 30,000 sensors in sewers and streams, beneath garbage bins and on the banks of the Rio de la Plata. The sensor values are collected in a database. If the system receives indications of a flood risk from the sensors, immediate and automatic measures are taken: locks are opened, water flows are intelligently redirected, blockages of mud or garbage are cleared. In an emergency, the order is given to begin evacuations. An app gives residents real-time updates on what’s happening. “And it really matters to respond quickly and get information to people right away,” says Martin Saludas of SAP Argentina. “A delay of just a few minutes can turn a threat into a disaster.”
With 30.000 sensors, Buenos Aires prevents flooding nowadays (Bild: iStock.com/patricio-murphy)
The system has come through its first real-life trial with success: one year after the flooding in Buenos Aires, rainfall was again extreme, with 2014 levels even outstripping those of the previous year. But this time the automated systems and city administrators took the right decisions, and did so early. A fresh catastrophe was prevented – thanks to the Internet of Things.
Lead image: iStock.com/nayuki