Schneider Electric takes a bottoms-up approach to smart cities

Some of the biggest names in high-tech are vying for a role in the emergence of smart city solutions driven by Big Data analytics and machine-to-machine (M2M) technologies.

But what good is collecting all sorts of information from water utilities, electric grids, municipal buildings or transportation departments if those systems are inherently inefficient in the first place?

That's the question posed by France's Schneider Electric, a global specialist in energy management and infrastructure operations that reported approximately $32 billion in sales for 2012.

The company has its hand in more than 200 smart city projects around the world, notably Beijing, Dallas, Grenoble and Rio de Janeiro. It offers a range of technologies toward this end, such as its new Building Analytics software and services, which pull information from building sensors, utility meters and control systems. It also is skilled in energy savings performance contracting, in which the company assumes the capital risk for building or infrastructure improvements in exchange for fees based on the money those investments save along the way.

On the face of it, that sounds a lot like the other companies scrambling for a piece of the smart cities buildout -- estimated at an annual $20 billion market by 2020. But while many of those companies advocate a top-down approach relying on some central command center shaped by IT management software, Schneider Electric's focus starts in a different place. Its main advice for smart city customers: fix the infrastructure first before you try to connect all the systems together.

"Our approach starts from the bottom and makes sure that the different departments of the city are efficient," said Jim Anderson, vice president for Schneider Electric's smart cities strategy in North America. "Then we take a look at the way we can optimize across the departments. … Generally, the conversation starts around how we can look at the pain points of a city."

A common theme: cities don't know where to start

As you might expect, the specifics of that conversation are different for every city. But all of them share one thing, Anderson said: "They have no idea to start, so it's our job to dig deep and help them understand what's going on."

Photo of Abu Dhabi by Sophie James / Shutterstock.

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