When cities become smart

The continued growth of the global human population demands changes to infrastructure and living spaces. As well, food, energy, communications, water, and other resource delivery systems need to be upgraded and streamlined. This category covers the creation of energy efficient and sustainable remakes of the current systems in place to house and support people.

This is how we at Katerva introduce our Smart Cities Awards Category.

Why talk about smart cities?

One reason of course is that it is linked one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, SDG11: Sustainable Cities And Communities. But before starting with the why it might help to establish what ‘Smart City’ actually means. In Wikipedia we read that “A smart city is an urban area that uses different types of electronic data collection sensors to supply information which is used to manage assets and resources efficiently.” Said differently, Smart Cities are using data, collected via sensors and digital devices (including smart phones, smart watches, tablets etc.), to inform and influence decision making. The declared intent is generally that such decisions are for the benefits of citizens and visitors.

This short video by McKinsey is a great introduction:

McKinsey’s take on Smart Cities

While it is the advances in technology that have created the opportunity to create ‘Smart Cities’, there are a number of reasons why this has not only become possible but also increasingly necessary.

Back in 1800, only 3% of us lived in cities; in 2008 it was over 50%, and it is expected that by 2050 two thirds of humanity will be city dwellers. It was in the 20th century that the term ‘mega city’ was coined – cities with a population of more than ten million.  Back in the 1950s we had only two: New York and Tokyo, in 1975 Mexico City had joined the club, in the 1990s there were ten, and in 2018 the number had more than quadrupled to 47.

When the trend towards urbanisation started this was considered to be a good thing, as it was associated with economic growth, ample job opportunities, improved standards of living, and prosperity generally. But with every light come some shadows and such a confluence of humanity has consequences that are not all positive.

  • For example, in 2016 cities across the globe produced 1.3 billion tons of waste annually, in 2005 megacities alone emitted 12 percent of all of the carbon dioxide on Earth, and only one fifth % of urban population surveyed recently by the World Health Organisation live in areas that comply with their air quality guideline; in developing cities conditions can be 4-15 times worse.
  • All these people want to move from one place to another, which poses strains on the infrastructure, which often does not keep pace with the population growth.  For example the average traffic speed in Hyderabad decreased from 27.2 Km/h in 2016 to 18.5 km/h in 2017.   In 2002 The Independent reported that the average speed of traffic in London was 8 mph – the same as a horse-drawn carriage back in 1900.
  • While prosperity is the big draw that pulls people into cities, not everyone finds what they seek, particularly not in developing countries:  according to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, in 2012 about one third of the urban population in the developing countries – around 863 million people – lived in slums.
  • In cities, despite being surrounded by thousands and thousands of people, loneliness is an increasing problem, and it seems that the bigger the city the bigger problem. A survey of Londoners conducted last year revealed that 55% felt lonely sometimes.  Another study by nonprofit research firm Kaiser Family Foundation found that about two in ten American as well as British adults suffer from loneliness or social isolation. Worryingly, it seems that loneliness hits the younger generation worst: in a survey of more than 20,000 people, the health insurance company Cigna found that young adults (18- to 22-year-olds) are actually the loneliest generation of all. Where some see darkness others see an opportunity: those who seek company in Tokyo can “rent” friends to keep them company.
  • Social Media, despite its name, does not really help.  A US study published last year found those who spend over two hours a day on social media are more likely to feel socially isolated.
  • United Nations data shows Danes living in Copenhagen are happy and there are a number of reasons why, including that the city is designed for cycling: exercise is known to benefit mental and physical health.
  • Cities not only cause social isolation, they also lead to a disconnect from nature. Pollution aside, this is not greta for our health: an article in Berkley’s Greater Good Magazine reports on the benefits of green spaces, “The work of Frances Kuo and her colleagues finds that in poorer neighborhoods of Chicago, people who live near green spaces—lawns, parks, trees—show reductions in ADHD symptoms and greater calm, as well as a stronger sense of connection to neighbors, more civility, and less violence in their neighborhoods.  A later analysis confirmed that green spaces tend to have less crime. Our disconnect to nature even seems to be reflected in song lyrics!

What makes a smart city
There are generally three parts that come together:

  1. Technology – sensors, & smart phones etc. connected via a high-speed infrastructure that generates real-time data – providing information on location and speed of movement, etc.
  2. Applications – that translate and interpret the raw data, creating alerts when action is required, e.g. when a certain traffic density has been reached, or the amount of harmful particles in the air is exceeded.
  3. Users – those on the receiving end of the output from step 2. The autocorrection of routes suggested by the satnav following an accident or traffic jam on the original route are an example of what most of us area already familiar with.

 

One key aspect of Smart Cities is a systemic approach, and connecting things as much as possible. At a fully integrated level a Smart City might have the following six elements:

  • Smart Governance – Interconnected and integrated services to enable seamless and efficient operations, and interactions between public and private sectors.
  • Smart Economy – E-commerce & E-business that facilitate smooth flow of virtual and physical goods and services.
  • Smart Mobility – Integrated transport and logistic systems with sustainability considerations as core consideration.
  • Smart Environment – renewable energies, pollution monitoring & corrective action, green buildings; focus on efficiency and pollution reduction.
  • Smart People – inclusiveness, collaboration, safety, transparency; access to online education and training for everyone.
  • Smart Living – ICT-enabled lifestyles, behaviors and consumption.

 

So what do Smart Cities do and how do they address the issues identified earlier?

To get a quick overview this short video is useful. It looks at challenges of mega cities (which smaller cities are also facing, just not to the same degree) and how the smart city approach might help. While not all examples woven into the story below reflect ‘Smart City’ as described above, in the sense that it is all about digital technologies, they are all about “the creation of energy efficient and sustainable remakes of the current systems in place to house and support people.”

So, let’s imagine someone who lives in a Smart City.  Let’s call her Kirsti Sustinski. How might she experience a Smart City?

When leaving the house Kristi sees with a jolt the backlights of a dustbin lorry – then remembers that she does not need to put the bin out especially, the GreenBin smart waste management system ensures that sensors notify the dustbin men when the bin is full; the program also calculates the best and most efficient route for the lorries every day. Hopping into her car she turns on GLOSA, delighting in the knowledge that she will not have to stop at every traffic light.  In combination with the RoadBotics program, which alerts her to any obstacles on the road, her journey to work has become almost a joy…

She notices a new building and almost bumps into the car in front of her (though of course her car’s sensors would have prevented this anyway): using Baubotanik, the building combines traditional building materials with living ones. Amazing. She has also noticed an increasing ‘greening’ of certain areas in her city; there seems to be a lot of one particular variety of honeysuckle in particular.  When she asked her neighbour about, it she finds out that this variety, Green Junkie, had been bred especially to reduce the amount of particle pollution in the air. It was now being planted particularly in areas where eLichens, a miniaturised pollutant sensor, was detecting particularly high levels of pollution. With all these sensors around, she muses, it is just as well that Wavelite technology is being adopted more widely, as it not only reduces IoT sensor’s power consumption by a factor of 1000x when compared with BlueTooth but also extends the lifespan of sensors by a factor of 60x.

Nearing her office she glances at her satnav again, checking where there might be free parking spaces.  Gone are the days of endlessly circling the block!  Within moments she is parked up, and ready for the day. When she walks up to the office she notices that Tandemech’s Otto is at work again, slowly moving up the building to inspect the cladding after the heavy storms they were experiencing more and more often. Over lunch a collages tells her about a company he has recently come across, SweetSense, who are all about fixing the ‘Internet of Broken Things’. They had previously been talking about all the water and sanitation related projects in the development world, and that so much of the technology was often broken after 18 months. Not least because little or no money is allocated to maintenance, and a lack of communication infrastructure means that breakdowns are not brought to the attention of the relevant people. By using cheap yet robust sensors SweetSense remedies these challenges.

Input caption text here. Use the block’s Settings tab to change the caption position and set other styles.On her way back from work she is notified by PikMyKid that her daughter is ready for collection from her after school swimming lesson. Together they go to the park to help create a new structure, using XYZ Open City modules.   While they are building, a lady from Unhoused Humanity joins them, sharing the story of a homeless person. Kristi is touched by the story, and has to admit that it changed her perception of homeless people. Next time she will stop to talk to the lady who always sits near the local supermarket. Perhaps she can help her!
Before heading home they head to the Urban Algae Folly to find respite from the heat, enjoy the cooling vapour exuded by the structure, and observe  the mesmerising swirl of Spirolina, a micro-algae. A stall nearby sells the algae that is produced by the installation and Kirsti decides to buy a pack as she knows it is a renowned superfood.  She tells her daughter that this interactive pavilion was first shown at the EXPO 2015 in Milan as an example of architecture’s bio-digital future. (The concept might perhaps best understood by watching the short video ;-).Input caption text here. Use the block’s Settings tab to change the caption position and set other styles.

When leaving the park they notice that the sprinklers have just turned on – obviously the soil has gotten too dry. Walking home in the dark is always great fun for her daughter, as the street lights turn on as they approach – which delivers around 80% energy savings. Talking about energy savings, her monthly heating bills have been reduced dramatically since insulating the house with DTE Materials. Looking at her daughter, she particularly appreciates that the material is about as toxic as table salt!

Settling for quiet night in she turns on her computer to watch the news, just catching the backend of a report from Chicago, where, thanks for the Array of Things, which is a network of interactive, modular sensor boxes via which air quality, climate, traffic and other urban features  are measured, some major flooding had been prevented by identifying the threat early, and alerting all relevant parties. Brilliant, she thought, it is just like a “fitness tracker” for the city that is hyper local with open access data.

To put some figures to these ideas, according to a recent report by McKinsey, applications such as building-automation systems, dynamic electricity pricing, and some mobility applications, could combine to cut emissions by 10 to 15 percent. The same report suggests that water-consumption tracking, which pairs advanced metering with digital feedback messages, can nudge people toward conservation and reduce consumption by 15 percent in cities where residential water usage is high. Also, in many parts of the developing world, the biggest source of water waste is leakage from pipes. Deploying sensors and analytics can cut those losses by up to 25 percent. Overall, McKinsey suggests that cities can save 25 to 80 litres of water per person each day and reduce un-recycled solid waste by 30 to 130 kilograms per person annually.

The example McKinsey give is about air quality. While sensors do not automatically address the causes of pollution, they can identify the sources and provide the basis for further action. For example, airborne pollutants in Beijing wereby about 20 percent in less than 12 months by closely tracking the sources of pollution and regulating traffic and construction accordingly. At the same time this information was shared in real-time via apps with the citizens, enabling individuals to take protective measures. As a result negative health effects were reduced by 3 to 15 percent, depending on pollution levels.

 

However, there are also some concerns

While the headline “The truth about smart cities: ‘In the end, they will destroy democracy” of an 2014 article in The Guardian sounds perhaps a little too dramatic, there are certainly some concerns – again, where there’s light there is shadow.

Here some criticisms / challenges, drawing on a list put forward by the Sharing.Lab, an not-for-profit organisation based in Copenhagen whose purpose it is to explore and experiment with ways to strengthen social resilience:

  • The extensive surveillance brings with it risks related to personal freedom.
  • Many solutions are implemented without engagement and involvement of those affected. as Sharing.Lab puts it, “The “we do because we can” approach is not the way forward.”
  • A coherent strategy is often missing, and everyone fights to get a piece of the cake – not surprising that, according to a report from the International Data Corporation (IDC), in 2018 smart city technology spending globally reached $81 billion, and is expected to grow to $158 billion by 2022..
  • In these fast changing times what the latest technology of today might become obsolete tomorrow, the Sharing.Lab perceived a resource and competence challenge for municipalities.
  • It seems that much of the Smart City activities are focusing on commercial aspects, failing to take social and civic needs into consideration

In the end the real question is, how can we benefit from what Smart Cities have to offer, while minimising the potential downsides.
If you know any exciting innovations for Smart Cities, ones that make our world a better, more sustainable place, let us know!