Will tomorrow's city have an operating system all its own?
The idea is seductive: a city that knows its own structure and understands how its own systems interoperate at an intimate level. Urban planners and their technology partners are working towards creating cities that can monitor how various layers of activity operate in real time. In tomorrow's city, transit systems, energy grids, water and waste management systems will operate in a symbiotic relationship, in which the ebbs and flows of one affect the operation of another.
Companies such as Living PlanIT are already putting the components for these intelligent cities in place. It was recently appointed a World Economic Forum technology pioneer for its work on a Portuguese smart city project. The Paredes smart city involves a plot of 4,125 acres and will be home to 225,000 people. Several high-tech companies, including Cisco, will build the $14 billion, four-year project.
Living PlanIT is contributing a platform called the Urban OS, which uses IPv6 routers instead of single-purpose building controllers to create new, interactive monitoring environments for buildings. The idea is to create a city-wide structure of sensors that relay information about the buildings and the systems serving them back to the city's "brain."
This is where the Internet of Things principle comes into play. In an infrastructure flooded with sensors, each with its own IP address, everything can be referenced and becomes a source of information. Every sensor becomes a node in an environmental network that enables city managers to monitor parameters as diverse as temperature, water flow, traffic speed or even pollution levels.
Orange Business Services is also taking a prominent role in this field with m2o city, its joint venture with Veolia Water. m2o city uses ultra-low-powered radio to gather data from water meters and environmental sensors.
alive with sensors
What applications could be available to a city populated by smart buildings? One example could be as simple as automatically detecting a rising flood from a broken water main and configuring the traffic light network to route vehicles around the disruption.
A more sophisticated example could see a building automatically detect a fire in one of its rooms, thanks to sensors attached to the ceilings or walls. The building could relay the information to an emergency response center, which would alert fire rescue teams. Meanwhile, it could direct people to a safe part of the building using flickering lights and alarms that sound louder in safer exit areas.
Retrofitting older buildings with sensors to make them "smart" will involve serious financing and public incentive programs. Persuading developers to put such sensors in new buildings may be easier. The adoption of smart buildings - and their inclusion into a broader "operating system for cities" - is therefore likely to be an incremental process.