The reasoning behind the emergence of smart cities is, of course, very well understood. Based on research conducted by the United Nations, it is expected that within the next 30 years over 65% of the human populace will be living in urban environments (it could potentially be as much as 86% in regions like South America by that time).
Guest blog written Mark Patrick, Mouser Electronics.
This will mean that in total over six billion people will be located within an area that constitutes just 3% of the Earth’s surface. This elevated population density will obviously put increasing demands onto resources that are already under incredible strain - and consequently technological advancements will be needed to ensure that municipal operations are carried out with maximum efficiency, as well as minimising energy consumption and keeping pollution levels in check.
Research conducted by the likes of GSMA, Philips Lighting and EasyPark Group respectively have each identified the key factors involved in the progression of smart technology and also acknowledged which cities are leading the way - with Singapore, Barcelona, Bristol and Copenhagen all gaining considerable praise. It is evident though that a large proportion of the world’s metropolitan inhabitants are still a long way from seeing the benefits of the smart city utopia.
At a recent Hardware Pioneers seminar, I had the chance to learn more about what some of the industry’s foremost players are doing to support smart city development. Each of the three individuals presenting at this event tackled different facets of the subject. Kieran Slorach, from Renesas, looked at how utility metering (where smart technology has already seen significant traction) and how advanced microcontroller units have been pivotal in this. He then looked at how these devices could accelerate more widespread use of environmental monitoring systems, given their cost and ease of development advantages, while also touching on the security element too.
Ajinder Singh, from Texas Instruments, then moved onto look at the power consumption aspect. As he stated, the expectation is that many billions of sensor nodes are going to be installed and each is will be dependent on a power source, but this basically constitutes more batteries than have been produced in the whole of human history to date. Though he agreed that energy harvesting would be critical to smart city sensor implementation in the longer term, the costs involved were still prohibitive at the moment for a large percentage of applications. Instead, what will be needed to address this demand are innovative nano-power architectures that can allow coin cell batteries to run for periods of ten years or more.
Having looked at things at the on the ground hardware level, the discussion then turned to data and how it can be most effectively utilised. Dimitrios Spiliopoulos from O2 gave detailed examples of where real changes have already been made. Among these were the success that Moscow has had in alleviating its traffic congestion problem - using data compiled from traffic light infrastructure, mobile tracking, roadside detectors and vehicle mounted-sectors to help bring it down from topping the rankings for most congested city in the world to a more reasonable number 13 over the course of the last 2 years. It has witnessed a 30% increase in public transport use over this time and been able to raise commuter traffic speeds by 13%. Likewise, in Mexico, through access to mobility data the city’s emergency services were able to track the movement of people during a large-scale earthquake, thereby allowing better targeted deployment of response units. In cities across Spain, air pollution levels have become a serious concern. Once again taking data from mobile handsets and fixed location sensors has proved to be of great value in dealing with this issue - enabling the development of better traffic management strategies, allowing decisions to be made on the location of zero emissions zones and also pinpointing where further investment on public transport will be needed.
Collecting the data is no longer the challenge, however, it is much more a matter of actually using it. As Dimitrios explained, when we talked after his presentation, despite that fact that many municipal authorities have pushed forward with extensive data collection activities, Bloomberg’s report ‘What Cities Work’ shows that even though 70% are committed to employing data to improve their decision making, less than 30% use the results they garner to modify existing programs. In Dimitrios’ opinion municipal authorities need to be citizen-driven rather than technology-driven if they are going to make their cities truly smart.
Some would also point out that in many cases the data being acquired from the urban landscape is currently done so via a siloed approach - being used by specific government agencies, utilities or commercial companies for their own purposes. However, it will be through the sharing of datasets across these different siloes that greater synergies will be accomplished and more profound insights made possible.
Smart cities will rely on the convergence of Big Data and the Internet of Things to enable the extraction and subsequent analysis of masses of information upon which actions can subsequently be taken. Clearly the criteria upon which smart technology will be implemented, the particular requirements and engineering obstacles involved, will be different for each city. From some the priorities may be healthcare or crime prevention, while for others it might be traffic management, care of the elderly, more intelligent homes/offices, curbing CO2 emissions or better use of energy reserves. The underlying dynamic seems to that authorities need to firstly look at things from the perspective of the citizens themselves and have a better comprehension of their needs.