Travel back in time just a couple short decades and describe to the people there a city connected through technology, running on renewable energy, where traffic is eased by computer analysis based on real-time information and data, where pedestrians move about with more confidence and safety thanks to monitoring devices, and where passengers no longer have to rely on cash or cards or scanners to get rides because everything is automated through an account … and you’ll be met with skepticism.
You might even feel like Marty McFly in Back to the Future. Just two decades ago this type of scenario would have sounded more like science fiction than scientific fact, but smart cities are the wave of the future and they are here.
Globally, Cities Are Growing
The International Organization for Migration estimates that roughly 3 million people are moving into urban areas each week. The United Nations projects that by 2050, 68% of the world’s population will live and work in urban areas. There are plenty of reasons for this, not the least of which involves job opportunities, transportation, and connectivity.
Much of this growth into metropolitan regions are taking place across Asia and Africa and that means there is great opportunity to advance technology and create ‘smarter’ cities.
As cities grow and flourish, it becomes crucial to incorporate modern technology and interconnectivity in order to ease congestion, provide renewable energy sources, and make life simpler for everyone who lives in these environments.
There are currently over 1,000 smart city pilot programs in place. China alone houses half of them. These may include cities that have already begun implementing smart city technologies into their infrastructure or those still in the final planning stages.
The SmartCityCoucil says a smart city is defined as one that is connected through a network of a vast array of resources, including IoT (Internet of Things) sensors, big data collection, and communication technologies.
For example, some cities have already rolled out technologies where streetlamps have sensors detecting when light bulbs are beginning to fail so technicians can replace them, leading to fewer dark areas and potential hazards.
A Growing Global Industry
By the year 2020 (which is next year as of the writing of this article), in fact, it’s estimated that 600 cities around the world will have implemented smart city technology. It is also projected that this industry will account for $400 billion in revenue. Just five years later, by 2025, analysts anticipate these cities will be generating 60% of the entire world’s GDP. This, according to McKinsey research that was published in TechRepublic.
There are numerous anticipated benefits smart city technologies will provide, but there are also some concerns regarding privacy. At the moment, privacy concerns are taking a backseat to the progress these amazing technologies are offering.
Personal data is going to be an essential component of helping smart cities develop and grow, integrate more effectively, and provide the best resources and potential for its citizens. 5G technology is advancing with amazing connection speeds and Artificial Intelligence (AI) is providing the ability to analyze this data in real-time and create powerful infrastructures.
These infrastructure systems can even self-correct. In other words, imagine a situation where an accident is tying up traffic on Fifth Avenue and drivers -including buses and taxicabs- can be alerted, streetlights adjusted to accommodate the change in traffic directional flow, and thus reduce backups and delays.
Public transit can also begin detecting a person’s identity through facial recognition technology, allowing people to have an account that’s charged automatically, not just for that particular public transportation used, but exactly how many miles or kilometres they rode.
Currently, This is a Fractured System
At the moment across the majority of cities in the world today, data is fragmented. It is being collected by corporations, small to medium-sized enterprises (or SMEs), governmental organizations, nonprofit groups, and even personal databases.
There remains little in the way of standardization for the collection of this data, but as these potential problems are resolved and standardized protocols are employed, then all this information can be pooled to provide smart city technologies even greater power to streamline everyday activities and reduce costs.
Consider the cost of one simple traffic jam in a major city. It’s not just the amount of productive time lost for each employee delayed in reaching his or her job, but it’s also the fuel spent in every single vehicle idling and crawling along, waiting for its opportunity to get past the congestion.
There are potentially billions upon billions of dollars being lost in just the simple act of regular commutes that involve construction, accidents, and other delays. With smart city technology in place, these trouble spots can be removed and commute times slashed by half or even more of what they are today.
For example, Nanjing in China is a prime example of a smart city that installed sensors in taxis, buses, and private vehicles. The sensors collect data across both physical and virtual networks. This allows an analytic’s center to review the data, provide real-time updates sent to smartphones and other GPS devices that then generate new traffic routes, cutting commute times down dramatically.
These Centralized Systems Are Ideal in Any Infrastructure System
Take Italy, for example. One of the major railway operators, Trenitalia, has incorporated sensors on all its trains which allow monitoring stations to see the mechanical condition of each locomotive and railway car at any given time.
By having this technology available and AI to analyze the data, maintenance can be notified of any potential problems as they’re developing and that allows them to get ahead of the curve, avoiding breakdowns that can be extremely costly, not just for the company but also the commuters and industries that rely on their shipping services.
As more cameras are installed in major cities, it’s providing the foundation for more information collection when these metropolitan regions do begin developing smart city databases. Various cameras and sensors can process data on traffic patterns, road conditions, accidents, and even weather conditions in real-time.
In Hangzhou, China, they have implemented what’s called the City Brain. With all of the sensors and cameras employed and artificial intelligence analyzing the data, it automatically manages traffic signals at over 128 intersections. It also monitors ambulances en route to accidents and other emergencies, police dispatches, and can detect a vehicle accident within a second, improving response times dramatically.
The City Brain has already reduced ambulance and commuter travel times by one half. That is just one simple example of the benefits smart city technology can offer when it comes to transportation.
Renewable Energy Opportunities
Another amazing benefit that smart city technology is providing involves renewable energy. While there are certainly naysayers who believe fossil fuels are the only viable option for the next several decades, renewable energy is becoming more efficient and effective. In fact, according to some estimates, many of these smart cities will begin producing their own energy, becoming fully self-sufficient within a matter of a few decades.
Some may wonder how this is even possible in a metropolitan environment, and that solution is found in solar concentrators. These solar concentrators (developed by researchers at Michigan State University) can be built into layers of glass over any window and when one considers how much glass is on the average skyscraper in major cities today, that’s a tremendous amount of energy produced each minute.
There are buildings around the world producing the bulk of energy they already use thanks to solar panels on their roofs and now, when they can employ these new solar concentrators, the benefits increase tenfold. These solar concentrators will offer a powerful asset for smart cities that want to become self-sufficient.
Dubai is a leading example of a major city devoted to becoming energy independent. Dubai plans to derive 25 percent of its energy from solar power within the next 10 years. Dubai is also planning to install artificial trees that will have solar power technology embedded throughout its leaves and other components, and while it will be providing a beautiful landscape, it will also be producing energy for the entire city.
Dubai is a leading example of renewable energy and the potential for self-sufficient technologies in a major metropolitan environment. Many other cities around the world look to Dubai as an example of what’s possible through smart city technologies.
Interacting with Data
Make no mistake about it, smart cities will be interacting with personal data. There are plenty of people who voice concerns about access to personal data, including tracking people by the GPS systems on their phones, using facial recognition software throughout city streets, and even monitoring purchases of its residents.
While many of these people will point to George Orwell’s ‘1984’ as a dire warning of what happens when a government or private organization has too much access to personal information, social media remains one of the most powerful communication tools today, even as people become more aware of just how much personal information is being collected and saved by these companies.
In other words, personal data is already being tracked and monitored, saved and logged, and analyzed by private organizations as well as government agencies. By centralizing and standardizing this information, smart cities can improve the quality of life for the millions upon millions of people who are moving into cities each year.
Imagine Self-Healing Roads
In the United States, for example, its infrastructure is crumbling. With an estimated price tag of nearly $600 billion to repair all of its bridges and roadways, it’s an enormous burden with few solutions.
Self-healing construction materials are now being developed, using sophisticated technologies and certain bacteria that, when exposed to air, will begin to feed on the surrounding material made of calcium lactate that will fill in the gaps.
Instead of cracks forming in concrete or even on asphalt and growing with each snowfall, ice event, or even rainstorm, these cracks could be healed automatically.
Imagine city streets that are no longer constantly under construction, delays just about everywhere you turn, always moving from one street to the other and within a few years returning back to the starting point to repeat the process again and again.
This limestone producing bacteria that can feed on calcium lactate can be packed into concrete and survive for more than 200 years. Only if and when the concrete is damaged would this bacteria become active, beginning the self-healing process.
The “Futuristic” Is Here
Much of these smart city technologies may seem like something out of a science fiction novel or movie, but they are happening. They are being put into practice now and the results are already impressive.
As more cities focus on smart technologies to improve infrastructure, transportation, communication, and even safety, this not only provides a safer and more positive environment for its residents, it’s also going to attract more people to its centers.
These smart city technologies are increasing at a dramatic pace and what may only seem like a distant dream today could become a reality in a few short years.
Joseph is a senior advisor at the Senate of Canada. Joseph enjoys writing, blogging and teaching. You can follow Joseph via Twitter @josephsoares.