Cities on the edge: edge computing and the development of smart cities

From Barcelona to Glasgow, across the world, a trend towards making our cities “smart” has been accelerating in line with demands for cities to become more responsive to the needs of residents. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a newfound urgency to ensure that the places where we live are more resilient and are able to respond to changes in behaviour. For example, the need to keep a two-metre distance from people outside of your household required cities to take action to widen pavements and deploy pop-up active transport infrastructure to prevent overcrowding on public transport.

Over the past twelve months, cities across the world have taken a variety of different actions in order to support the almost overnight transition to what has been described as the “new-normal”. In the year ahead, it’s likely we will see further changes in resident behaviour, as the vaccine roll-out enables a transition out of the public health emergency and allows for the gradual reopening of society. Cities once again will have to be ready to react to changes in how people interact with their environment. However, the extent to which people will go back to pre-pandemic behaviours is not yet clear.

Not so smart cities

The ability to monitor and analyse the ways in which people interact with cities has been heralded as a key benefit of the development of smart cities, and as highlighted above, in some ways it has never been more important. However, the way in which smart city infrastructure currently collects and analyses data tends to be relatively “dumb”, in the sense that data is sent to a separate location to be analysed, rather than occurring on the device that’s collecting it.

Due to the sheer amount of data being transferred for analysis, this process can be relatively slow and is entirely dependent on the reliability and speed of a city’s overall network infrastructure. As a result, the ability to take real-time action, for example, to change traffic management systems in order to reduce congestion, is potentially limited.  

A good example of a device that acts in this way is a smart speaker, which is capable of listening out for a predetermined wake-word but is relatively incapable of doing anything else without a network connection. All other speech after a user has said the wake-word tends to be processed at a central server, Therefore, any disruption to the smart speaker’s ability to communicate with a server in the cloud will prevent it from completing the simplest of tasks.

This is why Barclays have argued that the future of smart city development will heavily rely upon a technology known as “edge computing”, which enables data analysis to be conducted closer to smart city infrastructure, rather than being sent to a distant central server.

What is edge computing?

Put simply, the concept of edge computing refers to computation that is conducted on or near a device that’s collecting data, for example, a smart traffic light. Data collected by the device is processed locally, rather than transmitted to a central server in the cloud, and decisions can be made in real-time locally on the device. Removing the need to transmit data before any action is taken facilitates real-time autonomous decision-making, which some experts argue could potentially make our cities operate more efficiently.

Additionally, as edge computing is not reliant upon a connection to a central server, there are enhanced security and data privacy protections, which will reassure citizens that collected data is safe and makes smart city infrastructure less vulnerable to attack. However, if an attacker were to breach one part of the edge computing network, it would be easy isolate affected parts of the network without comprising the entire network.

In the near future, smart city infrastructure will be vital to enabling autonomous vehicles to navigate our cities, making security of these technologies all the more important.

Cities on the edge

An example of the application of edge computing in smart city infrastructure can be seen in the development of smart CCTV cameras. According to the British Security Industry Association, there are an estimated 4 to 5.9 million CCTV cameras across the UK, one of the largest totals in the world. Each of these cameras is recording and storing a huge amount of data each day, and for the most part, this footage is largely unused and creates the need for an extensive amount of expensive storage.

Edge-enabled smart CCTV cameras could provide a solution to this issue through on-device image analytics, which are able to monitor an area in real-time and only begin recording when a pre-determined event occurs, for example, a vehicle collision. This significantly reduces the amount of footage that needs to be stored, and acts as an additional layer of privacy protection, as residents can be reassured that CCTV footage will only be stored when an incident occurs.

Additionally, edge-enabled smart CCTV cameras can also be used to identify empty parking spaces, highlight pedestrian/vehicle congestion, and help emergency services to identify the fastest route to an ongoing incident. Through the ability to identify problems in real-time, cities can become more resilient, and provide residents with information that can allow them to make better decisions.

For example, if an increased level of congestion is detected at a train station, nearby residents could be advised to select an alternative means of transport, or asked to change their journey time. This could help prevent the build-up of unnecessary congestion, and may be helpful to those who may wish to continue to avoid crowded spaces beyond the pandemic.

Final thoughts

Over the past year, the need for resilience has never been more apparent, and the way we interact with the world around us may never be the same again. The ability for cities to monitor and respond to situations in real-time will be increasingly important, as it’s not necessarily clear the extent to which residents will return to pre-pandemic behaviours.

As a result, smart city infrastructure may be more important than ever before in helping to develop resilient cities which can easily respond to resident needs. Edge computing will act as the backbone of the smart city infrastructure of the future, and enable new and exciting ways for cities to become more responsive.


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One thought on “Cities on the edge: edge computing and the development of smart cities

  1. Pingback: Are smart cities at risk from hackers? | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

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