Smart cities are smarter for the environment

Cities are becoming ever more complex. Growing populations need efficient infrastructure and services from healthcare to sewage, from education to street lighting, from transport to fresh water supply. There are environmental considerations such as flood risk to mitigate, leisure and open spaces to support. Cities are difficult entities to manage.

Yet city governments have to get things right. The penalties if management systems break down are serious. Unreliable transit causes individuals daily woe and can cost dearly in terms of productivity and revenue. Lack of investment in local communities will drive residents out. The pressure can only rise. The OECD says half the world’s population currently lives in cities, and 70 per cent will live in urban areas by 2050.

A happy convergence

The harsh reality of falling municipal budgets does not sit well in this scenario. City managers need to spend money wisely. The smart cities concept – utilising mobile technology, sensors and actuators, and cloud computing - is already being used to good effect, and has huge potential to contribute more in the coming years. Three things are converging at the right time to make this happen.

The development of the Internet of Things and big data analytics is one facilitator. A second is companies bringing to market new ideas and technologies to provide smart solutions. And the third is that municipal governments are turning their eyes towards these smart solutions in their search for cost efficient, citizen friendly management.

Smart infrastructure

Without a solid and reliable infrastructure cities grind to a halt and it is good news that smart developments in infrastructure management offers exciting potential. Some take traditional, apparently mundane services and expand them hugely.

For example, in two US cities, GE is piloting a new street lighting product. The light itself is an LED with a potential 20 year lifespan and the ability to brighten, dim or turn itself off as conditions dictate. That can save up to 50-70 per cent over traditional lighting costs. But that’s just the beginning.

The pole has networking and sensors built in, opening up a huge range of opportunities which can be developed via GE’s own software platform and which can be city – and even location - specific. Imagine being able to direct citizens to free parking spaces thanks to wireless transmitters in the lighting pole, or giving emergency vehicles real time views of a scene via cameras. These are just two of many potential opportunities.

Meanwhile in Santander in northern Spain, an EU-backed project has seen 15 companies come together to use 20,000 sensors, cameras and other devices to gather and utilise data on air quality, transport conditions, traffic monitoring and more.

Probably one of the most important parts of a city’s infrastructure is its delivery and management of water. In one example of smart water management IBM and Veolia have joined forces to develop a solution currently being piloted in Lyon, France and Tidworth, England. The service uses big data analytics to identify trends, predict needs and provide system-wide overview.

Municipal buildings

Gartner says smart homes and smart commercial buildings will represent 45 per cent of total connected things in use in 2015, rising to 81 per cent by 2020. Smart buildings are not a new phenomenon, but the introduction of the Internet of Things into the equation opens up new possibilities.

For example Gartner says smart LED lighting will experienced the highest growth of IoT consumer applications, rising from 6 million units in 2015 to 570 million units by 2020. Just as with municipal street lighting this is about much more than the ability to self-regulate brightness. Embedded sensors can turn lighting into a communications hub for security, assisting in healthcare monitoring and more.

A smarter, efficient, sustainable future

Cities which embrace smart technologies, big data and the Internet of Things because of pressing financial and efficiency imperatives contribute to a future in which city life is more sustainable. This is an imperative for all of us. The OECD puts the case starkly when it says that by 2050 we will have a world economy four times larger than today’s, with 80 per cent greater energy need. It calls for policy changes in both energy and land use.

In this context cities need to do more than implement individual smart initiatives.  Amsterdam Smart City shows how the whole municipality has committed to smart initiatives, embracing open data and encouraging innovation in city management.

It seems that however you approach it, smart cities are the future.

Stewart Baines
Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.