Is now the time for the genesis of smart cities?

By 2050, 2 in every 3 people of us will reside in urban areas, as predicted by the UN. This projection was of course before the recent forced rise of working from home and a collective realization of its prospects. But how likely is this figure to evolve? How apprehensive will we be to revert to our congested roads, polluting cities and high rents? Perhaps we need to look to the potential issues of urbanization through a different lens. Perhaps the answer to these questions lies in the somewhat elusive concept of smart cities.

While concepts of flying cars and blade-runner-esque cityscapes may not be coming in the near future, interconnected, dynamic, IoT-enabled cities, that adapt and react to the data they receive could be a very real possibility. In this piece, I hope to take a deep dive into the progression in the space over the last decade, in order to understand how we are positioned to tackle a modern wave of troubles facing our cities.

So What is a Smart City?

What makes a ‘smart’ city ‘smart’? A smart city is likely to be one that employs IoT sensors to collect data and use this to manage resources, services, and infrastructure more efficiently. This could be data collected from citizens, devices, and assets that are processed and analysed to monitor traffic and public-transport systems, to manage power plants, water supply and waste utilities, to enhance information systems, schools, libraries, hospitals, and other community services. Thus, there are three core aspects to what makes up a smart city, namely sensors, networks, and mobile engagement. This trio, enabled by the Internet of Things (IoT), forms the backbone of any smart city concept.

In essence, smart city technology will mean for a more transactional relationship with its citizens. Urban flows of people, vehicles, energy and data will be monitored, to be acted on in the immediate term, though more interactive infrastructure. If we are to believe the hype, entire urban systems will be recalibrated by real-time data. Unprecedented efficiencies and connectivity will be realised in the provision of urban services. In the background, persisting trends, community and infrastructural issues, criminal activity, etc. will be analysed in order for longer-term strategies to be implemented.

A Libelium smart-city concept

While some cannot come to an agreement on how exactly smart cities will pan out, investment into their potential has not been meagre. Large IT, telecommunication and energy management companies such as Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei, Google, Microsoft, Cisco, IBM, and Schneider Electric have all launched initiatives for intelligent cities and ancillary technologies. One study pegged this figure at $238 billion globally by 2025.

Screens, More Screens

However, the route to smart cities has not been without fault. You would not be alone if what springs to mind when it comes to smart cities is a network of large-scale screens interacting with passers-by. Melbourne is one city that made it its mission to become a pioneer of this type of technology, as consulted by Arup. The outcome of a 2011 consultation consists of a range of real-time interactive displays to be dotted around the Australian city. Civic smart-meters were one such idea proposed; city-wide displays for streets and blocks to broadcast their resource-use data. Contemporary buildings could also be used as a canvas for the display of information, such as data visualisation on bicycle-usage vs. car-usage (see below).

A ‘This Is Your City’ dashboard would present a changing array of weather updates, tweets about the city as well as other aggregated data from the aforementioned systems.

Arup claimed that the interfaced enable “feedback loops” from citizens. However, this is where the improvement of these smart technologies comes into question. The proposed revolutionary urban improvements do little to improve daily life for city dwellers and users. Rather than focusing on the point of engagement with the interfaces and what this meant for users, they appear to predominantly focus on citizens as sources of data feeding authorities with muddled insights. Similarly, Rio De Janeiro’s Ops Centre, as proposed by IBM, layers weather information, transit video feeds, maps of crime figures and power failures onto displays. This “widgetisation” and visualisation of city data provide little opportunity for critical engagement.

Envisioned was a state of the art city-wide web of hyper-rational displays, but in reality what is being proposed is a production of self-serving, self-rationalising units that operate with the minimal net effect on efficiency or innovation — a meta-phenomenon serving little purpose for a city’s populace. Thus, we need to give more serious consideration to designing urban interfaces for urban citizens, engaging operating systems that radically improve the city experience.

Urbanscale lamented the way most early smart cities made use of their digital surfaces and “situated screens” and have instead proposed an “urban operating system” that would facilitate journey planning and wayfinding, service discovery, access to ambient data like air quality and noise pollution as well as citizen responsiveness in reporting issues and requesting public services. Their detailed proposal for the city of Helsinki envisioned slabs that would detect motion past their screens, “wake up” as you pass and “hail” you to interact. They would provide services including a map-imposed ring indicating how far you could walk in 5, 10 and 15 minutes and what amenities are within your desired radial reach. While not drastically different, perhaps the proposal is a step in the right direction (pardon the pun).

Urbanscale prototype

A second such idea worth noting, although not realised, was “The Cloud,” an interfacial monolith at designed by a team of designers and engineers from companies including Arup, Google and MIT. The Cloud was a proposed observation deck for the 2012 London Olympic Games. It comprised of a spiral ramp, which would lead visitors to its cluster of transparent spherical observation decks. Visitors could walk “among the clouds”, as it were. The Cloud, also acting as an interface, would act itself a substrate for data visualisation; allowing for event-specific information, recent medal winners, attendances and even historical information about the region. Augmented-reality interfaces would “layer” information on top of the landscape visible below, while preventing an obstructive view through the structure. The thought of live updates of the games most exciting contests, all displayed at superscale, would be reason for tremendous hype in the most ardent Olympic pessimist.

Going Further

What if we step further from this idea of mere interfaces and revert back to our original motives of vast leaps in operational efficiencies. Let’s look into what the sharpest minds from cities across the globe are coming up with to improve efficiencies, namely across the domains of mobility, connectivity, crime and sustainability.

Mobility is often the first issue that comes to peoples’ minds concerning urbanization. As autonomous vehicles become an increasing inevitability, with likely incremental safety improvements as more cars become connected, the manner in which these vehicles interact with infrastructure could be the next logical progression. To this end, real-time sensors embedded in autonomous vehicles and road networks could avoid predicted bottlenecks with re-routing, deploy more or less public transport as needed, detect crashes, weather issues or road-works with immediacy.

San Francisco is a heavily congested, tech capital and one that is a prime candidate for a smart adoption. While the city’s famed tram system has served it remarkably well over the years, it has been somewhat revolutionised by smart contactless and mobile payment methods for fares. Smart parking in the city allows authorities to adjust the prices on parking in certain areas based on the number of available spaces over a length of time to control flow and congestion. The city of Chennai, India is heavily promoting the use of GPS-enabled bikes, that can be pre-booked, to cut down on private cars on the roads. Chennai is also working on GIS mapping and advanced tunnelling technology to create the largest parking management system in the country, if not the world, underground. Kyiv has a transport dispatch system. It contains GPS trackers, installed on public transportation, as well as 6,000 video surveillance cameras which monitor the traffic. The accrued data is used by local Traffic Management Service and transport application developers.

An increasing number of city governments are leveraging IoT solutions in hopes of providing relief to mobility solutions. About one-third of Pittsburgh’s 610 intersections will be equipped with smart traffic signals in the coming years; sensors at the intersections determine traffic volume and adjust stop-and-go times based on the number of vehicles present. Not only does this save time, but vitally it cuts down on emissions, with Pittsburgh officials claiming a 21% drop in vehicle emissions since project inception. The city of Dallas is similarly implementing IoT-enabled traffic management to manage congestion. In London, a traffic management system known as SCOOT optimises green light time at traffic intersections by feeding back magnetometer and inductive loop data to a supercomputer, which can co-ordinate traffic lights across the city to improve traffic throughout.

Beyond heavy use of solar energy generation, smart traffic monitoring, a fleet of hybrid buses, as well as it’s smart cycling initiative ‘Bicing’, Barcelona has employed a number of apps to connect citizens with this smart city. The city’s transit app uses live traffic cameras to re-route users along the clearest route, while also acting as a customer service application for the city with which citizens can file complaints on potholes and other issues. All of this data tracked is stored, centralized and analysed to map out future strategies based on trends. But on top of this, authorities show a clear emphasis on data transparency, providing a completely freely accessible “Open Data BCN” service for citizens and business to track the economy or locate gaps in services. The Barcelona Urban Lab is encouraging new parties to get involved, allowing start-ups to pilot new technologies aimed for the continued betterment of the smart city.

This is where it gets interesting… a number of side-industries will likely emerge from an increase in smart technology in cities. First and last mile is one such niche that is gaining precedence currently, and with it the rise of micromobility. Bird’s fastest to unicorn status has catapulted the e-scooter sector into the spotlight and has piqued the interest of both investors and city authorities. Point-to-point transport of goods will also prove essential as autonomous freight becomes an increasing likelihood. Drone delivery of food and supplies is an idea not only grabbing headlines but also emerging as an extremely logical successor technology to the capital-intensive delivery industry. Researchers from Stanford University recently published their view on how drone traffic within cities could be managed by drones taking the bus, reducing energy consumption and accidents!

Connectivity is another integral facet and one that any future city seeking to enable a transition to the smart economy will heavily depend on fast connections. Kansas City in the US has seen a flood of corporate funding from the likes of Cisco, Sprint and Think Big Partners as well as state sponsorship to develop connectivity solutions, including its “smart city corridor,” a two-mile stretch that hosts the city’s “KC Streetcar”, a Wi-Fi-connected tram. Use of the tram is free, as it's enabled through Cisco’s Smart + Connected Communities scheme. Open Wi-fi is present along the route, as well as 25 interactive kiosks along the streetcar line. These kiosks provide a smooth interface to access city services, information on local businesses, public digital art and entertainment.

The KC Streetcar

In New York, Sidewalk Labs’ “LinkNYC”, has overseen the installation of interactive displays across the City, replacing payphones. The hubs provide access to high-speed Wi-Fi, for use on users’ own smart devices, and display an interface allowing users to access services including maps, travel advice and emergency services. Buenos Aires successfully (although not without fault) launched a public wireless network, “BAWiFi”, accessible in libraries, public parks, underground trains and bus stations. Smartphone applications from registration for birth certificates, tax filing and cultural events have helped to make these menial tasks pain-free. Interestingly, the state allows online access to all city government data. In 2014, Copenhagen won the World Smart Cities award for its “Copenhagen Connecting” plan, which involves using wireless data from cell phones, GPS systems in buses, and sensors in sewers and garbage cans to meet ambitious green initiatives.

Link NYC replace the payphone

When drawing insights from the abundance of city-produced data, crime is one additional area in which trends are closely monitored. New York City is collaborating with ShotSpotter, a gunfire detection system that claims to be able to monitor areas at a factor of 250 times the capability of standard point protection sensors used in the military. The AI-enabled detection technology will allow the NYPD to be more efficient, in responding to true gun-based emergencies. Denver is turning to acoustic gunshot detection systems (AGDS) to identify when and where a gun has been fired. Acoustic sensors deployed at strategic often-targeted locales detect a gunshot allow police to arrive on the exact scene faster than they could have otherwise. Denver police estimate that AGDS has contributed to 134 arrests since it was implemented. As we have discussed prior, the real wealth in the information collected is the analysis of said data for the purpose of discerning longer-term patterns and criminal hotspots.

Finally, we move to an integral motivator behind an urgency around investment into smart cities, namely the resulting advancements in sustainability. In Oslo and Hamburg, Green City Solutions have installed a number of “CityTrees”, bioengineered structures capable of purifying the surrounding air with the same capacity of 275 trees, with around 1% of the street space. The CityTree is based on biotechnology that utilizes a special moss culture that attracts pollutants and converts such toxins into its own biomass. These smart structures also employ IoT technology to provide real-time performance information and environmental data. It is easy to see just why the moss-covered smart-structures are an attractive urban addition.

Moving across the globe, Japan’s Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town is one notable project, enveloping a number of technologies into one smart mini-city. The ‘city’ supports 330 households, and when completed in 2020, will house roughly 3,000 residents in 1,000 homes. Panasonic has been heavily involved in its inception. Houses, each equipped with solar panels, can store energy in their installed home-battery and have the option to sell excess solar power back to the grid. A holistic approach to a sustainable community is also being promoted. The town’s “Wellness Square complex”, is equipped to the hilt with gadgets, Panasonic’s Resyone robotic beds, which can also act as electric wheelchairs, alongside smart air conditioning systems that use sensors to detect movement and adjust temperatures to prevent health issues such as heat stroke in senior housing. While many of the examples we have thus far studied, this intriguing experiment seeks to drive social cohesion and address social ills, such as the country’s ageing population, rather than purely drive efficiencies. While the project is small in scale, execution and holistic innovation show a potential blueprint for larger future projects.

In other capacities, many cities are turning to smarter street lighting, switching to LEDs, implementing connected lighting and monitors for lighting conditions. Smart lights can automatically adjust their brightness based on periods of inactivity; they can also transmit maintenance information for quicker response times. The city of Miami has more connected streetlights than any other city in the world. While these technologies critically cut down on sub-optimal energy use, what may be a deciding factor in their implementation is their associated financial efficiencies. Miami saves 44% on energy annually compared to the amount paid in the period of traditional streetlights. Chicago hopes to save $10 million per year in energy costs with its street lighting initiative.

Smart waste management cities are also playing their part in the space. Sensors placed in waste receptacles can remotely signal when bins are ready to be emptied, enabling cities such as Seoul in South Korea to reduce collection costs by 83%, by partnering with groups such as Ecube Labs. With air pollution plaguing many large cities, monitoring air quality on a continuous basis is a necessity, particularly if rising urbanisation is to continue. Chicago, the 18th most polluted city in the US, sought to improve conditions through its Array of Things (AoT) initiative. It now uses IoT sensors to collect a variety of air quality data, including levels of carbon monoxide, ozone and nitrogen dioxide, in order to aggressively track and act on these emissions.

For a city as old as London, smart tech is being actively deployed with hopes to remedy a long list of problems with some of its antiquated infrastructure; thick congestion, a faulty underground and poor emissions providing ample material to target. Recent trialling of electric bike-sharing systems, an accelerated adoption of micromobility solutions through the current lockdown and over 300 smart parking spaces signal a positive move in the right direction. While increased installation of solar panels and a recent project hoping to use the River Thames as a renewable heat source will ramp up green energy use, globally-rising smart grid tech, managed digitally in order to maximise the grid’s efficiency, will truly bring the capital to new heights as an emerging smart-city. Similarly, Kashiwa-no-ha Smart City, just outside Tokyo, has taken steps toward achieving carbon neutrality by creating a smart energy management system that reduces the area’s energy usage by 26% through optimization of electricity distribution.

Sound fun?

It is undeniable that the above examples demonstrate how the marriage of corporate technology, innovative start-ups and open local governments is beginning to make way for considerable advancements in smart cities. However, it feels somewhat callous to look into the space without considering a more collective mindset to the everyday problems a city and its people faces. After all, these are ‘markets’ with a huge network of stakeholders involved, interlinking and interacting to make a city what it is. We cannot let the development of smart initiatives inadvertently deepen existing inequalities through a focus on higher-income areas. To forgo a consideration for social issues in the city would not simply be an injustice in the deployment investment, but a potential deciding factor in what makes smart cities a sustainable reality for future generations.

“One can even debate about the meaning of smart, certainly within the incredibly complex and holistic reality of smart cities wherein the end it’s about meeting the needs of citizens and solving challenges of people, society and urban communities.”

How will we foster a sense of trust in our future cities? In the wake of attacks across several cities around the globe, political upheaval, and the current unrest across the United States, surely distrust will prove an integral factor when implementing these solutions. How will we merit developing these million-dollar projects if they exclude vast, in many cases, majorities of our citizens? Some of the cities mentioned above have sought out technology to improve the citizen experience, while recent protests have clearly suggested adequate attention for basic human rights and participation is simply not present. A follow on from this is the arguably increasingly absent social cohesion in modern cities — how do we begin to bring it back, especially in the mega-cities of the future? The fear that more screens dotted around our cities, more connectivity, an increasing propensity to switch our gaze down to our smartphone to navigate our city and its services certainly could point us in a worrying direction in this regard.

Yet we can achieve universal solutions, as hinted by Japan’s “Society 5.0” initiative, evident in the development of their Fujisawa Smart Town. Elsewhere, In Kolkata, India, one start-up has provided postal addresses to over 1.4 million slum residents using smart geocoding technology, helping them to obtain the necessary documentation to then access government services, open savings accounts and register to vote. In London, a Joint Venture between Google and the Royal London Society for Blind People is helping the visually impaired navigate the city’s maze of transport networks by linking audio instructions to beacons via a smartphone app.

This idea of a ubiquitous framework is essential in developing smart city plans. Where authorities may look to begin ensuring inclusion is to involve citizens and let them build their future city. If city or state authorities can effectively engage with their people through the use of open innovation processes and e-participation, seek to improve the collective intelligence of the city’s institutions through e-governance, use open-source development and open hackathons with an emphasis placed on citizen participation and co-design, the end result could be transformative. Iterated and critiqued each step of the way by those who will actually hope to reap the benefits shows a step away from the current defective market, towards one in which the consumer decides on what stands.

The Urban Institute framework for a sustainable future city

This may, of course, mean relinquishing some of the decision power that corporations have in the space, but in turn, enable the concept of a ‘smart city’ to survive the test of time. Open technologies, data transparency and free-access data platforms will be key to move to this next stage. This is not an unreasonable proposal. Singapore’s Beeline app was developed through such a collaborative process. The city holds regular hackathons, as well as a GIS mapping technology challenge, that encourages citizens to develop solutions. Rolled out worldwide, this would not simply accelerate the development of urban tech, but completely upend the process, making for a wholly more refined end-product.

So where does all of this leave us? We have now seen a decade or so of investment into and trialling of smart-city technology, with arguably mixed results. Transforming an entire city is no simple feat, with an enumerable group of stakeholders to provide value for. Yet the potential for unprecedented efficiencies in energy-provision, traffic congestion and resource distribution is an irrefutable draw. The now growing trend of citizen-wide-centricity in both the development and the end-focus of smart solutions could prove transformative. This new approach could be the catalyst that marks the very inflection point in the development of urban technology and smart cities for the near future…