Building a Better Future with Smart Cities and Microservices

In cities large and small, people around the world are discussing moves to make their cities "smarter", especially in this strange new world of trying to avoid and manage outbreaks of COVID-19. Indeed, the pandemic has spurred the necessity of marshaling microservices in a vast scientific experiment on just how, where, and why to use technology to improve residents' living conditions and create municipal efficiency that could save lives. True, these discussions and efforts were going on even before this new and trying time. Still, the urgency of answering these key questions and developing agile, scalable solutions that provide real value to people seems to have become far more immediate to far more people. 

Stepping Stones to Build a Smarter City

How Can Microservices Make Cities More Efficient?

One basic truth needs to rest at the center of all microservices and smart cities: people come first. Technology is there to serve people, not the other way around. As far back as 2012, the United Nations set forth a set of "Sustainable Development Goals" to encourage cities to strive for safe, sustainable, inclusive, and safe habitation. In fact, data from the Urban Institute finds that more inclusive cities lead to a more "economically healthy" populace, which reduces strain on public services like healthcare, homeless shelters, and prisons. So, what examples are there of cities making this happen? 

Many microservices are already available in global cities. And yet, the beneficiaries of those microservices are often those who are already somewhat connected and privileged. For example, in Barcelona, Spain—one of Europe's smartest, most connected cities—apps connected to sensors across the city ensure that residents are not awakened by noisy garbage trucks unless the dumpsters are really full. Parking apps let you know precisely where spaces are available while traffic apps make commutes far more efficient, saving time, and reducing carbon footprints. 

Chicago is considered the eighth smartest city in the world with its "Array of Things" project. An extensive network of sensors across the city can pinpoint the exact location of broken pipes, malfunctioning traffic lights, and even rat outbreaks. This saves the city so much time when workers know exactly what's wrong, what equipment to bring, and where to fix it. The city is also preparing data for citizens to use to map safe travel routes to avoid trouble spots and areas with higher air pollution levels.

In London, visually impaired residents benefit from an app created in partnership between The Royal London Society for Blind People and Google. The app opens up the city's services and transportation opportunities to the blind using sensors and beacons across the city that deliver messages, alerts, and directions in audio format to the user's smartphone. 

But in parts of the world where the populace is not connected to the basics like electricity or running water, very few people can enjoy the benefits of microservices like these. That is changing, however. One startup in India helped provide residents in the poorest slums to get physical mailing addresses with geocoding tech. More than 120,000 people were able to use these addresses then to register to vote, create bank accounts, and get the necessary documents to get access to government services like water and electricity. Naturally, much more needs to be done. 

The Brookings Institution also reports that Africa is primed for developing smart cities now, precisely because the younger population there is more comfortable with technology. And so many cities and communities can start with more developed infrastructure because they don't have all of the aging infrastructures to replace. Cities in Rwanda, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Ghana are already making inroads with smart traffic and parking systems.

The key to making microservices that work for most people, particularly helping those in underserved populations, is to "see a need, fill a need." Cities can use big data collected from sensors and drones, then use digital twin modeling systems to assess real-time needs in everything from finding problems with water infrastructure and using smart traffic lights to guarantee quick passage for ambulances, to sensing potential COVID-19 hotspots in their cities. That, in fact, is already happening in many cities. Anonymous traffic and pedestrian data are already being collected to assess traffic patterns. Adherence to work-from-home and social distancing directives from health officials worldwide, to say nothing of emerging contact tracing systems and apps people can use to monitor symptoms. 

Once again, the focus all needs to come back to the people. Citizens need to have an active role in how smart cities are shaped and how they can benefit the widest range of people in their cities. This is often called commonizing. Citizens must have an active role in the decision making, shaping, and sharing of data that can be used to construct their smart cities. And it's essential to include everyone in the population to make those solutions applicable and inclusive.

Stepping Stones to Build a Smarter City

Why Should Companies Focus on Microservices and Their Role in Smart Cities?

So, where do companies fall into the mix? Well, obviously, companies are run by, staffed by and have customers who are, well, people. They provide jobs and thrive on coming up with revolutionary solutions that make life better for people. So, it only stands to reason that companies apply their financial, technological, and brainpower resources to help citizens come up with smart city solutions and microservices that will genuinely make a difference for the widest swath of the population. As we lift others, we lift ourselves. Right now, companies are doing the gymnastics to adapt to more telecommuting necessitated by the pandemic. This opens doors to more innovation and adaptation coming directly from people in the trenches of a life changed by microscopic pieces of DNA that have washed over the entire world and changed everything about how we live for the time being—and maybe forever. Hopefully, companies and citizens of cities and communities around the world can use this time to create smart cities and smart communities that are healthier, more equitable, and that provide more opportunities for more people.

Microservices Make Cities Smarter

What part is your company or organization playing in the effort to make your city smarter, more efficient, and more fair? What smart city questions and microservice ideas keep you up at night or get you fired up in the morning? If you've got an idea or a question or a need, please send us a message or start a conversation below. Let's get collaborating on some agile microservices that can help your company and your city grow in a happier, healthier way. And please, stay safe out there!