Opinion: The smart tech that will power smart cities

Urbanisation is a huge global trend. In 2007 the world’s urban population exceeded the rural and in less than 40 years, 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities.

This growth puts enormous pressure on ageing city infrastructure and services, the environment and affects quality of life for city residents and visitors. Close to home we only need to look at London to see these effects in action; long commutes, traffic congestion, urban sprawl, pollution, deteriorating work-life balance and a lack of infrastructure at city edges, to name a few. Added to this are inefficiencies regarding the use of data and a lack of optimisation that is failing to capitalise on the potential for improvement.

London’s problems, however, are not unique – cities present a lot of challenges. Both globally and locally, governments are looking for solutions to respond to these challenges and deliver better infrastructure and city services, to better the environment and improve day-to-day life for the people who live and work there.

Huge advances in technology are making a meaningful difference to the functionality and quality of city life. Cities are using smart technology, harnessing the capability of the internet of things and the power of big data to develop smart applications. The desired result is to make day-to-day life more liveable, efficient, sustainable and safe. The term for this networked solution is a smart city, and pundits are predicting that there will be at least 88 smart cities in the world by 2025. Right now, smart cities are a multi-billion dollar industry.

Dr Larissa Suzuki, a smart cities specialist, believes that smart cities are all about connections. Just like the human brain where synapses connect neurons through the transfer of information, the internet and 5G networks will be the connectors that join up city systems to help make it smart and enable services to be delivered in a smart way.

London recently became the latest city to sign up to Open & Agile Smart Cities (OASC), an international network supporting cities and communities in their digital transition.There is a growing consensus that integration of city systems, technology and people will help to improve the quality of life inside our cities. By drawing meaning from the data collected, the knowledge acquired can be disseminated and used to help improve cities and develop urban capabilities to make them more sustainable, efficient and liveable.

For example, imagine a city where real time information tells you the least congested routes, public transport capacity, vacant parking spaces, the nearest taxi, the weather forecast, and the next tourist hotspot. These same smart systems will manage public lighting and other amenities based on use and time of day to minimise energy consumption. New machine learning capabilities will help systems to modify their operation based on conditions and user behaviour patterns to become even more efficient.

Smart cities will use sensors to monitor and reduce carbon emissions, provide public information on civil defence updates and emergency response as well as real time monitoring of key infrastructure enabling cities to respond in real-time to adverse natural events. These real time optimisation strategies will push relevant information and content to smart phones to keep citizens updated and helping them to make more informed decisions.

The role of the citizen in the smart city will be key for optimising the connectivity that will be at its core. Microchips could be the way that the people who live in the city become a part of its real-time information exchange, assisting with information collection and transfer. This would also make the experience of living in the smart city far more personalised. The personal information stored within a microchip could ensure that relevant information is displayed to each individual, with suggestions for journeys, restaurants, shops and activities based on that data.

Another integral part of this future will be how information is communicated and displayed. A vital and vibrant part of the technology ecosystem will be smart signage. Visuals will be incredibly important for the delivery of information in a way that is easily and quickly understood. Smart signage is already a feature of many major cities and functions as an important resource for people to stay informed and connected. These screens will fulfil a role that integrates advertising and public service. With Wi-Fi enabled smart signage people will have a wealth of information at their fingertips, helping them to interact and access content that’s locally relevant, real-time and actionable. Familiarity with touch screen technology will see citizens embrace and use digital signage in the same way as their smartphones.

While this may sound a long way off, London is already recognised as one of the world’s top three smart cities by the IESE Cities in Motion Index, alongside Paris and New York. Now is the time for individuals and businesses to seize the opportunity to be a part of the design, planning and construction of our future smart cities.

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