5 mins read

Is there a way for us to unlock the potential for communities to flourish, to be more livable, efficient and better, without compromising on sustainability?

Rapid urbanisation and explosive population growth are challenging cities across the world. Some issues are complex, such as how will we efficiently power our world, and how can we combat environmental degradation without compromising the scale or rate of development, while some are localised issues such as traffic congestion and public safety. However, all are universal challenges impacting our daily lives.

At the same time, we see the accelerated development of new technologies such as cloud computing, ‘big data’, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT) – bringing us to an inflexion point.

So is there a way for us to unlock the potential for communities to flourish, to be more livable, efficient and better, without compromising on sustainability? Enter the ‘smart city’ – the utopian dream for every urban developer.

What makes a city smart?

A ‘smart city’ uses information communication technology (such as cloud computing, big data and IoT) to enhance the quality and performance of public services. Public services cover things like transportation, public safety, telecommunications, energy and utilities. A smart city enhances the competitiveness of a city’s future development. It provides a higher quality of life for those living in it– which is why smart city projects should be an integral part of urban modernisation.

The concept of the smart city is widely recognised with governments and industry bodies investing in research and planning at all levels. Companies can also contribute to the overall success of a smart city by realising its potential for new business opportunities and the need for an innovative approach.

Currently, most smart city projects focus on specific and isolated areas of the city, with solutions to address a particular problem rather than overall and comprehensive reform. The main reason – and undeniable challenge – is that cities and the jurisdictions that govern them – want to ensure that existing infrastructure and information systems remain uninterrupted. Imagine the chaos if the whole transportation system went offline while it was ‘converted over’ to a smart system. Upgrading a city’s all-important infrastructure to the next generation smart infrastructure can be quite complicated.

What benefits can a smart city bring?

Technology has made significant contributions to the modernisation of cities and brings enormous benefits. A key feature of smart cities is that they create efficiency – efficiency for governments, for businesses, for the environment and its residents. Smart cities can improve the efficiency of public services, be it an emergency response to improved healthcare, a more streamlined transport system or streetlights that turn on as you drive down a street.

Smart security and public safety

Public security is a growing concern for cities worldwide. By utilising information through telecommunications (ICT) and big data, a smart city can enable considerable improvements in the effectiveness of their emergency services. For example, real-time analysis of data from sensor and surveillance cameras installed in high-traffic or high-risk areas of a city means police are deployed immediately to a threat location. It would also allow for suspect identification (either through facial recognition by AI or even body movements and mannerisms recognition) which would mean the police know how to tackle, diffuse or manage the threat.

Smart mobility

One of the more common and significant burdens on cities around the world is traffic congestion. It not only frustrates commuters daily but also costs cities billions of dollars every year because of time, fuel and productivity loss – in addition to the environmental impact of vehicle emissions.

With smart mobility solutions, transportation can be far more efficient, sustainable and convenient. Mobility solutions such as ridesharing are perhaps more obvious, and we’ve already seen this widely accepted through the likes of various car-share options available. Newer approaches for traffic management such as real-time incident data, predictive maintenance of transport infrastructure and connected vehicles will create opportunities to improve driver safety, increase fuel efficiency, improve operations for infrastructure companies and see people spending less time on the road.

The Smart City – How do we get there?

Smart utilities

Cities consume a considerable amount of energy, inadvertently making them the world’s primary energy guzzlers and therefore the largest emissions-producers. To cope with continued global urban growth, we need to find new ways to make our cities more energy and water-efficient.

Real-time monitoring of a city’s utilities is an excellent place to start. For example, the city of Chicago installed sensors and cameras on municipal light poles that measure air quality, sound levels, temperature, water levels on streets and gutters, and also measure traffic. The data collected helps identify ways to save energy, to address urban flooding and improve the quality of life for its residents. For example, the data provided from water levels on streets would identify a leak in the city’s water system and enable fast repairs, thus minimising water wastage.

Smart healthcare

Smart city solutions can offer innovative and proactive approaches to health care and wellbeing. As populations grow and many cities grapple with the challenges of an ageing population, this will be increasingly important.

Artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to analyse massive volumes of biometric data captured through wearable devices and patient data, allowing better diagnostics and therefore, preventive care. The opportunities are endless, and the use cases plenty. For example, some companies are investing in technology to measure and combat air pollution in real-time, while others are using advanced sensors and healthcare robotics to assist in elderly care.

So, what do we need to be a smart city?

The critical component in making a city smart is data. Without it, we’re unable to identify trends which enables us to predict the future. Capturing data requires the extensive use of sensors, so we are seeing objects being used in public spaces, such as street lamps and traffic lights, increasingly equipped with multi-purpose sensors.

However, data capture often raises important questions around privacy and security, and how much of this we need to ‘trade-off’ for our cities to be smart. Regulatory standards and protocols need to be put in place, as new systems are adopted.

For cities to get the most from data, we need smart infrastructure – high-performance internet access that enables universal connection from mobile devices and facilitates gigabyte connections. It also requires sophisticated IoT platforms to receive and process the massive amounts of data collected from sensors which then make this data available to smart solutions through application program interfaces (API).

With the use of these disruptive technologies, cities will require greater skills and competencies – more data scientists, more data engineers, more IoT specialists. And as smart solutions work towards changing people’s behaviour, cities need experts who understand the mechanisms of human behaviour and what’s required to change it – for example, by using concepts like gamification.

Cities are, by their very nature, complex ecosystems. So a smart city makes it more complicated – and thus, requires public and private parties (governments and businesses) to co-create intelligent and innovative solutions that create value and efficiencies, and move away from the constraints and effects of traditional systems. We must think about how our work in implementing smart city initiatives can be scalable and sustainable – so cities can scale quickly and efficiently while allowing for iterative improvements along the way.