Build a Smart City in 3 Easy Steps

A common design pattern makes it a breeze

Many people are wondering whether human civilization is at the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution – the four being:

1) Invention of steam engine

2) Production assembly line (e.g. production of cars)

3) Transistor, personal computer, Internet

4) Big Data, Blockchain, AI/ML, genetic engineering

The confluence of various technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), 5G networks, blockchain and billions of internet of things (IoT) devices is creating the perfect storm that can totally change the daily lives of people all over the world. Many of these technologies are being packaged together into applications that focus on different areas of daily life such as home, work, healthcare and more. “Smart city” is the umbrella term that’s often used to describe a set of applications that focus on ways to make our cities safer, more environmentally friendly and sustainable, and more efficient with respect to transportation. But what is a smart city?

1.   Define your smart city use case

Although the definitions of what constitutes a smart city vary, they all seem to agree on a central point. That is, a smart city is a municipality that uses information and communication technologies to improve the quality of government services and citizen welfare. Theoretically, any area of city management can be incorporated into a smart city initiative, but smart city applications tend to focus on use cases in public safety, environmental and operational improvements, and information sharing. Some concrete examples of these use cases include:

  •        Smart Transportation: Sensors provide a real-time view of traffic flow for better traffic management and reduced congestion. Data from the sensors can inform public transportation routing, traffic signals and intelligent assistants in cars.
  •        Smart Buildings: Building systems (lighting, climate) can intelligently adapt to worker preferences and usage patterns, saving energy. Monitoring systems can alert managers when maintenance is needed.
  •        Safe Schools and Neighborhoods: Visual surveillance through drones or sensors can monitor public spaces and alert authorities when there’s an incident. During incidents, the same type of surveillance can provide responders with real-time, comprehensive information on the situation for faster resolution.

It is important to note that technology alone cannot help us realize the above benefits. If a smart city is built on integrated data flows, then people are needed to help break down the silos to allow the open sharing of data. The intelligence of a smart building, for example, is highly dependent on the willingness of citizens, building system industries, grid operators, public agencies, lawmakers and other players to share their information and remove conflicts.

2.   Determine your smart city design pattern

To understand how the flow of data works in a smart city, it’s helpful to think it in terms of a common design pattern. A smart city is a collection of many applications each of which may have different performance, security and availability requirements. This, in turn, has implications on the underlying technology architecture that is the most appropriate.

As shown in the figure above, a smart city design pattern typically consists of the following common building blocks:

  •        End Devices: Low powered sensors at the edge (smart phones, drones, vehicles, cameras, etc.) capture data on people, environmental conditions, operating statuses and more. The amount of data that is collected from these various things will vary based on the applications. Much of the data will get processed and discarded at the edge itself, but a large amount of data will still need to be stored for historical analytics and other purposes. It’s typically stored in an aggregate form in cost-effective cloud storage services.
  •        Edge Nodes: There are multiple types of edge nodes in the end to end architecture ꟷ spanning all the way from the device-edge (e.g., smart phones, connected cars), to micro-edge data centers (e.g., cell towers, parking lots, malls, stadiums) to macro-edge data centers for vendor neutral interconnection and colocation (e.g., Equinix) and finally, to back end hyperscale clouds (e.g., AWS, Microsoft, Google, IBM, etc.). The application process can be thought of as having an application compute portion (compute edge) and a wireless/wired network portion (network edge).  An application will be composed of multiple microservices, and depending upon the application type, these microservices will execute at different edges in the edge hierarchy. Similarly, depending upon the network type, the network edge will also span across the edge hierarchy. There is no single one size fits all edge architecture for the different types of applications in the Smart City umbrella.
  •        Core Clouds: Ultimately, all of the filtered data from the various smart city applications will get processed and stored in backend clouds. Core backend clouds will be useful for creating more accurate global AI models because of the quantity and variety of data that gets aggregated in them. Furthermore, they will also be used for continuously processing historical data. Most cities and organizations will not want to manage this large core infrastructure themselves, and thus, they will most likely outsource the storage and processing of these vast amounts of data to cloud service providers (CSPs). Major breakthroughs in homomorphic encryption and multi-party secure computation technologies will allow enterprises to operate on encrypted data in the public clouds.

3.   Future proof your smart city architecture

Once you’ve defined the smart city use case and design pattern for the data flow, there are a few other important architectural considerations that need to be taken into account as follows:

  1.      Network optimization: A smart city depends on fast network speeds and minimal latency to exchange data traffic between billions of end devices and their edge nodes and core clouds. By placing network hubs close to users, data and clouds, architects can solve latency concerns, enabling cities to operate better and provide a better citizen experience. With 200 International Business Exchange™ (IBX®) data centers located in key metros around the world, Equinix enables this kind of distributed architecture. In some cases, Equinix IBX data centers are the home of hyperscale cloud providers, or are 1-2 milliseconds (ms) away from hyperscale cloud data centers and within 10 ms from end users/devices in most metros.

Source: Equinix, Interconnection Addresses Government IT Initiatives

  1.      Hybrid multicloud: Network service providers (NSP), cloud service providers (CSP) and enterprises are all developing different smart city applications. That means a smart city will need to connect to multiple clouds, applications and data to operate. Wireless networks (5G, WiFi, low power, free spectrum, etc.) play a big part as they will need to move traffic from the devices to the clouds, and content from the clouds back to the end users. Due to the high cloud and network ecosystem density on Platform Equinix® (more than 1,800 NSPs and 2,900+ cloud and IT service providers), Equinix is the natural place for most of these providers to peer and exchange smart city network traffic between each other. Furthermore, through Equinix Cloud Exchange Fabric™ (ECX Fabric™) on Platform Equinix®, a smart city architect can directly, securely and dynamically connect the distributed infrastructure and applications the city needs.  ECX Fabric is a Layer 2/Layer 3 distributed network fabric that enables data center-to-data center network connections on demand between any ECX Fabric locations within a metro or globally via a software-defined interconnection. This fabric is very attractive because it makes it easy for distributed application builders to have a predictable secure and high performing network connecting their distributed edge locations.


  1.      Distributed data: Smart cities live and breathe on the principle of free and open exchange of data but constraints exist. A typical smart city application needs to fuse data from at least ten different sources, including public and private data sources. Private data owners (citizens or data/algorithm providers) have concerns over data control – they need assurance that their data and intellectual property will not be copied or used in an unauthorized manner. Moreover, data sovereignty and data privacy requirements impose additional legal constraints on where and how data can be processed. To address these constraints, a secure exchange of data between smart city operators, public agencies, partners, citizens and clouds in neutral network hubs is needed. Processing data at the edge where it is generated also addresses another challenge – data volume. It does not make sense to move large data sets that are getting generated by the billions of IoT sensors all the way to the clouds over long-distances to gain timely insights from the data. Scaling this exchange of data requires integrating analytics, data lakes and data controls in the network hubs. Neutrality is a fundamental principle that Equinix was built around, which is why 9,800+ businesses leverage Equinix as the unbiased location for exchanging their network traffic. Thus, Equinix IBXs are attractive as neutral edge locations for various enterprises and consortiums to exchange their data and AI algorithms.


  1.      Distributed Security: The distributed architecture of a smart city increases vulnerability points, especially when data and applications span across many different counterparties and billions of devices. Deploying security controls in network hubs next to users and clouds will be key. Identity management is a key security area that smart cities will need to focus on to prevent bad actors from gaining unauthorized access. Equinix is currently working with its partners to enable decentralized blockchain-based identity management solutions to address these types of challenges. In addition to identity management, smart city application providers will also want to encrypt their data since, in many cases, their data will reside, be accessed and move across multiple cloud providers. To meet this need, Equinix developed Equinix SmartKey™, a high-performing, neutral multicloud key management solution that helps companies manage encryption activities across multiple clouds.


It is inevitable that we are entering the era of smart cities worldwide. However, this is a long-term journey where, over the next decade, numerous sophisticated applications will provide value and improve the quality of life for citizens at large. The common design pattern above illustrates how the basic flow of data needs to work for a city to be smart. By leveraging Interconnection Oriented Architecture™ (IOA®) best practices within the context of this model, many different smart city applications can be built leveraging rapidly accelerating technologies such as IoT, AI and blockchain.

Watch the Interconnections blog for upcoming articles on smart city perspectives around the world. In the meantime, to learn more about how interconnection can power smart cities, read the IOA Playbook.

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