Smart cities and the Internet of Things – and the role of a smart supply chain in their success

Automation, IoT, robotics and above all, smart cities are hot property. However, as with all hot topics, taking the concept from initial stage potential, through to its flawless roll out can be a bumpy ride. The University of Reading found earlier this year that fewer than half (47 percent) of UK cities even have a definition for ‘smart city’. Just over one in five (22 percent) have a smart city action plan.

A smart city is one that uses data and technology to better serve the needs of the public, which promotes economic development in a sustainable way to improve infrastructure. IoT and smart cities are on a journey to transform modern life. These cities will only accelerate in the coming years with more research being conducted, as well as the UK’s Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport having allocated funding for smart city pilots. 

Of course, this transformation brings with it additional challenges. As cities become more automated and technology-dependent, those in charge have to ask themselves how to ensure that when those systems break down or suffer an outage, they can be swiftly brought back up to speed again. Many of us face the uncertainty of driving up to a set of traffic lights and finding them to be down. Drivers either hesitantly drive to the junction or boldly assume they have right of way, but it causes confusion. When technology downtime could impact not just an intersection but a whole urban area, the issue of ensuring smart devices and automation are fixed quickly and efficiently is becoming increasingly important.

This is why the effective development of IoT and smart cities is reliant on the development of smart supply chain and infrastructure support. For this to work best, city planners and local governments need to know that should an essential part break down, it will be not only replaced quickly – but potentially ahead of the breakdown. Most people never think about the supply chain. Many never even see it. And yet when something goes wrong, its importance becomes paramount. A key asset for the UK in the development of its IoT-linked smart cities programmes is that this country has a strong, well-developed supply chain network, with companies who are able to get essential parts moving on a moment’s notice.

Luckily, many UK field service and supply chain specialists already have the infrastructure in place to service this upcoming industry.  For a lot of the more exciting applications of the IoT, sensors are going to need to be installed on legacy equipment which will require skilled onsite engineers. The smart meter rollout is one example where this is already happening. This project alone has an estimated total value of £11 billion.

This is precisely why the supply chain sector is becoming much more data-led, integrating inventory management systems, assessing need, and dispatching mission critical items to ensure they reach the right person, at the right time – if not before that part becomes crucial. We have tackled this problem at ByBox by bringing together a point-to-point delivery system, meaning efficient delivery journeys are made overnight to minimise traffic delays, with engineers who can access products whenever they need through code or even app activated locker banks. Locker collection also means that stock of replacement parts could be held in accessible locations in case of need – meaning those engineers whose job it is to keep smart cities ticking over and on the move could go and pick up critical parts quickly.

Our role now can even anticipate need. For example, for one IT customer, we spotted in their parts data that typically, within a week of part A breaking and a replacement being issued, part B would also fail. Now that customer can tell their engineers to replace part A and B on the same job, cutting callout costs as well as costly downtime.

As the University of Reading study found, effective planning for major IoT and smart city projects is needed, and many locations are still defining what their development means. However, a vital part of this process needs to be ensuring that a solid strategy is also in place to support the network and fix problems as and when they appear – as well as helping ensure that the integration and rollout of this technology to make our cities smarter helps such a transformative concept to reach and exceed its potential.  

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