Edge Computing Diagram

Leveraging the Edge: Smart Cities and Edge Computing

By Rob Nash-Boulden, Director Data Centers, Hill International, Inc.

Back in 2017, I helped write a paper titled “Edge Computing: The Calm Before the Storm?” The paper included a survey and analysis of current trends towards Edge computing, which we defined as distributed computing that delivers data storage and processing closer to where the data is used—effectively, on the “edge.”

Edges, Clouds, and Gravity

Edge computing as a concept dates to the turn of the century to describe content delivery network servers. Since then, Edge has come to describe the processing, analyzing, and application of knowledge from data collected at the source, as opposed to data transmitted to a core processing unit. Edge computing can apply to any number of scenarios—the Internet of Things is an obvious example, as are peer-to-peer networks, mobile devices connected wirelessly, and, of course, entire or partial urban utility and infrastructure networks.

Edge computing also applies to the data centers themselves, where the data processing occurs in a fixed location and the network extends both wirelessly and through fiber and effectively, in concentric rings with the servers themselves becoming a kind of data neutron star, generating what amounts to “data gravity.” This can true of a single data center, but also of an entire region, like the concentration of data center activity in Northern Virginia.

Given this definition, Edge computing in the U.S. appeared in 2017 ready to join the list of everyday technological terms, from cloud computing to peer-to-peer. Did the storm we predicted break?

The answer is yes, but like so many technological trends instead of thunder and lightning followed by an ensuing downpour we’ve had several years of steady Edge showers: an evolution, not a revolution.

Today, the evolution of data networks towards Edge computing continues, both in expected and unexpected ways. Self-driving vehicles are closer and closer to reality, although predictions of fully automated freight and cargo systems were perhaps premature. For transportation infrastructure, however, Edge is a reality as Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), on-site airport data centers, and ship to shore port systems are the norm. The same can be said for media and content providers, with online gaming and content providers expanding delivery network efficiency and geographic reach through value-added and interactive services.

Edge in the Built Environment

In the built environment, Edge continues to evolve in important ways. For owners, agencies, and utilities, Edge provides new opportunities to realize efficiencies, improvements, and cost savings in how they provide services to residents, end-users, and other stakeholders. Edge can help achieve this through extended Intelligent Building Systems (IBS), with a Universal Connectivity Grid (UCG) connecting the IBS out into the cityscape itself.

As the number of data sensors and sources grow with a city—including individuals with their devices and monitors, traffic systems, healthcare, utilities, security, etc., storing and analyzing data centrally becomes less feasible. A system based on Edge computing, however, allows the information needed to meet requests and improve service delivery to be passed back through the network. Edge computing also reduces the latency delays inherent in cloud computing, which is critical for situations where action is required quickly, such dispatching a first responder or addressing a traffic snarl.

In addition, Edge computing enables geographic precision – information relevant to a particular street, block, or suburb can be shared instantaneously, potentially even by floor or room. For example, in the event of a local crime, edge computing facilities in a neighborhood can be fed an image or video of the perpetrator which video analytics can search for and link to police systems.

Is Edgy Smart for Cities?

Traditionally, municipal and other public owners lag the private sector in terms of adopting new technologies and innovations. In the case of Edge, however, governments and other public sector agencies don’t necessarily have an apples-to-apples comparison with, say, a corporate campus or manufacturing complex. A key enabler for Edge computing is the roll out of 5G, for example, which is appearing on city streets alongside connectivity improvements in manufacturing. Similarly, according to Cisco, a single smart building generates some 275 GB of data a day, of which only 1% is captured, as compared to a factory, which might generate 2 PB, of which only 0.2% is captured, and a smart grid might generate a seemingly miniscule 5 GB of data a day, of which only 1% is captured. What would it mean for a city capture this data in a meaningful way? Is a holistic case of receiving and realizing actionable data beneficial?

Yes, potentially—again, Edge is an evolution, not a revolution. Cities and agencies looking for a silver bullet from Edge projects will be disappointed. But, if planned and executed correctly, Edge can result in long-term improvements for utilities and other services. Carrier Smart City Networks, in their paper “Smart is the New Green,” breaks out  some the quantifiable and qualifiable benefits of widespread IBS use feeding data into a UCG as follows, which I have expanded and elaborated on based on my own experience with Edge in the urban environment.

  • Quality of Life: Edge increases speed—speed in realizing where problems are or may occur, speed in reacting, and speed in resolution. This increased speed improves safety and security, public transportation, communications, etc. This in turn increases quality of life, which has a direct impact on net migration. Businesses and individuals typically move to cities for quality of life reasons, leading to a larger revenue base.
  • Reduced Environmental Impact: Real-time connectivity combined with on-site processing power means reductions in energy costs in dozens of ways, from more environmentally friendly lighting solutions to hydrant monitoring to reducing pollution to smarter energy, water, and other utility use by the block instead of only by the building.
  • Fiscal Responsibility: Good stewardship of public funds is always a priority. Employing Edge technologies enables agencies to directly connect usage and demand trends and invest in the best projects accordingly. Edge can also help generate higher operation incomes from toll collection, city-wide connectivity, taxes, tourism, etc. This helps cities manage their budgets more effectively.
  • Operational Efficiency:In addition to increasing revenues in a city, a “smart city” can reduce waste by providing the data to develop comprehensive solutions that cut across the needs of multiple departments and eliminate wasted investments in point solutions.

How to Realize an Edge

As Edge continues to evolve, there are several ways cities and utilities can prepare their networks to take advantage of the opportunities the technologies present. Hill International, Inc., a program, project, and construction management firm supporting municipalities, agencies, and other public owners across the U.S., is already seeing the advantages of Edge computing in ITS and IBS. Based my own and Hill’s experience, we recommend our clients:

  • Partner with service providers: Connecting IBS to the UCG requires fiber, so owners need to work with the companies laying the fiber to realize the benefits Edge can deliver. In Columbus, OH, for example, where Hill is working with several public infrastructure clients, the City is deploying fiber rings for carriers to launch service or otherwise form public-private partnerships to make networks easier and more cost-effective to deploy.
  • Deploy shared infrastructure: A smart city really means a connected city, and fiber-fed 5G wireless is the conduit that will do the connecting. Sharing infrastructure makes 5G a viable business model for both cities and service providers. Ultimately, public-private partnerships make networks easier and more cost-effective to deploy.
  • Consider Resilience Early: More technically, define the impact of failure at the source level. Would this bring down the entire IBS? Impact the UCG? How would it impact collaboration with other units? Edge computing in smart cities means depending on a fluid network that can protect itself—including against cyber-attacks.
  • Get Your Protocols Correct: Protocols that enable the systems and the network to work together are required and need to be developed. Dell and Intel are developing IOT gateways and routers that can support Edge computing while software such as Apache Spark is also being developed and scaled, but the standards are still evolving.

Living on the Edge

Cities and agencies often see the likely benefits of using Edge, and find the technical obstacles and up-front investment surmountable, only to realize there are still many “unknown-unknowns” associated with Edge. As noted, using Edge to better manage public infrastructure is not an area where public owners can look to the private sector for an apples-to-apples comparison. The legal and ethical challenges of Edge computing cited back in 2017 remain relevant today:

  • Data privacy. Data collected means data protected. How will various utilities, agencies, and departments make sure privacy issues are addressed? Who owns the data from, say, a private building connected to a public grid?
  • Who is responsible? A smart city must also be a responsible city. Who is criminally and/or civilly responsible for accidents in a 5G connected city? If a network failure results in a cascade of traffic incidents, for example, how will the city handle the ensuing legal morass?
  • User expectations. Data use expectations are changing daily. Residents, businesspersons, students, tourists, and everyone else who comes to a smart city for whatever reason will have their own expectations on what and how data is collected and used.

Leveraging the Edge

When my colleagues and I delivered our paper in 2017, a point of emphasis was to watch where investments in Edge were coming from. Investment in data centers was an obvious example, and the continued growth in the data center market is proof that Edge has a foundation in those places where data gravity is strongest, especially as the pandemic has dragged on. In the U.S., at least, this means many urban areas are well positioned to realize the benefits of Edge computing—provided they identify, design, and manage their projects well.

Ultimately, though, Edge is about networks, not data centers. Edge presents us with the question of how we will use data, rather than how we will consume data. Future investments to watch for are in the algorithms that will make the best use of Edge, whether mobile to mobile, peer to peer, or app to app. The data center, then, will serve as the utility providing a resource, and not providing a product.

For cities, partnering is key to realizing the benefits of Edge computing. Decision makers need to find service providers who can take the public’s perspective and provide the honest and open feedback that leads to good decision making. This is true of the partners pulling the fiber, those tearing up the asphalt and laying track, those building the homes and businesses, and those overseeing the entire process, step-by-step.

In addition, cities need to be realistic and patient in realizing the benefits of Edge systems. A single toll road enveloped in a strong ITS will still experience bottlenecks and accidents, under the right (wrong) circumstances. Scaling up from such a relatively simple system to a grid or a block will take an exponentially greater spend in terms of resources, commitment, and time.

The parallels between cities and their “mission” and the leverage Edge computing can deliver, however, are striking. Cities provide the cultural, economic, and social “gravity” for millions of people, whether learning, working, or playing. City governments and agencies, along with utilities, manage this gravity in a variety of ways. Similarly, Edge needs its own data gravity to succeed in any meaningful, quantifiable way. Cities that realize how to take advantage of this alignment will enjoy a true, long-term advantage in how they shape the experience of their residents, businesses, and other stakeholders.