“Smart city” is a term we are going to be hearing a lot more of in the coming years. It’s thought that by 2020 we will be spending $400 billion a year building them – but what are they?
The idea is to embed the advances in technology and data collection which are making the Internet of Things a reality into the infrastructures of the environments where we live. Already, large companies such as Cisco and IBM are working with universities and civic planning authorities to develop data-driven systems for transport, waste management, law enforcement, and energy use to make them more efficient and improve the lives of citizens.
We will interact and get information from these smart systems using our smart phones, watches and other wearables, and crucially, the machines will also speak to each other. Garbage trucks will be alerted to the location of refuse that needs collecting, and sensors in our cars will direct us towards available parking spaces.
The model most commonly adopted so far is to attract businesses which develop software and hardware applications for the Internet of Things, and encourage them to put their ingenuity to use to smarten the surrounding areas. Public money is often put up as an incentive to do so – an example is Glasgow, Scotland, the government has offered £24 million ($37 million) for technology which will make the city “smarter, safer and more sustainable”.
Applications developed or planned for the program include intelligent street lighting which will switch itself off to conserve energy when there’s no one around, mapping energy use around the city to better understand demand, and mapping how people get around to maximize the use of bicycle and foot paths.
Sensors attached to street lights and other outside urban furniture will measure footfall, noise levels and air pollution and this data will be used to prioritize delivery of other services. The government’s Technology Strategy Board, which is coordinating the project, says that more than 200 potential streams of data have been identified and although many of them are already enabled to collect data, the information is often held in isolation. That’s about to change. The extensive CCTV network in Glasgow will, for example, begin monitoring traffic and street lighting as well as crime and disorder. Data from multiple sources analyzed together is almost always more valuable than sources held in isolation.
Down in England (Bristol to be precise) another program involves the development of a wireless network specifically dedicated to Internet of Things and Smart City communications between devices. These transmissions will use less power than existing wi-fi and mobile networks, making them more environmentally friendly – ideal for devices which need to be kept running 24/7.
Songdo, in South Korea, is an example of a city built from scratch with smart technology integrated from the ground up. Based on land reclaimed from the sea, 40% of the city is designated as open green areas, still leaving room for 80,000 apartments and 500 million square feet of office space. Every home and office will have a built-in terminal connecting it to the systems monitoring the public infrastructure, and a smart energy grid will monitor and regulate supply and demand. One thing the city will not have will be garbage trucks. Refuse is “sucked” from household disposal units directly to sewage treatment centres, where it is disposed of in an environmentally friendly way. There are plans to eventually use it to generate power for the city.
Of course, there are plenty of people voicing the need for caution over this wave of new technology. The systems are designed to collect and interact with intimate details of our personal lives such as where we travel, who we associate with, and even how we dispose of the waste materials we generate. There is a danger that in the rush to be the first to develop and market solutions aimed at improving citizens’ everyday lives, some aspects of privacy or information security could be overlooked.
On top of that, others have voiced concerns that, particularly in the developing world, living in Smart Cities could be prohibitively expensive for much of the population, leading to them becoming enclaves of the elite, with local governance enforcing social apartheid by keeping out the poor.
These are challenges which will have to be overcome by the architects behind the new systems, as well as legislators and civic authorities. With smart phones and mobile technology increasingly becoming available to a larger number of people, it should be possible to create inclusive systems which are available to all.
Others have said that Smart City is just another buzzword – like Internet of Things itself, or even Big Data. And they are probably right. The language might change – we will probably eventually just take the technology for granted and there will be no need for a special term to differentiate “smart” cities from standard ones.
But the advances in convenience and quality of life that they enable are likely to endure, so it’s a safe bet that the amalgamation of IoT technology and civic infrastructure will continue, and become increasingly prevalent as time goes on.