What Makes a City Smart? by Alice Gillam

The term “smart city” gets thrown around a lot these days. It’s a hot topic and every city from Aarhus to Zagreb seems to want to get in on the action. So, as all these cities proudly share their plans for becoming smart, or declare that they are already a smart city, we have to ask ourselves a question:

What Exactly Is It That Makes a City Smart?

In general, a smart city is considered to be one that utilizes data gathered from connected devices to inform better decision making. They optimize infrastructure through information gathered from smart sensors, networks, and applications. Data-driven services can also be connected to each other. Smart traffic-management systems could be linked to parking systems in order to manage the demand for parking in various areas of the city and avoid cars circling city streets searching for parking.

Within this broad definition, there are many different views on what makes a city “smart”. Is it connected, energy-saving street lights? Live bus departure boards? A smart traffic management system to keep the city flowing? Or is a truly smart city one which has eliminated congestion from private vehicles as its citizens get around by smart public transport or surf a wave of green lights on their bike?

Different cities prioritize different aims, and smart cities can look very different from one another. Let’s start by looking at the building blocks of a smart city.

Sensors – The Nerve System of Smart Cities.

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Sensors form the bulk of the information-gathering part of a smart city. Sensors can measure all sorts of things: noise, air pollution, temperature and much more.

According to Microsoft’s “2019 Manufacturing Trends” report, the average price of an Internet of Things (IoT) sensor has declined from $1.30 in 2004 to $0.44 in 2018. This means that it has become more affordable than ever for cities to implement these kinds of data collecting projects.

However, collecting data is just the first, and simplest, step. Knowing how to properly apply lessons from the vast amounts of data they capture and ensuring that the data lake which lies at the heart of many smart cities is secure, is another issue.

The Next Step, Actuators

The data from sensors can be used to take action immediately or stored for later analysis by humans or machines.

If the data is to be used immediately, for example, to turn a light from red to green in order to let through a city bus that is running late, this is where the actuators come in. The actuators are the levers that, once they have the information from the sensors, move things in the real world.

This could happen automatically, as the result of some clever programming, or it could be controlled by a human who reviews the information from the sensor as it comes in.

The Human Element

woman walking with child on a city street

What is a city without citizens? You can have all the fancy tech in the world but it would be somewhat hollow and senseless without actual, human people moving through and interacting with the city. The smartest of cities have found ways for people to feed information back into the smart city structure.

This could be done intentionally, such as through apps for reporting potholes, or passively, such as Transport for London (TfL) using the free wi-fi it provides to track passengers’ routes.

Hang on a second, this isn’t nearly as creepy as it sounds. TfL is using the information regarding where people started and ended their journeys and any transfers they made to plan a more efficient network. The Underground is running at maximum capacity on many lines and they are keen to do anything possible to improve journey times and make the system run more smoothly.

Now that we’ve looked at the elements needed to build a smart city, let’s look a little closer at what can be done when you combine sensors, actuators, and citizens. A city is a complex organism made of many moving parts and data-driven improvements can be found in any of them.

Moving Around the City

metro passing a station

Adding smart technology to public transport can lead to huge improvements in functionality and passenger experience. As we covered in our article about the cities with the smartest transport, this can take many different forms. Some transport networks have developed apps to help passengers find their way. Other transit systems use connected sensors as part of a Condition Based Maintenance model that reduces downtime.

Smart technology can also be used to make things easier for car drivers. That could be better management of traffic-flow or using wireless sensors to detect parking-space occupancy in metered spaces. With this information, the city can adjust pricing for the parking spaces and, in some cases, drivers can use an app to guide them to a free spot.

Environment and Energy

We take for granted having clean water in our taps and electricity at the flick of a switch. We rarely think about the immense amounts of resources that go into ensuring our comfortable way of life. Cities, while they have the potential to be environmentally friendly, currently consume vast amounts of energy. Connected technology can be utilized to lighten the load of powering our cities.

pipes in a water system

With IoT, cities can monitor their utility systems and energy usage and take measures to make them more efficient. This can be on a big scale, through monitoring water systems to ensure that there are no leaks, or on a building by building scale, by ensuring that each building’s heating and lighting system is as efficient as it can be.

San Diego has street lights that only brighten as vehicles or pedestrians approach. This fairly simple measure saves the city $250,000 in electricity costs each year.

Sensors can also be used to measure air pollution. This data can be fed back to the local government so that they can use the data to try and improve the situation. The data can also be directly shared with citizens via an app so that they can choose routes for walking and cycling that avoid the worst of the pollution.

The Day to Day Functioning of a City

Smart technology can be used to improve the day to day functioning of a city. Routine tasks such as garbage collection can be made more efficient by using connected IoT technology to measure when public bins are full and need to be emptied. This can make garbage collection more efficient. Bigbelly is one company that is using a cloud-connected system to transform public space waste management.

Many cities are struggling under the pressure of the thousands of home deliveries that are now made every day. Cities are trying a variety of measures in their attempts to bring some kind of sense to the chaos of double-parked trucks, stressed delivery drivers and urban congestion.

These measures range from electric-assist cargo delivery bikes being trialed in Montreal and Oslo to autonomous delivery droids. While the public remains cautious about the safety and practicality of autonomous passenger vehicles, they may be more accepting of R2D2-esque mini delivery robots.

Smart IoT technology can help cities to improve public services, save money and energy by making utilities more efficient, and make a positive difference to citizens’ daily lives. While the initial investment that laying the groundwork for a smart city requires can be high, the payoff is worth it.

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