How Amsterdam became a smart city the DIY way
If Bristol and Manchester are two cities leading the charge for the United Kingdom to become a pioneer of IoT, then Amsterdam has broken similar ground in mainland Europe. And if there is any similarity between the three, it’s that they all have a long history of innovation and independence. All three are creative hubs for their regions, pushing forward with the smart city ethos because of a confluence of factors: civic enthusiasm (eventually), partner buy-in, tech experimentation and collaboration.
The Dutch city’s efforts are set apart from the UK’s in a number of ways though: first, it got there more quickly, with city-wide connectivity provided by the Things Network going live about a year ago, in September 2015. Second, it was fully crowdsourced, built from the ground up with little city involvement but participation from citizens all over Amsterdam. Also – it was ready to go in just six weeks. Although ostensibly the brainchild of one man, Wienke Giezeman, it was driven by the business he co-founded – The Things Network. They developed a gateway hub for just $1200, surmising that the whole city could benefit if only ten of them were strategically placed in the centre and the suburbs, to collect data, feed it back and build a picture of city life based on location and behaviour. Some astute crowdsourcing later, and companies like The Next Web, KPMG and Port of Amsterdam were on board to install the gateways and the city was ready to go online.
A relatively new network known as LoRaWAN is the key to all this connectivity. The Long Range Wide Area Network is a modern method of data packet transfer, and as an open source protocol has been instrumental in the citizen-led nature of Amsterdam’s transformation. Regardless of any municipal initiatives to smarten up traffic lights or transport networks, the vision of Giezeman and friends is made possible by an implicit understanding from Amsterdam city governance of the benefits, typified by a hands-off approach. The primary use case they settled on to understand scalability and reliability was to install nodes on canal boats affected by Amsterdam’s often rainy climate, sinking by taking on water previously undetected. Maintenance companies are alerted via SMS, and arrive on the scene to prevent disaster. It’s not hard to extrapolate the positive impact of incidents like this to realise how the knock-on effects of it can scale to improve a city’s GDP. Amsterdam, with its hundreds of thousands of bikes and abundance of waterways, and at times confusing navigation, will benefit from this welcoming of blanket connectivity.
Aside from the actual physical benefits and forward thinking of Amsterdam’s IoT and smart city journey, there’s a more fundamental positive evident here, and it’s about trust and autonomy. Of people, not vehicles. This is about trust in Wienke and his team to build something of value across different businesses, suburbs and demographics, but also trust there would be uptake from a population to make it work. Six weeks is a remarkable turnaround, and testament to a hackathon philosophy that often characterises IoT development: Have as few meetings as possible. Develop an idea and iterate live, on the fly. Once a very simple infrastructure has been implemented it’s easy to let it go and see what happens. At a cost of around $12,000 it’s an experiment and a leap worth taking.
So how can the lessons and successes of Amsterdam be implemented elsewhere? It’s a combination of motivation to succeed and a willingness to experiment, and most critically, tech that’s getting cheaper all the time. And it helps to have a problem to be solved too, like the sinking canal boats. To take the crowdsourcing aspect even further, after Amsterdam got smartened up and in the knowledge that for proper global scalability that $1200 gateway would have to come down, the Things Network took to Kickstarter to expand their operations and democratise the potential of LoRaWAN. This is where you come in: Want your city to be more like Amsterdam? A node will set you back just €70. A gateway costs €250 as it did during the Kickstarter campaign. It can service 10,000 nodes. It connects via wifi and then nodes connect to it via LoRaWAN. Smart cities are more achievable than you think. Brainstorm some use cases. Articulate the benefits. Approach the right advocates. Gain your council’s trust. The next smart city could be your city. Sure, five years ago this would have seemed like the domain of hackers but five years is a long time in the Internet of Things. Now, it’s within many more people’s grasp, conceptually and financially. So grab it.
Author: Jon Kennard
(c) iStock: JJHV