In an unnamed city in Asia, AGT, a Swiss security firm, has teamed up with Cisco to install internet-connected sensors in trash bins. The idea is simple: the city knows when bins are full or empty, so it can plan more efficient routes for trash collectors and their trucks. Save enough on fuel and labor by eliminating wasted trips, and the sensors more than pay for themselves.
This is probably not how you pictured the urban panopticon that will some day transform every city on earth into a living organism brimming with sensors that track the location of every citizen, vehicle, parking spot, utility meter and countless other objects. And it might seem like a stretch to imagine that cities, which are full of aging infrastructure and constrained by tight budgets, will so quickly join the “internet of things.” But according to executives at AGT and Cisco, if providers can prove that connecting objects to the internet saves money—even the humble trash bin—it becomes a no-brainer.
The economic case for connecting everything in every city worldwide
“[Information and communications technology] is the new essential infrastructure, alongside water, gas and electric—it’s about what it enables,” says Wim Elfrink, a vice president at Cisco.
AGT’s expertise is primarily in the software that processes data produced by everything from smart meters to surveillance cameras. Its recent tie-up with Cisco means that AGT has a dedicated hardware partner, so the two companies can sell complete solutions, from sensors and their physical connections to the internet to the cloud-based software that processes all the data they generate.
“Right now only one percent of what could be connected in cities is connected—things like smart meters, parking meters, water meters,” says Mati Kochavi, CEO of AGT. He claims that by giving city planners the ability to understand how cities work in as much real-time granularity as possible, AGT’s systems can generate new revenue in the form of smart parking systems, and increase overall energy efficiency of the parts of cities controlled directly by the government by 30%.
Cities like London are already festooned with security and traffic cameras. Rather than having humans watch them, AGT claims its software can use machine learning to automatically flag out of the ordinary events like a stopped vehicle on a roadway.
“Cities are pressed in terms of how many municipal workers they can deploy,” says Kochavi, who believes that, as in manufacturing, the replacement of humans with machines is one way for cost-conscious leaders to to wring economic efficiency from the systems they oversee.
Systems that lead to increased efficiency…
In a visit to AGT’s Manhattan offices, I saw systems that seemed to turn real-life cities into something like a Sim City control panel. Using AGT’s software, police and even citizens could use apps on smartphones and tablets to flag events at a given location. This data feeds into maps on which city workers can evaluate incidents—everything from potholes to riots—and decide how to react, such as deploying more police or other personnel to a given location.
The basic idea is that a variety of sensors, including security cameras, environmental sensors, and app-wielding citizens, can blanket a city and provide an unprecedented level of intelligence.
In the presentation I saw, all of this technology was pitched as a way to increase efficiency and make cities more livable. One system, for example, allowed grid operators to determine how much power was being generated by home rooftop solar installations, so that the grid could be balanced in a way that simply isn’t possible today, when utility companies may only have information about power usage at a local substation that powers dozens or hundreds of homes.
Are also, inevitably, about control
But there is another side to this kind of surveillance—security and control. In Singapore, AGT is deploying “UrbanShield,” a “state-of-the-art, event security and urban management system for real-time security management and post-incident investigation at mega-events.”
UrbanShield consists of a “mobile command and control” hub tied to a “sensors platform” that ties into existing sensors, as well as arrays of temporary sensors and cameras installed specifically to monitor an event. These ad-hoc sensors include “Urban Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Urban UAVs),” commonly known as drones, and “crowd-sourcing and analytics capabilities”—essentially monitoring signals from smartphones and other connected devices to determine where everyone is and what they might be up to.
There’s also an intelligence and analytics component to AGT’s security offering, “OpenMIND,” which monitors social media to take the temperature of the intentions of a crowd, and, the company claims, can identify influencers within a given social media network.
As a tool to control terrorism and crime, all of this sounds marvelously sophisticated. But as we are seeing in revolutions in Ukraine, Syria and Venezuela, there is always the matter of what a government chooses to do with these technologies—including those innocuous internet-connected trashcans—once citizens decided to act against the state that has deployed them.