Technology long ago moved out of the back room and into every pocket and home – but now that is poised to become embedded in every physical device possible, it is becoming a catalyst for social innovation.

Nick Toozs-Hobson, chief technology officer at Hitachi Data Systems (HDS), believes that technology is about to improve people’s lives by powering the very infrastructure that makes up the bedrock of our societies.

The concept of social innovation and improving people’s lives is central to HDS’ philosophy and has translated into enabling improvements and capabilities to make things better for people, but in a way that protects resources, consumes less and reduces costs.

Copenhagen_-_the_little_mermaid_statue_-_2013 (1)As an example, Toozs-Hobson points out that water will soon be in short supply around the world, a fact that most nations recognise. “We focus on what we can do with water to improve systems of delivery, distribution and recycling.

“So we connect the infrastructural components of the system, making all those elements smart. This allows the entire system – from pumping water, to shipping it to people’s houses and helping to recover it in a healthful way – to be managed.”

HDS is currently working in a water infrastructure project in Copenhagen as part of a consortium.

This is important, Hobson points out, with operational and technology teams working together to craft a solution that meets the needs of citizens, and works optimally.

“For smart cities, the easy part of any project is the technology,” he adds.

“An example is the Copenhagen project: we had to stand back and think of everything. We had to monitor and manage consumption and find ways of pushing that predictably into the building. We had to work with the people who supply electricity and meters, the software people and the people who can provide the IT we needed to manage and automate. Then we had to build a system that can adapt to changing needs.”

And, of course, when it comes to cities it’s important to work with the infrastructure that’s already there. “You have to integrate the old with the new – and the difficult part is usually the stuff that’s already there. This means there have got to be open standards – and they need to be real industry standards, not vendor standards.”

Scalability and jurisdiction also become important issues in a smart city project, Toozs-Hobson says. “Some of the infrastructure you’re dealing with is owned by industry, some by the city and some by the district or municipality. You need to understand the limits and boundaries.”

The technology itself has to embrace security, reliability, interoperability and sustainability.

Toozs-Hobson concludes that HDS’ goal is to make social innovation as pervasive as business systems are today. “We want socially innovative systems to become standard practice. This means we need to build the intelligence into the system so it’s easy to operate.”

To achieve this, he points out that the complex technology that goes into things like orchestration, patching and racking need to be taken care of upfront and come effectively packaged with any system.

“We are trying to build these solutions in a way that it arrives in a rack, the user presses a few buttons to configure it, and then intelligence and orchestration happens inside the system itself, which is self-learning and self-healing.

“We have to build systems that manage data better than we do today, that can help us to manage our environment better than we do today.”

Getting a smart city project started requires a lot of political willpower, Toozs-Hobson says. “It needs a lot of consultation and a lot of project management – but the will has to be there to make it happen. It takes a lot of hard work.”

But social innovation goes beyond managing infrastructure, and can be used to enable other social issues like education and healthcare.

“Africa is interesting in Africa from this point of view,” Toozs-Hobson says. “We need to look at the technology that’s available and work out how to apply it in a relevant way.”

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