Building a Digital City

Technical innovation alone will not give rise to intelligent cities. Industrial expertise is also vital.

Industrial companies are different from technology companies. And I don’t just mean that they have ladders.

When you provide the foundation for the way the world’s systems work every day, you think differently.

Water systems, energy systems, transportation systems and lighting systems all work for a very long time and require thoughtful planning about maintenance, commissioning, serviceability and physical security that pure technology companies don’t have to consider.

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Shared infrastructure creates equity in opportunity for everyone.

Industrial companies also build shared infrastructure that is open to anyone approved by the city. That goes for both individuals and organizations.

In my last post, I talked about the new kind of infrastructure required for digital cities. Broad sets of sensors tied to streetlights that were designed to be shared – under the direction of city leadership – can empower a new era of urban innovation.

We can move from making City Hall work better to unleashing all of a city’s citizens to help each other live, work and play better. Shared infrastructure creates equity in opportunity for everyone from high school students to large companies, in neighborhoods of all types.

To truly solve this issue, it’s going to take the work of digital industrial companies.

[Also on Longitudes: Your Business Without Boundaries]

Why digital industrial companies matter

First of all, industrial companies are experienced at putting real equipment in the real world.

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I firmly believe we need digital industrial companies to deploy and secure infrastructure.

As a general rule, we have a lot more ladders, tool belts, bucket loaders and other equipment than most technology companies do.

And for what we don’t have in house, we have broad sets of partners with those specific tools that have worked with us on industrial projects for years.

I know those kinds of technologies don’t generate a lot of headlines, but like it or not, they are essential to creating digital cities. And the understanding and willingness to go into the street and maintain real physical equipment is essential to digitizing cities.

Technology companies don’t install and manage equipment like this as part of their DNA.

Sure, every one of them can tell you how they build a custom solution and put sensors on manhole covers to check for water flow levels (I was part of those teams too), but it’s an entirely different animal when you are managing tens or hundreds of thousands of streetlights or securing power systems against intrusion.

This is what industrial companies do every day.

Second, because industrial companies work in the real world with real equipment, they design cloud technology that is purpose built for getting data from these devices to the cloud in a secure way.

The GE engine powering the plane I am on (one of the only places I can find time to type these posts) will generate an average of half of a terabyte of data per flight.

Oh, and it moves from airport to airport, so getting that data back to the cloud for analysis isn’t the easiest thing to do.

Technology companies excel at getting data from one system to another.

If you need to process a lot of banking transactions and analyze trends, you don’t need an industrial company.

But if you are a city leader that is going to deploy physical sensors all across your city to empower the next urban technology evolution, you definitely want the experience of an industrial company.

Third, industrial companies are happy to help create shareable open infrastructure. It’s what we do.

We are happy to have lots of application vendors build solutions on our digital infrastructure, like ubiquitous, open LED fixtures.

We know we aren’t experts at solving many city problems, so we don’t even try to do it. We don’t have ulterior motives of collecting personal data on individuals so that we can advertise to them later.

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Some technology companies want to be your one-stop-shop for everything.

Our design point is to create infrastructure that empowers a community. At GE, we’ve done it for more than 130 years.

Some technology companies want to sell you solutions for every problem that you have. They want to be your one-stop-shop for everything.

While there are many strong technology companies, my belief is that if you unleash the creativity of your city, you will find plenty of great solutions and create jobs and drive economic growth at the same time.

That takes open infrastructure.

There are a number of startup companies that have very cool solutions. I hope that many of these startup companies can find a way to leverage the industrial digital infrastructure to solve interesting problems.

[Also on Longitudes: The Rise of the Robobees]

The major role of big technology companies

I should point out that as much as I firmly believe we need digital industrial companies to deploy and secure infrastructure, I’m confident that big technology companies will continue to play a major role in solving urban problems.

In fact, I bet that their solutions will get even better and their ability to help city leaders will scale much faster after a digital industrial company provides them with the right physical infrastructure.

I love technology and will always be enamored by the solutions that cutting edge technology can enable.

But for city leaders who are focused on unleashing the economic growth opportunities that urban tech holds, the only choice is a digital industrial company with staying power that can provide the open, secure, resilient infrastructure that cities require.goldbrown2

This article first appeared on GE REPORTS and was republished with permission.


Every morning, wake up to the blog that gives you the latest trends shaping tomorrow.

John Gordon is the Chief Digital Officer of Current.

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