The organisers of Milan Expo 2015 have deployed one of the world’s most advanced smart city networks, with Italian telco Telecom Italia and networking supplier Cisco holding the reins.
With a history dating back to London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 – hosted at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park – a universal exposition, or world’s fair, is an international exhibition sanctioned and approved by the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE).
Some 160 years on, the exhibitions organised under the BIE’s banner are designed to highlight scientific and cultural achievement and serve as a branding exercise and tourist draw for the host city.
The theme of the 2015 Expo is “Feeding the Planet: Energy for Life”. It will tackle two fundamental issues: creating the conditions to create sufficient, healthy food for all seven billion people on the planet; and environmental sustainability.
Visitors to the various national pavilions at a brownfield site in Rho, on the western side of Milan, will be able to explore and interact around themes such as nutritional science, sustainable agriculture, the fight against global hunger and so on.
Held between 1 May and 31 October, the organisers expect Expo 2015 to attract 20 million visitors, with up to 250,000 visitors on peak summer weekends.
Expo 2015 will also be the world’s first digital expo, says Guido Arnone, director of technology innovation and digital at Expo 2015 SpA.
“Digital is a core component to attract visitors and contribute to the event’s success. We want it to be as important as the physical experience,” he said.
“This is not a technology event, but to collaborate and learn you must use technology, and people will expect to when they come,” adds Andrea Costa, Expo 2015 project manager at Telecom Italia.
To this end, Expo 2015 has set in motion two distinct projects, both of which support each other: to build the physical, on-site smart city infrastructure; and a parallel digital Expo, focusing on the online and pre- and post-visit experience.
“This was a unique opportunity to build a smart city framework, building up a complete smart city platform,” says Costa.
“We implemented a huge optical fibre infrastructure and state-of-the-art mobile technology into the site. We also used cloud computing infrastructure to enable on-time implementation – there are many partners and stakeholders and without the cloud it would have been very hard to give Expo 2015 a presence in the real world.”
Five layers of technology
How does one go about building the world’s first ground-up smart city? Expo 2015 and its partners have responded to the challenge by putting in place five distinct technology and service layers around energy, ICT, safety and security, educational entertainment and services.
Energy, provided mostly by Italian electric company ENEL, covers smart grid, smart metering, smart lighting and electric vehicle charging points.
Cisco technology sits at the core of the second, ICT layer, which encompasses telecoms, mobile and event Wi-Fi coverage, cloud, datacentre, IT infrastructure and video satellite services, all hosted in a dedicated off-site datacentre owned by Telecom Italia.
“We wanted to rely on an infrastructure that can be in a protected environment, as well as one that can be utilised after the event for other purposes,” says Arnone.
The third layer, security, comprises technology around video surveillance, a security sensor network, Tetra radio coverage, an IP security network and physical site access, managed from an on-site command and control centre.
The fourth layer – educational entertainment, or “edutainment” – incorporates all systems and services required to educate and entertain Expo visitors. These include digital signage, interactive information totems, e-wall technology, visit planning apps and digital site guides for smartphones, along with electronic ticketing.
“The e-wall is an effective touchpoint for us to broadcast video and attract visitors,” says Arnone. “As well as traditional touchpoints, the interactive totems have touch surfaces from Cisco and applications from Telecom Italia.”
Edutainment figures highly in the digital component of the event, which is already in full swing, with online virtual previews, digital magazines and a world recipe database containing more than 130,000 recipes.
The organisers are performing standard social outreach on Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, Twitter and YouTube, and naturally there are also official apps for Android and iOS devices. Visitors will also be able to hire tablets to carry around the exhibition.
“The idea is to have customers make the decision to preview our site so they can decide which area of the physical site they want to tour,” says Arnone.
“We want to give them a preview of the onsite experience, but also provide information such as videos and pictures to help them make a decision on what they want to do.”
Finally, the fifth layer – services – covers electronic payments, cash machines, disabled access and electric vehicles for on-site visitor and staff transport.
Central command and control
At the heart of these five layers sits a command and control centre, referred to by Telecom Italia as EC3, which unifies all the supplier technology present under one roof. From here, Telecom Italia can manage and track everything that is happening around the site.
Centralised command and control is, according to Costa, crucial to managing the complex nature of the site’s IT, managing partners and service level agreements, and responding immediately to any failure of field technology. This is a fundamental part of any smart city project, he says.
“We will have the ability to track and trace many events, technological and not,” he adds. “A big data engine will correlate between something happening on the ground and the response.”
On site, mobile operations touchpoints will feed data back to the central dashboard for monitoring and response.
This could be something as simple as cleaning up spillages, emptying bins or watering plants, but also extends to keeping on-site retail and catering outlets fully supplied, as well as crowd control and security should an area become too crowded or another problem arise.
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