The Global Observatory for Urban Intelligence: Unraveling the Complexities of City Ecosystems

Joel Myers, Gyu Myoung Lee, Victor Larios, Mohamed Essaaidi, and Adam Drobot
May 18, 2021


Today, the goal of creating sustainable resilient cities is still, for the vast majority, an unrealized dream and very much an uphill struggle. However, COVID-19 has brought with it a stark wake-up call. A shared global realization that the very “local” places we live in, where we work, and visit, are, in fact, extremely fragile. They will not survive, nor will we, the majority of the world’s population that call a city their “home”, without a firm grounding in a truly sustainable and resilient framework.

The lessons we can learn from this tragic pandemic must include how best to nurture our cities, develop the policies, strategies, and solutions needed to safeguard our social well-being, and protect us against what the future may hold in store.

Whatever terms or definition we use for “Smart Cities”, we know that technology and access to intelligent data are at the core of providing sustainable and resilient cities. Not simply for providing efficiencies for a city’s limited resources, but in stimulating local economies, providing social well-being to citizens, and defining the type of city we want for future generations.

The quantity of data being created globally is astronomical. Hundreds of exabytes of data are generated every year. Every 2 days we produce more data than all of history before 2003 [1]. This surge in data generation is led by the omnipresence of ICTs and digital technologies in our everyday practices and environment. The drive for smart cities has resulted in the dawn of a wealth of urban data, where communication technologies such as low power consumption for IoT devices like sensors, in combination with standards protocols permitting meshes connected in metropolitan networks, allow cities to scale and grow data acquisition [2].

Yet, today, even after a few decades of digital in our cities, in our daily lives, and this data deluge, the understanding we have of the highly complex behaviors that are intrinsic to cities and us, its people and best asset, remains, very much, a mystery. We are in the early stages of urban data production. By 2025 we are expected to reach close to 35 billion IoT devices in cities, producing 79.4 Zettabytes of unstructured information [3]. There is a critical need to resolve the limits of having mainly silos-based urban data; security and privacy issues; and the trustworthiness of their source, through a unified vision that data fusion can help provide [4].

It is certainly true, that we have an ever-growing knowledge base of observable urban phenomena when it comes to “silos-based” data. However, cities are composed of people, infrastructure, and resources, which do not function in singular myopic worlds. Quite the opposite. They live, breathe, and nourish continuously intertwining and extraordinarily complicated relationships. Currently, to take advantage of the silos-based data coming for decision-making, city authorities are constantly having to redevise their urban governance to address the complexity of socio-technical systems [5].

To best understand a city, we must discern its political systems and governance mechanisms, its social and cultural makeup, diversity and behavior, as well as its financial framework and economies. They each affect changes in the city, continuously, in every single moment in time. It is a highly fluid and profoundly intricate system.

If we are to achieve sustainable and resilient cities, then delivering a new model of understanding their complexity is a key next step we must take.

From an international outlook, cities do not function in isolated vacuums. Sharing of knowledge and experience in building this sustainability across the globe means accepting the very heterogeneous nature that is the essence of the world we live in. Diversity in language, spoken as well as sectorial. Diversity in our cultures, social systems, political and economic structures, our environments, and resources, which in itself creates an area of opportunity in standards, where the technology and framework process for planning a Smart City can be improved by considering this heterogeneous nature of cities instead of isolated use cases.

To share knowledge on cities, collaborate, and develop ad-hoc sustainable models across global regions, we need to develop a common language. Not in terms of single-spoken, or written languages, but instead, as a common ontology of terms that best represents the multi-aspects and disciplines of smart cities. Whether we need to understand recycling of waste, transport, education, or the environment (to name a few), we need to tackle the technical language of each aspect as described by its engineering, urban planning, technology, cultural and environmental impact, governance, economies and so on. We also need to ensure that the ontology communicates across international languages, cultures, political systems, and economies.

This common language or smart city ontology must also embrace the subjective perspectives of our cities and our lives. Otherwise, it remains just informative data, without representing the true nature of a city or its people. Besides, in the era of digital twins, without ontologies, it is not possible to create adaptive models of digital twins that evolve in sync with cities [6].

This year, under the Smart Cities WG and Global Cities Alliance program of the IEEE IoT Initiative, IEEE has launched an informal collaboration with ITU to develop the “Global Observatory for Urban Intelligence” to unravel some of the complexities within urban ecosystems by providing an ongoing understanding of cities and how digital transformation can best serve cities in developing social, economic, and environmental dimension of urban growth, for sustainability and resilience, through:​

  • Smart Cities Ontology: develop or use an existing common language to communicate smart cities across cities, nations, global regions, based on a multi-disciplinary approach; ​
  • Correlations: build or use existing relationships between the ontology’s objects to best represent the complex behavior of a city’s ecosystem, based on a multi-disciplinary approach and using AI/ML to automate much of this process​;
  • Develop an international community of city observatories, as a collaboration between local authorities and academia that will gather and upload data on an ongoing basis to the GOUI’s cloud-database​;
  • Develop or adapt existing open-source tools for querying, modeling, and using AI/ML for understanding, sharing, and comparing smart cities, for policy-making, strategic decision-making, piloting and monitoring, as well as prediction and risk analysis​;
  • Create and provide a playbook and best practices on how to work with the above resources of the “Global Observatory for Urban Intelligence”, whichever level of technical expertise the user may have. Publish various deliverables including reports, catalogs, and any other outputs that can be produced in the future with the ontology/data.  Determine governance mechanisms for the validation of all these items​;
  • Provide users with the communications tools to network, share and collaborate, based on the resources of the “Global Observatory for Urban Intelligence”​.

The “Global Observatory for Urban Intelligence” will be developed on an open-source cloud platform using crowd-sourcing collaborative tools, where components will be developed in multiple phases, from its Smart City Ontology to Correlation, then Data gathering, Modelling, and AI/ML. For each phase, open-source tools will be used where possible to automate processes, and step-by-step results will be tried and tested across global focus groups.​

This initiative is crowd-sourced and we welcome contributions and participation from a government, industry, young professionals, research, smart city networks, civic associations, international agencies, NGOs, and academia (professors and students) on a global scale, especially through the international and regional outreach of IEEE and ITU membership.

If you are interested in getting involved, please contact Joel Myers, the Co-Chair of the Smart Cities WG of the IEEE IoT Initiative at


  1. R. Smolan and J. Erwitt, “The Human Face of Big Data,” Against All Odds Productions, 2012
  2. A. Kochhar and N. Kumar, “Wireless sensor networks for greenhouses: An end-to-end review,” Comput Electron Agr, vol. 163, p. 104877, 2019.
  3. S. Iyengar, V. K. Gurbani, Y. Zhou, and S. Sharma, “Opportunistic Prefetching of Cellular Internet of Things (cIoT) Device Context,” 2018 27th Int Conf Comput Commun Networks Icccn, pp. 1–6, 2018.
  4. G. K. Canalle, A. C. Salgado, and B. F. Loscio, “A survey on data fusion: what for? in what form? what is next?,” J Intell Inf Syst, pp. 1–26, 2020.
  5. M. Razaghi and M. Finger, “Smart Governance for Smart Cities,” Proceedings of the Ieee, vol. 106, no. 4, pp. 680–689, Apr. 2018.
  6. J. A. Erkoyuncu, I. F. del Amo, D. Ariansyah, D. Bulka, R. Vrabič, and R. Roy, “A design framework for adaptive digital twins,” Cirp Ann, vol. 69, no. 1, pp. 145–148, 2020.


joel myersJoel Myers is a leading international technologist, specialising in the creation and development of innovation technology solutions in Cultural Heritage, Tourism, and Smart Cities, working internationally with state and local government, and industry. His company, HoozAround Corp. (USA) owns and manages a digital platform called IoP (the “Internet of People”) that provides socio-economic recovery for cities, through a micro-currency called HooziesTM.  As Chair of IEEE IoT Initiative for Smart Cities, Joel Myers has been focusing his working group on the redefinition of the digital transformation of urban environments from a truly "People-Centric" focal point. The work carried out by Joel Myers has been published in international newspapers and journals such as the BBC, New York Times, Hong Times, the Hindu Times, Wired, and Forbes Magazine.


Gyu Myoung LeeGyu Myoung Lee is with the Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), UK and with KAIST Institute for IT convergence, Korea. Before joining the LJMU, he worked with the Institut Mines-Telecom, Telecom SudParis, France, from 2008. He has been actively working for standardization in ITU-T, IETF and oneM2M, etc., and currently serves as a WP chair in SG13, the Rapporteur of Q16/13 and Q4/20 as well as a vice-chair of ITU-T Focus Group on Autonomous Networks. He was also the chair of ITU-T Focus Group on data processing and management (FG-DPM) to support IoT and smart cities & communities. He is a Senior Member of IEEE.


Victor M LariosVictor M. Larios is a Professor at the Information Systems Department at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico. In April 2014, Dr. Victor M. Larios founded and became director of the “Smart Cities Innovation Center (SCIC)” at the University of Guadalajara, where he leads a group of researchers in Smart Cities and Information Technologies. The SCIC is a think-thank to help government, industry, and other academic partners to join efforts to improve the quality of life and social well-being within an urban environment, by using technology as the core driver for transformation. Since 2013, he has led the “Guadalajara Core City” in the IEEE Smart Cities Initiative.


Mohamed EssaaidiMohamed Essaaidi is Head of the Smart Systems Lab and Former Dean, ENSIAS College of Engineering, Mohamed V University in Rabat. He is also the founder and former Chair of the IEEE Morocco Section. His biography was listed in Who’s Who in The World in 1999. He is also the co-founder and the current coordinator of the Arab Science and Technology Foundation (ASTF) RD&I network on Electrotechnology, as well as and General Chair of the Mediterranean Microwave Symposium (MMS). His research interests focus mainly on RF and microwave passive and active circuits and antennas for wireless communications and medical systems


Adam DrobotAdam Drobot is an experienced technologist. His activities are strategic consulting, start-ups, and industry associations. He is the Chairman of the Board of OpenTechWorks, Inc. In the past, he was the Managing Director and CTO of 2M Companies, the President of the Applied Research at Telcordia Technologies (Bellcore) and the company’s CTO. Previous to that, he managed the Advanced Technology Group at Science Applications International (SAIC/Leidos) and was the Senior Vice President for Science and Technology at SAIC. Adam is a member of the FCC Technological Advisory. He has published over 150 journal articles and holds 27 patents.