R&D in the context of Smart Cities


"Innovation is the most important individual factor to determine success in the 21st century” (Samuel L. Palmisano, at the NIS held in Washington in 2004)."

“Smarter Cities” was one of the vertical lines defined by IBM in 2008 to be included as part of the “Smarter Planet” strategy"

Smart Cities are inventing, reinventing and building themselves. New solutions to new problems and chronic needs are required, and the necessary tools do not even exist yet. This requires a huge effort on Research and Development. R+D (or R+D+i, including innovation) is an essential component in the smart city equation. From that perspective, it is the only possible option to find the required solutions to build them and make them function in an efficient, safe and human-oriented manner.

Research and Development are not new concepts. They have been used in industry and in private-owned businesses ever since the first hunters made their own experiments with bones to build hunting weapons, protect themselves or launch an attack. Before the Industrial Revolution, research was equal to invention in many cases, and coordinated initiatives in search for a constant, organized innovation process were scarce.

Great geniuses in the past had to work in secret in order to avoid attention from those who systematically opposed changes brought about by the application of the scientific method or by technical progress. Progress kept moving forward until the present day,but it took its toll on people doing research and inventing in such areas as engineering, medicine, chemistry, physics, mathematics and astronomy. The fact that many scientific and technological achievements are associated to the name of a given person says a great deal about the prevailing individualism in the scientific and technical world.

Industrial economy

The Industrial Revolution and the widespread implementation of machines as transforming instruments brought about the industrialization of economy. Competition, constant growth, the need to have something to manufacture or build in the most beneficial way -in order to meet a given demand or even demands that were not yet regarded as such- were triggering factors for the creation of departments in charge of the design of services and products deserving to be introduced or manufactured. Individual, liberal genius gave way to anonymous working groups under the scope and interests of companies with the necessary resources to sustain such research and development groups. To date, R&D (Research and Development) is an essential component of any company’s strategy, either big or small. Moreover, it is also included in a country’s government policies, and in organizational structures that stretch beyond the local or even national scope -such as the European Union or initiatives devoted to fostering competitiveness in geographical areas such as Asia- without there being any changes in the government structures of the countries involved.

The R+D phenomenon 

There have always been initiatives aimed at discovering what no one ever thought could be discovered, or build what nobody in their right mind would believe could be built. Nevertheless, the R+D phenomenon is a recent one. What was once an anecdote (inventions) has become the rule, and technology has made it possible to accelerate industrial processes and make them available to wider audiences. To give just one example, it is now possible to hire the services of factories in China that manufacture mobile devices: they get orders from all over the world, and deliver them to the other side of the world with no further trouble. However, just a few decades ago, in 1962 -to give a to-the-point, particular example- the allocated budget for research in South Korea was 0.2% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. In 2007, the budget was around 3%, and in 2012 it came close to 4%, according to Eurostat.

World Graphic

Back in 2004, an international meeting became a turning point in the way to regard innovation and development, which was also the starting point for the Smart City concept: the National Innovation Summit held in Washington gathered, back in 2005, 500 world leaders in economic, technological or social areas, including executive managers from the most influential companies. Samuel L. Palmisano, CEO at IBM, publicly stated that “Innovation is the most important key factor to achieve success in the 21st century”.

The aforementioned statement, along with the willingness to change fostered by the meeting -which took place when the American economy felt threatened by the progress of other powerful countries- laid the foundations for the law approved by President Bush three years later (in 2007): “America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act”, shortened to the “America COMPETES Act” was intended to (making a long story short) foster an innovative spirit above any other considerations, even above economic interests if they were to hinder progress in any scientific or technical discipline. Besides, the initiative inspired other countries to open their eyes to the R&D potential -as happened in South Korea, China, India and Japan- and join efforts to carry out a revitalizing plan for research and development in Asia. Indeed, Japan is a world pioneer in planning research activities, as well as its Fundamental Law for Science and Technology, which was developed in the first half of the last century. Other countries, such as UK, also regulated their plans, as did China with its National Plans for the development of science and technology.

In 2008, Sam Palmisano -being the IBM CEO at the time and in accordance with the dynamics he himself introduced several years ago- implemented a roadmap for building what he would call a “Smarter Planet”, taking advantage of trends becoming stronger in the areas of system interoperability, technology democratization and connectivity. Smarter Cities was one of the vertical lines IBM defined as a part of the Smarter Planet strategy.

The key to understanding the broader picture -where public and private interests meet around Research and Development- lies, at least to some extent, in the difficulties encountered by entrepreneurs to face projects from a market perspective exclusively. Industrial economy, in this aspect, is quite flawed and endogamous. In that sense, only economically feasible services and solutions would be developed, at least when companies were considering financial outcomes. The drive provided by regulations is needed to force (or lead through proper measures, to use a milder expression) companies to approach their productive efforts in an identifiable, recognizable, convergent direction that contributes to focusing the transforming power of industry towards social, sustainable and smart purposes, not only financially desirable. Such efforts are taking shape as predictions become fulfilled in terms of city growth, migration from rural areas to cities, environmental issues or socio-economic changes related to how work is understood, or even the welfare state as whole. 

Besides, guidelines on innovation and development contribute to cooperation and collaboration between companies to take on bigger plans than those of each company by itself. This is, to take a case in point, a trend being observed as Smart Cities are being shaped: companies, unable to tackle projects larger than themselves, need to cooperate and create synergies with other companies to undertake the projects, even if they are rival companies in other activities.

Horizon 2020


Europe 2020: the opportunity to invent the future

In the European context, Europe 2020 brings together all the initiatives focused on developing the “smart” aspect of urban areas. The Europe 2020 project includes a Digital Agenda designed to leave time periods behind (somewhat similar to what satellite-launching rockets do). We have already written about this project in our magazine, but in this case it takes a much more down-to-earth approach. At the end of last year, Horizon 2020 (H2020) -the European Programme for Research and Development Funding- was launched. The programme is devoted to fostering and aligning the interests of companies, entrepreneurs and administrations towards well-defined, specific projects in the strategic areas defined by the EU-28. In particular, Smart Cities are one of the interest subjects to be allocated more funds by H2020, from among the 80.000 million euros included in the budget for the 2014-2020 period. Interest subjects are thoroughly revised every two years, so that goals may be fine-tuned as some trends are becoming stronger and others are being left behind. Another strategic goal is customized healthcare assistance. At a glance, connections and convergent elements may be found -among H2020 special interests points- involving Smart City intrinsic factors such as digital security, infrastructure and service resilience, sustainable mobility or energy efficiency. Appealing funding possibilities from European funds to support Research and Development in the EU-28 countries are available.

The three top priorities of Horizon 2020 are listed as follows: scientific excellence, industrial leadership and social challenges. Projects related to Smart Cities -which are always present in one way or another, even though of course not all of them are equally significant- are excellent candidates to be included (either totally or partially) in funding projects, and an opportunity to create or regenerate companies that will be leading, in a few years, ICT projects in which information and communication technologies will play a fundamental role to build smart services and infrastructure.

In order to be eligible for Horizon 2020, projects must be well-defined, well-rounded and suited to the specific areas of interest outlined in H2020. In practice, this is one of the hardest jobs, and assistance from advisors or expert professionals will be required when formalization of funding applications is done, so that no applications are left behind due to bureaucratic issues. Consulting firms such as Euradia already offer such training and consulting services to companies and entrepreneurs that consider applying for European project funding. The creation of a bubble in the entrepreneurial world -which involves the search for funds becoming even more relevant than the obtention of well-defined, tangible results- is a cause for concern. Nevertheless, research and development are required for progress and strengthening of city “smartization” to be achieved

Israel is a role model for that: in 2013, more than 1.000 start-ups were created using a model that combined government funding and private investment. High-technology industry accounts for 48% of the total market. Israel made it to the 19th place in the World competitiveness Scoreboard 2013, where Spain achieved the 45th place. One of the most prominent smart projects in Israel is the smart city of Haluza (www.haluzasmartcity.org). Information about companies devoted to developing solutions for smart cities may be found at www.israelsmartinnovation.com.

I+D Democratization

Research and development could be viewed as a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that fit better together every time European Union initiatives are improved; they are implemented in a progressive manner in progressively smaller scales. To take a case in point, examples such as Wayra (belonging to Openfuture.org) use a similar outline to the European one, and provide funding to companies with projects chosen according to eligibility criteria. The aforementioned criteria include the alignment with a subject previously determined to be optimal for project viability and social relevance as well as the needs detected in a right moment.

The most interesting aspect in the entrepreneurial sector around Research and Development is the democratization phenomenon involving R+D. Today, platforms are being created to offer entrepreneurs a basis for the creation of services and businesses from entities that are easy to handle and use, such as the cloud, open data or the Internet of Things. We mentioned FiWare in a previous issue: a platform to build simple, accessible APIs available to anybody who wishes to build applications and services on data collected by sensors included in infrastructure, vehicles, street furniture, communication networks or any other sensor-containing or connected element in the city. But companies such as IBM, Teradata, Amazon, Microsoft or Cisco include cloud integration in infrastructure in their roadmaps. Trends to be involved are virtualization, software-defined hardware or integration of sensor-gathered data as a fundamental strategy to offer simple analysis and discovery solutions based on everything that was mentioned before. With hundreds of data centers interconnected, they are building platforms that are able to simplify the needs of R+D departments.

Telefónica, for instance, has recently launched a commercial version of Thinking Things, their open platform for the Internet of Things. Its most interesting feature -beside the sensors marketed to gather data- is the availability of a complex technology that makes it possible to handle data, whether or not gathered by sensors, in a centralized manner, in the cloud and with open APIs to enable access from any development area, either web-base or using specific development platforms such as iOS and Android for mobile devices. What once involved spending significant amounts of time and money in setting up connections and data management now only requires a user account in the “thinking things” platform, as well as adjusting sensors to connect to the cloud using WiFi or 2G.

Nowadays, smart cities are built on infrastructure, data and services, and tools for innovation and development ara available to anybody willing to learn how to programme an API as well as its basic functioning. Most resources are open, and are available on “open source” platforms. The internet is an excellent platform to build services, and mobile devices are available to nearly everybody as a means to make applications and services reach everybody at once. 

Companies such as Libelium had their origins in university laboratories and were created by forward-looking students. In a few years, they have built a technological framework of sensors, cloud, services and data, helping Spain reach the status of Silicon Valley for IoT”, highly renowned all over the world.

Now that smart cities are being shaped, it is time to take advantage of resources provided by Horizon 2020, Wayra or any other one within our reach and think of solutions that have not yet been invented or even thought of. R+D is within reach of large and small companies, it is even available to people with an entrepreneurial spirit. “Maker” movements are another innovation source that companies are starting to regard as a valuable resource in the search for talent and feasible solutions. Makers use technological advances that make it possible to buy, for a few tens of euros, Arduino, Raspberry, Thinking Things and even Edison Intel devices, each of them with their easy-to programme development environments and hardware interfaces. 

The “maker” world is becoming intertwined with large corporations, which regard opening up to these communities as an opportunity to find talent and solutions for problems that may only be solved if tackled by people who do not know these are impossible to solve. Hackathones -which were considered “indie” events not long ago- are progressively becoming sponsored or fostered by multinational companies that may even provide logistical and financial support to forward-looking students and professionals.

Most of these projects are closely related to the needs of a smart city in the areas being actively promoted by Horizon 2020, such as those involved in transport, resource management, eHealth, sustainability or even the ones in social organization from the technological point of view.

R+D (or R+D+i if we include innovation too) is an essential variable in the “smart city” equation. From the perspective of European funds devoted to fostering research and development, it is an opportunity for companies and entrepreneurs, who are entitled to find a job place and a professional career for their future. From the smart city perspective, this is the only option available to find the required solutions to build such cities and make them work in an efficient, safe and people-oriented manner. Best of all, R+D is currently available to anyobody interested in it, due to the creation of technological platforms connected in the cloud, where only basic programming abilities and good ideas are required.

R&D in the context of Smart Cities

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