Smart city standards and innovation: arch enemies or BFFs?

Smart city standards and innovation: arch enemies or BFFs?

Cityscape image by gyn9037 via Shutterstock.

The nascent concept of a smart city is the subject of modern imagination and promise.  From its emergence as a broad idea to its ultimate drive toward standardization, the potential of the smart city is compelling, as is the potential of standards to expedite its movement forward.

But when we speak of standards, what exactly do we mean? And should we worry that standards might dull the highly creative and sometimes idiosyncratic space of a smart city?

Standards sounds a bit like the arch enemy of innovation. Yet experience suggests that innovation and standardization are less arch enemies and more BFFs — best friends forever. Together they can aggressively move forward the smart city vision and give infrastructure and service providers the market share and freedom to truly move the smart city needle.
 
Standards are innovation's friend

Simple electrical current reminds us of the innovation-enabling potential of a well-placed standard. It also reminds us that there can be different standards in different markets. And the now ubiquitous Internet, which is famously based on standards, has spawned an explosion of innovations across the globe, ranging from knowledge-sharing to electronic commerce and community-building to enterprise management.  

Smart Cities Council chairman Jesse Berst agrees.

"Standards are not the enemy of innovation, rather a springboard ... When smart cities gain standard ways of talking and standard interfaces, that sector will see an explosion of new ideas," he says. "The smart cities sector is like the Internet circa 1996. We can tell there's something amazing for us out there, even if we can't yet see all the specifics."

Pioneers make their own paths while fast followers make their way through the bumps in the mud, says Melissa O'Mara, Schneider-Electric's smart cities leader.  

"But a vast majority of people, including industry players that build, retrofit and maintain the places where we live, work and play, don't like bumps or mud or new paths," she says. "They need standard, repeatable, economically viable practices that scale before they'll choose to travel the road that leads to a high performance [result]."

In practice, robust and highly valued industry solutions arise from the artful mix of proprietary innovation and standard solution elements. The thoughtful selection and careful placement of standards allows for generalized compatibility, and robust supply chains, across an industry. The simple reality is that if innovative solution providers can count on certain enabling capabilities to be in place across their customer bases, they can focus their creative attention on creating higher-level value.   

Standards and their enabling capabilities

A standard is "something established by authority, custom, or general consent as a model or example," according to the Merriam-Webster definition. There are various dimensions of a standard, as well as innovation-enabling capabilities. The enabling concepts described here can apply to any architected solution space, including all forums of smart city urban infrastructure.

Types of standards   

Standardization is grounded in a common language, a descriptive vernacular that is embraced by all relevant players. This can emerge organically or formally. It enables innovation by allowing progress to emerge collaboratively across a broad community. Building on that, key standards types and their innovation-enabling capabilities include:

Performance standards provide permission and the push to aim high.

Service architecture standards provide common definitions of major solution elements and their relationships with each other.

Interface standards provide the ability to build plug-and-play solutions.

Data standards provide the ability for disparate elements to produce or act on an agreed format of information.

Communication standards provide end-to-end communication and ubiquitous reach. Versatile communication standards, such as the Internet Protocol, create a shared infrastructure to support multiple applications within a city.  

Standard practices provide O'Mara's "standard, repeatable, economically viable practices that scale," creating a safe path forward for late adopters and others.

Degrees of standards

All standards are not created equal, and many follow a lifecycle arc.

• Models and best practices provide paths forward, helping transform the risk of doing something new, into the risk of not doing it.

• Voluntary certification programs effectively formalize best practices and evolve the capabilities of an industry.

• Market or de facto standards fill an industry-critical gap. They emerge organically in the marketplace because of their effectiveness. Many vendors aspire for their proprietary products to set or become market standards.   

• Open standards "are publicly available and have various rights to use associated with them, and may also have various properties of how they were designed (e.g. open process)," according to Wikipedia. While a proprietary market standard may be sufficient to serve an industry for a time, the existence of a lone supplier makes the industry inherently vulnerable. Opening a proprietary market standard, or creating an open replacement, is essential to attracting a resilient supply chain for industry-critical functionality. The task of developing or approving open standards is often taken up by a standards organization, such as the Internet Engineering Task Force, American National Standards Institute or International Organization for Standardization.

• International standards are available for consideration and use worldwide. "It is easier to leverage new ideas across geographic boundaries if there are strong international standards in place — whether we are talking about buildings, electrical systems, ICT protocols or any type of technology or solution where information sharing is critical," says O'Mara. "In a connected world, that means almost everything from trash cans, to street lights, to security cameras to cars, to roads ... you get the idea."

• Competing standards can provide choice to an industry at a critical time, and often challenges and improves the ultimate winner. The ARPA/OSI battle for the Internet in the 1980s and '90s is a classic example of two standards — in this case, both open — competing for effective international co-existence or dominance. Until such a competition is resolved, service islands are created, and translation services are required to resolve the babble.

• Mandatory standards enforce a new direction and/or level of operation within an industry, effectively creating a new prerequisite for participation.

• Business as usual is the result of widespread practice, typically reached stepwise through the application of other standards. It allows a whole industry to operate in consistent ways which new value creators can tap into. Underperforming business as usual makes entire industries vulnerable. High-performing business as usual makes entire industries powerful engines of economic growth and innovation.

Smart cities realized

With innovation and standardization acting as BFFs, the smart city vision can move forward assertively. Smart city standard infrastructure providers can enjoy large potential customer bases. Smart city solution providers are freed to focus their creative and proprietary attentions on creating high-level value and moving the state-of-the-art forward.  

Smart cities themselves are empowered to deploy enabling infrastructure with confidence, and to pilot and procure strategic solutions that meet their unique objectives — with reduced risk of them ultimately becoming stranded.

Now that's very smart.

Cityscape image by gyn9037 via Shutterstock.