Cities gained prominence as the dreary, overpopulated and unsanitary by-products of the industrial revolution. Their dark days gave rise to tuberculosis, child labour and the proletariat. Environmentalists have criticized cities for displacing habitats and forests and polluting the air. Smog in major Chinese cities have become so terrible that the premier “declared war” on it. Yet the benefits of urbanization are unstoppable. Larger cities are generally wealthier and more productive. Cities also lead innovation by connecting people from all walks of life. From Florence arose the Renaissance and from Birmingham, the Industrial Revolution (Economist, 2013). Today, the city itself is being revolutionized, as innovators focus on creating a smart and sustainable city.
The word ‘census’ originates from Rome, whereby the administration of the time was able to take advantage of the large amounts of data produced by cities. Modern municipalities, in a similar fashion, are eager to collect, process, and use data to create “smart-cities” that will provide a higher quality of life for their citizens. Although a “smart city” has yet been defined, the general belief is that such municipalities would feature self-managing systems and services. Advocates for such a city imagine a world where forces can be immediately responsive – emergency services will know where a gas leak or fire is located. The transit system is self-managed, scheduled to respond to citizen needs. Analysis of common events such as traffic collisions can be analyzed to build better transport networks and the management of key resources, namely energy, can be optimized.
Observers may argue that there are already a number of cities that self-identify as ‘smart.’ Unfortunately, for the vast majority of cities, this is a great exaggeration. Although some cities (particularly in Eastern Asia) demonstrate great technological capabilities, it is a stretch to consider them a model of the future. Data infrastructure and management is a highly costly endeavor. Without a direct, measurable revenue model, it is unlikely that municipalities themselves will be involved in the initial construction of such infrastructure. Therefore, the smart city revolution will be driven by entrepreneurs and private organizations, which will have to prove the usefulness of their technologies before receiving buy-in.
Companies such as IBM and Microsoft are eager to provide services that would undoubtedly serve as infrastructure for the overall “smart city” model. For such firms, these contracts are a winning revenue source. Providing the infrastructure to collect data generates revenues beyond the initial implementation cost – maintenance, analysis, and upgrades are likely to follow, thus providing these firms with a handle on the city’s information. However, sinking their teeth into these cities will prove quite challenging given the grandiose ambitions outlined by these firms. For example, Siemen’s “Infrastructure and Cities” division is its lowest performing division because few municipalities can justify investment. Moreover, throwing IT infrastructure at a complex goal is hardly a solution – smart cities will benefit from a human component. Therefore, smart cities, as society will know them in a few decades from now, will start with the individual, followed by small startups and larger corporate firms.
Already, individual persons have grasped the basic building blocks of a smart city. Collisions and minor incidents are self-reported by Twitter users and provide up-to-date information faster than any city website. Smartphones from which users regularly check-in, and applications that mine data posted to public feeds will provide some of the lower-level infrastructure necessary. Small mobile applications provide a wide berth of information in a way that is far more convenient than ever before. Some applications will be built purely for the sake of curiosity, but will provide inspiration or a basis for bigger, more integrated applications. Much of the data necessary for these applications is already freely available or available upon request thanks to freedom of information acts. But when several applications exist, one can link data to provide information that is integrated and useful to city management. An application which links peak energy usage to the management of non-time sensitive utilities can help cities save money by working off the grid and decreasing the total stress on the system. Although a disconnected architectural approach may appear counter intuitive, it protects the city from having to rely on a single platform or vendor in the future. Organizations, whether they are publically run or outsourced to firms, will also recognize and respect the importance of managing and applying data to make decisions. They will build their own databases from which future technologies will draw from.
Modern cities are global powerhouses requiring large energy and resource inputs to run successfully. Ideally, cities will be able to minimize their energy inputs while providing the same (or greater) quality of life they provide today. Linear energy approaches use electricity and resources as they are demanded. This is the method with which energy today is managed. However, energy centers of cities need to become circular. Smart cities will manage energy centers by reducing use during peak hours and recycling resources through an integrated system. Smart metering, already a part of most buildings in Europe and North America, should be applied at the wider, community level. The European Initiative on Smart Cities has vowed to decrease greenhouse emissions by 40% (Strategic Energy Technologies Information System, 2012). The commission is currently off target but these projects prove an interest in smart city measures to drive sustainability. Other countries will soon see that these measures will prove necessary not just for the sake of environmental sustainability but to continue providing the same level of services in a cost-manageable manner.
Municipalities will display apprehension in working with larger companies to make use of a unified system given implementation difficulties. New York City implemented a $500 million public-safety network in 2008, but was unable to make use of it in any practical manner because of logistical challenges (New York Daily News, 2012). Given that governments often demonstrate great difficulty in implementing IT systems, corporations will need to lead and build the implementation process before selling cities on the project. This may be a risky endeavor on the part of firms who would prefer to secure a client before spending money on a project. However, the growing size and interconnectedness of cities will present this data as a cost saver rather than a cost center. Furthermore, a built system can be tailored to several cities ensuring that technology firms are able to approach and fulfill the needs of multiple prospects.
Perhaps the closest example of this system in action is Seoul, South Korea. Its current initiatives build upon a number of existing systems and technologies. u-Seoul Net, a three-pronged system providing citizens with city information, a CCTV network, and internet services for government use, began in 2003 and was finally completed in 2011. The city also makes use of community mapping, which relies on citizen-built road information. Similarly, an app called iTour links users to notable attractions across Seoul. Over the past few years, the city has increased the number of databases available to the public. As of 2012, there are 37 regularly-used city-based applications in Seoul. While its many advanced services may not yet be classified as “smart” because they are currently unintegrated, the administration is now courting a number of companies who boast that they will be able to integrate the plethora of available services in order to make Seoul a smart city.
Most envision the path to smarter cities as glamorously innovative with one or two key players in the implementation process. The reality is comparatively subdued. Ordinary citizens will play a major part in the development of the information needed to build resource and citizen conscious cities of the future. Larger firms and municipal governments will play a decidedly less high-profile role as a merger and user of these datasets. Whoever makes it happen, there is no better place to create meaningful societal and environmental change than the city. Indeed, by 2008, the average human was urban.
City to contractor: Pretty please, could you take back this great $549 million wireless network? New York Daily News