The idea of smart cities is top of the agenda for most countries: technology has the potential to make cities operate smarter, more efficiently and – most importantly of all – more safely. This is why the trend to smart cities is starting with the implementation of safe cities.

Kathy Gibson attended Huawei’s Safe Cities Summit in Nairobi to find out how Africa can benefit from safe cities

Implementing a smart city is both simpler and more complex that might be thought.

This is the word from Edwin Diender, global vice-president: government and public sector at Huawei Enterprise, setting up a safe city shouldn’t involve ripping and replacing what’s there already – and it’s not a single project, but an ongoing endeavour.

He points to the example of police services, which is often a good entry point for a smart city deployment.

“In every police station in the world, when an emergency is called in, certain questions need to be asked and answered to get context and awareness. This information is then channelled through a number of levels before the call can be acted on and a response dispatched.

“But, simply by integrating different – existing – systems, it should be possible connect all the relevant information and have it instantly available to the first responder.”

This information could come from a variety of different systems that already exist within the police department itself, and could start including images and video from out in the field, from CCTV cameras or even citizen’s smartphones.

“What we are talking about is being able to provide a platform that plugs into what people have today; that understands the language that they speak; and helps them to work together.”

This is the real challenge in setting up smart cities, Diender says. “It’s about taking all the various communication protocols out there, and bringing them together into one package.

“Then you can start adding the communication layer, installing sensors, sniffers and other devices, then integrating other devices that may not be part of the original network.”

Simple integrating and automating a single service’s system still doesn’t make for a smart city, though. Exponential value can be achieved through adding other services, layering additional features on top of the integrated platform, Diender says.

“Technology is not the issue,” he stresses. “Integration is the issue.”

In Kenya, Huawei pulled together a safe city platform within six months, ahead of the Pope’s visit to the country, and later on the visit by US president Barack Obama.

The company was able to do this because it didn’t try to set up everything from scratch, but integrated the systems that were already there, adding communications layers and providing a single view in the command and control centre.

This initial deployment was able to support the two high-level visits but, importantly, it has also laid the platform for future developments and additions to the system.

“We are upgrading the system all the time, proceeding as we go,” Diender points out.

Nairobi and, later on, Mombasa had specific events and deadlines to aim for in terms of their safe city initiatives – but how do cities without a compelling deadline get started?

“It really depends on where the pain points are,” says Diender. “A solution needs to solve to problem, so it would be an item that has some priority.”

Alternatively, a good starting point could be an area where technology has been deployed, but could be better used if it was integrated into a smart platform.

Diender points to the case of Moscow where cameras had been installed but couldn’t be connected because there weren’t enough channels available in the existing platform.

By implementing a new platform, the cameras were not only connected but could be used way beyond their original intention.

The availability of bandwidth is a catalyst in some cities, with mobile broadband not offering very fast voice, video and mobile data.

But the underlying message that Diender is promoting is the fact that it’s not necessary to “rip and replace” existing systems.

“We are not developing something new. We already have most of what’s needed; it’s about localising and tailoring what could be off-the-shelf products; and flip them sideways to create a new and better application.”

Huawei provides its solutions across various vertical industries, Diender says. “The world today is flat: the what of putting things in boxes doesn’t cut it any more – there are no borders when it comes to data.

“So, from our industry solution point of view, we don’t have vertical solutions; we have solutions that can be used to fit across various vertical industries.”

Importantly, the company employs vertical industry experts to ensure that solutions are a great fit for various industries.

“The industry solution business in Huawei is a function not a product line. We have people in the different industry domains that have a background in that domain. This helps us to better understand and move forward with the solution stack.”