Your phone. Your computer. Your car. Did I forget something? Oh yes of course… YOU!
What do all of these things have in common?
They are all SMART!
But is the place you call home, smart? Do you live in a city that matches your dexterity? Can everything around you keep up? You don’t know, huh?
Well, let’s find out.
What are ‘Smart Cities’?
In a paragraph, a smart city is a city where information technology is the principal infrastructure and the basis for providing essential services to residents. There are many technological platforms involved, including but not limited to automated sensor networks and data centers.
Information technology allows people to see cities for what they really are—layers of data. People move through levels of a city. They take the subway, stroll through parks, and enjoy the view from rooftops gardens. The most relevant solutions for a city’s problem will thus account for this mobility and integrate our experiences across the layers.
Smart cities use information and communication technologies (ICT) to be more intelligent and efficient in the use of resources, resulting in cost and energy savings, improved service delivery and quality of life, and reduced environmental footprint—all supporting innovation and the low-carbon economy.
Furthermore, Smart City, in everyday use, is inclusive of terms such as ‘Digital City’ or ‘Connected Cities’, as part of the broader future of the internet.
It is important to note that though the term ‘smart cities’ tends to imply high-tech something or the other, making a city smart is not just about technology; it’s about solving some of the more fundamental issues faced by cities today. It’s just that information technology can greatly help in doing that.
Imagine if our cities could talk—if they could give us live status updates on traffic patterns, pollution, parking spaces, water, power and light. Imagine how that kind of information could improve the economic and environmental health of the city for residents, merchants, and visitors. Imagine how it could improve working conditions and productivity for the people who maintain the city.
In the future everything in a city, from the electricity grid, to the sewer pipes to roads, buildings and cars will be connected to the network. Buildings will turn off the lights for you, self-driving cars will find you that sought-after parking space, even the rubbish bins will be smart. How? Well, the quality of air and water, the movement of people and objects, the changes in weather, the road traffic, the production and consumption of energy, can be measured by sensors, and tracked and interconnected through networks in real time. It is through interconnecting buildings, factories, vehicles, power generation plants, lighting, that cities will be “smart”.
Origin of the term
The concept of smart cities originated at the time when the entire world was facing one of the worst economic crises. In 2008, IBM began work on a ‘smarter cities’ concept as part of its Smarter Planet initiative. By the beginning of 2009, the concept had captivated the imagination of various nations across the globe.
Countries like South Korea, UAE and China began to invest heavily into their research and formation.
What are the challenges faced by smart cities?
The concept is not without challenges. For instance, the success of such a city depends on residents, entrepreneurs and visitors becoming actively involved in energy saving and implementation of new technologies. There are many ways to make residential, commercial and public spaces sustainable by ways of technology, but a high percentage of the total energy use is still in the hands of end users and their behavior. Also, there is the time factor — such cities can potentially take anything between 20 and 30 years to build.
But after more than a decade of discussion and active implementation of Smart City initiatives, questions about the nature of human interactions in systems, both subtle and fundamental, are beginning to emerge. What does it really mean to be an engaged citizen in the new landscape of technology? What are the roles and responsibilities of leaders? Just sustaining the projected urbanization in the coming decades will require more than $1 trillion in capital expenditure for infrastructure. Because the scale of change is so massive, it’s easy to miss where the real inflection point lies—with people.
Creating new infrastructure requires budgeting, planning, negotiating, and having a fairly sophisticated understanding of the behaviors of the constituents you intend to serve. Each of those tasks may be aided by technology, but you can’t get around dealing with humans. Collecting data turns out to be the easy part. Sharing it and finding ways to make it useful for people are the real challenges.
Even sharing data among government departments isn’t a given. If you go to somebody in a city agency and you say, “Could you make a better decision if you could see some of the information from the department next door?” The answer is almost always yes. Great. The natural next question is, “And will you share information with him?” And the answer is almost never yes.
So, once data is freed, how it’s shared matters a lot. For example, in London, routine train schedules garner more engagement when feedback from the people who use them every day is taken into account. It was found that people didn’t just want the statement of data, they wanted the pictogram to see the train on their device coming toward the station. It gave them more confidence that the data was real.
So, is your city a smart city?
Probably not. Not yet at least. But you can do your part in making it a smart city by supporting these technologies.
In the meanwhile, stay tuned for more on Smart Cities on The Green Code!