Smart Cities: The Future of Urban America?

The Digital Age

As the world moves headlong into the digital age, a new wave of technology is poised to empower cities across the globe. This technology will integrate into the very infrastructure of cities in order to improve the quality of life for residents. These so-called ‘smart cities’ will utilize various forms of IoT (internet of things) to collect and aggregate data across the city, then use that data to manage assets and resources effectively and efficiently. Essentially, data collected from things like mobile phones and smartly-placed sensors would be used to empower public systems around the city such as public transportation, traffic management, water, and waste management, hospitals, schools, libraries, and more.

Efficient Cities

This sort of technology allows officials to directly interact with and monitor community and city infrastructure in real-time. But how can data from things like public transportation, energy usage, or air quality be used to improve citizens’ lives? Imagine less traffic, shorter commute times, and efficient parking management in cities. Monitoring air quality can help pinpoint emission problems which can lead to a smaller footprint on the environment and better health for the people. Small improvements like these will make cities more desirable to live in while also providing opportunities for the local government to save money by vastly increasing efficiency. By monitoring things in real-time, cities will be able to save huge amounts of money by tracking and solving problems before they become a serious issue. This also allows a more accurate deployment of city resources in order to maximize their impact.

The Smart Campus

An interesting breeding ground for these smart technologies has been college and university campuses. These campuses serve as a sort of microcosm of their local communities and function as perfect testing grounds for the integration of IoT at large. In an interview with the Guardian, Manchester Metropolitan University’s IT portfolio manager Tori Brown explains further, “The smart campus idea was first floated in spring 2016… It’s a continually evolving plan, there are possibilities around smart kiosks with personalized information, true cross-campus digital and personalized wayfinding. These include wearable tech like smart watches and phones.”

This kind of technology would offer immense support for students. Notifications from smartphones or watches could automatically remind students about things such as classes, assignment due dates, overdue library books, and important community events on campus. The benefit of running these smart campus trials is that they create a blueprint that may easily be scaled up to meet the developmental needs of cities.

Smart Cities in Action

A few cities around the globe have already begun to integrate IoT technology into their urban landscape. In Barcelona, they have laid the foundations to truly transform it into a city of the future by installing a free fiber-optic network that not only supplies high-speed internet for the city, but also supports their IoT devices. By using this IoT smart-network to monitor the water supply, city lighting, and parking management, Barcelona has since saved upwards of 75 million euro (about $83 million USD) of allotted city funds while simultaneously creating nearly 50,000 jobs. The Netherlands has also tested some of these technologies in its capital city of Amsterdam by monitoring traffic flow, public safety, and energy usage. Sensors providing real-time data on pedestrian footpath usage allows the city to dim lights in less-trafficked areas, saving money and energy. 

In the United States, large cities such as Boston and Baltimore have begun installing similar sensors. These sensors seek to do everything from reporting how full a city trash can is so that it can be queued for pickup, all the way to monitoring driving and walking patterns so the city can adjust for safer streets and fewer car crashes. Boston has already rolled out its flagship app, “BOS:311” which puts power into the hands of local citizens. This app allows people to directly report small issues in their community such as potholes, dirty streets, or graffiti, empowering locals to easily and immediately have a positive impact on their neighborhood. The app also makes it much easier and more cost-efficient for local officials to track and resolve these issues, resulting in a win-win for both community and governance. 

Having slightly shorter commute times or cleaner streets may seem like minor boons to a person’s life, but when you scale that up to a city-sized population the benefits become more apparent. It is a cascade of minor improvements that add up to a much larger picture. People across the city getting to work just a little bit faster, being slightly happier, and feeling more in control of their neighborhoods is an extremely powerful thing. If people feel that the city is actively looking out for their needs, are they not likely to be happier? It is no secret that happier people are more productive. In 2017, Boston’s GDP was over $438 billion dollars. If these combined effects improved Boston’s GDP by even just 1%, that would be a growth of over $4 billion for Boston alone. If this sort of technology was deployed country-wide, the effects have enormous potential for the United States economy.

Sustainable Cities

While the implementation of smart technology makes cities more efficient and the residents happier, it also has the potential to reduce our overall impact on the environment. By monitoring water levels, household consumption, and weather patterns, cities will be able to better manage their water supply. Similar programs could track waste patterns to help optimize recycling and potentially cut back on the amount of waste society produces as a whole. With more efficient traffic-flow, cars will be on the road for less time and therefore emissions will be reduced. Less average time on the road will also mean fewer car accidents which leads to less strain on the healthcare system. It also reduces fuel consumption and saves people money. It is hard to find aspects of a person’s life that wouldn’t be affected by the implementation of smart technology.

Sustainable smart technology can also be built into the next generation of office buildings and skyscrapers. An example being the massive Bahrain World Trade Center which boasts three built-in wind turbines that generate 675 kilowatts, or slightly higher than 15% of its total power consumption. In Sydney, there is the One Central Park building which is completely covered in hanging gardens and features a cantilevered heliostat, its own internal water recycling plant, and a low-emission power plant. The building has won numerous awards for both the ingenuity of the structure itself and its extensive sustainability measures.

As the world continues to urbanize, sustainable structures such as these need to become the next evolution in city-building. Integrating smart and sustainable technology into every facet of urban life will not only improve the well-being of residents but also reduce our impact on the environment. As this technology evolves it will influence not only how we interact with our environment, but how our environment interacts with us. 

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At Lithios we value outside opinions. This blog was written by one of our guest bloggers.

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