Automated ports and a city of sensors: Cisco chief outlines blueprint for Hamburg smart city

Business development manager for EMEA and Russia Mirko Bass tells Computerworld just why the smart city of Hamburg is attracting international attention, including from US president Barack Obama's cabinet.

The port city of Hamburg, Germany has more bridges than Venice and Amsterdam put together - and in an area where trading by ship has historically been vital to the local economy, officials turned to Cisco to make everything smarter.

"The bridges are moveable," says Mirko Bass, business development manager for EMEA and Russia at Cisco, and also one of the passionate architects of Hamburg's ambitious smart city initiative. "One of the bridges is in a very sensitive area, and takes 20 minutes to go up or down while a ship is passing by. During that time, neither a train nor a truck can pass through - but if you know when the ship is coming you can redirect the traffic around it."

Two years ago Hamburg and Cisco signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to invest in smart city pilot schemes in the region. Just one of them is embedded into this bridge, itself fitted with hundreds of sensors and connected to Wi-Fi, that can report back to officials about energy usage, pollution, and information about logistic bottlenecks.

"Moveable infrastructure is a very important asset," Bass says, "so predictive maintenance is also important. If you know something isn't OK with the bridge, then you should know in advance so you can maintain it before it breaks."

The port of Hamburg recently caught the attention of US president Barack Obama's Secretary of Commerec, Penny Pritzker, in particular for the automated processes it uses. What attracted Obama's cabinet to Hamburg within 18 months of the smart city programme starting, Bass says, is that the project takes along the surrounding community with it. "They engage the people in the port, and the city, in a kind of participation that jointly shapes the future," he says.

But according to Bass, the level of automation was also of interest because of labour conflicts in the United States.

"The port of Los Angeles, for example, had a lot of labour issues," Bass says. "So they wanted to hear: how are you doing this?"

Another area where Cisco and Hamburg are trialling a pilot scheme is on the so-called 'smart road', a 4 kilometre stretch that has two crossings and a bridge in the middle.

"We connected the road and provided complete wi-fi coverage in that area," Bass says. "It was also very open - we asked entrepreneurs and local companies to sit in a workshop with people from the city and from the port."

German lighting giant Phillips was one of 80 companies that was part of that conversation, and the working group discovered that simply by retrofitting traditional lighting fixtures with LED lighting, it would be possible to save 40 percent in energy consumption.

"If you make LED lighting smarter and more dynamic, you can make it so if there's no one in the street you can dim the lighting," Bass says. "If anyone comes along, whether pedestrian, truck or cyclist, you light that street. In total you can save up to 70, 80 percent of energy."

"If you look into the city, where is the most energy consumption? It's in lighting. When nothing is happening in the port the lighting is still on."

Cisco, Hamburg and Phillips decided to retrofit the lighting on 100 lamp posts that lined the 'smart road' with LED lighting, and while they were there, they added sensors too.

"We made the lampposts smart so that they recognised if there was movement on the street - is there a car or a truck? And if it's detected, the lighting goes on."

That project went live in June 2015, and later this year the city plans to release a report that details the savings. If all went as smoothly as Bass asserts, then we can expect the LED retrofitting scheme to be rolled out in other areas, and probably indoors too. "In the next 10 years, you'll see only LED lighting," he says.

In tandem with this project, Bass and Cisco also spearheaded a programme to better understand the flow of logistics in the city. They placed 20 cameras along the smart road, the purpose of which was to paint a picture of any bottlenecks.

"It's to detect the classification of a vehicle: is that a car, a truck, a cyclist or whatever," Bass says. "It's not about knowing Harold on Tuesday morning at 8.45 is moving from left to right - it's about knowing that on the section there's a big queue, and if I know that, I can then try to find out the root cause. It is about analytics."

The system automatically blurs the faces of people and numberplates of vehicles, in compliance with Germany's strict data privacy laws, so it is purely an analytical approach, Bass says.

This is just one part of Hamburg's smart city initiative. Understanding that most people are, by 2050, going to live in cities, advocates of the smart city say that it is important to undertake the necessary precautions and preparations sooner rather than later.

"We anticipate that by 2050 two thirds of the population will live in big cities and we need to cope with that," Bass explains. "That's in traffic, housing, energy, sustainability, all of these things. If you look at Hamburg, the port is in the middle of the city, it's embedded. If they want to double their throughput - using containers - they cannot grow on land or the seaside. The city is growing with its citizens and the port will grow with more containers and trucks and railways. But you are not able to expand the land."

"It's different in Rotterdam, for example, where you can add another terminal to the port and expand - but that's not possible here - so the challenge is for the existing resources to be more effective. If you are able to coordinate in a smarter and more efficient way, so you know for example the truck driver who comes from Bulgaria knows where a container is, and when it arrives - so he knows where to go, where to park in the port, and bumper to bumper with others, if that's coordinated with the waterway and also the railway, then that is a smart trick."

Residents moving to Hamburg will experience the smart city programme too.

The 'HafenCity' is an initiative to re-use old docks and industrial areas for the purpose of urban development, increasing the living space within the city by as much as 40 percent. The principle behind the project is largely sustainability: regenerating and recycling land that had gone to waste.

The new 157-hectare plot sits just by Hamburg's city centre, and it will accommodate 94 residents and 355 people per hectare, according to city officials. There are bike rental schemes and resource efficient buildings, and the area will be host to social housing as well as private property.

"I live in Hamburg with my family - I have two daughters, age eight and ten," says Bass. "It's incredible if you have the chance to shape the future of the city you live in. This is something which drives me, and I'm trying to connect this with my role at Cisco.:

"In a nutshell, we are partnering on a very high level with government leaders of top countries to help them capture the opportunities of digitisation, to grow GDP, to create more jobs, to build a better education system, and to foster innovation, of course."

Hamburg's experiment in smart city design seems to be a point of pride among people who are involved. But there are more countries where Cisco (as well as other companies like IBM et al) are connecting cities, including Italy, France, and the UK. Whether or not the hopes of the smart city advocates live up to their ambition is up for debate. But it's hard to imagine that, as populations swell, the cities of the future will be able to cope under the pressure without the intelligent insights that can be taken away from the fully connected infrastructure on offer.

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