With all the talk of incorporating smart technologies within cities that already exist, it is hard not to wonder what it would be like to build a smart city from the ground up. Bureaucracy, limited resources, and rigid infrastructure often haunt urban planners’ dreams today and slow down progress. What does it take to build a truly smart city? And how can cities approach smart innovation with efficiency in mind? The pace of technological advance is unprecedented, and it is necessary for us to sometimes take a step back and reevaluate our approach to building smart systems so that we are sure that they are led by the need to make life better. So, let’s look at the prerequisites for building better urban areas – the elements of a smart city.
Defining smart cities
It is becoming increasingly difficult to define what a smart city means. There are many cities that actively use technology such as Artificial Intelligence and Internet of Things for specific systems, but it is the integration of various platforms and constant communication between them that truly defines the scope of a city’s ‘smartness’. The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a time of rapid innovation and urban areas are being upgraded in terms of tech infrastructure, digital services, and overall connectivity. So, in terms of technology, many cities are becoming smarter – but in a ‘one-thing-at-a-time’ manner, leading to an isolationist approach that does not serve the higher purpose.
On the other hand, there are cities such as Singapore, London, Copenhagen and many more, that realise the potential of integrating as many services as possible into a single, unified system that provides a holistic overview of the processes in the city. This type of information aggregation and communication gives city management the resources to take decisions based on data, not hunches.
The elements of a smart city: the basics
Meeting energy needs with sustainability in mind
One of the prerequisites of a well-functioning smart city is energy, and lots of it. If a city cannot provide the necessary energy to support information and communication technologies, its smart efforts may fail entirely. To increase efficiency and support the necessary functionalities, autonomous energy monitoring and maintenance technology can be used. Power production and conserving resources need to be optimised while 5G can continuously improve the effectiveness of energy distribution.
On the level of end users, autonomous energy monitors alone can help them decrease their energy needs and thus alleviate the push on the grid. As an example, the Empire State Building managed to decrease its projected electricity consumption by 38% after installing a monitor.
This is a valuable example of how energy-dependent innovations can decrease the energy requirements of a city, thus helping it reach its sustainability goals.
Building a smart transportation system that works
One of the first domains of smart innovations in cities globally has traditionally been transportation. Such a vital public service requires a careful restructuring based on vast amounts of data. Smart technologies such as CAD/AVL can provide the necessary real-time data and serve as the basis for improvement.
Growing in popularity are on-demand services and ride-sharing, as part of a global push to optimize the way public transportation delivers its added value to citizens. Micromobility is also becoming an essential part of the mix, filling in first-mile/last-mile gaps in coverage. Finally, although very difficult to build and sustain, MaaS pilots are strengthening our knowledge in ways we can bring together a whole city’s transportation system. Considering the rising fuel prices, we believe these solutions will become even more popular in the coming decade.
Restructuring vital services
Many vital services in a city need restructuring – from water mains to toll systems. With the help of next-generation sensors that feed real-time data into predictive algorithms, cities can rework their systems to improve efficiency, conserve resources and adjust pricing whenever necessary.
In many cases, buildings and roads also need to be retrofitted to meet the demands of a smart ecosystem. But smart policies for new construction can help us rebuild our cities over time.
Finally, we need to look at how citizens will interact with the systems – and each other, in a smart city. A crucial part of the transformation is harnessing the power of citizen engagement. This can be done via digital citizenship platforms that not only serve as a point of meaningful connection but also bring together people based on their interests, aspirations, and involvement in the city’s life. Apart from using the apps to poll people on specific issues and giving them a platform for feedback, city management can encourage different behaviours related to the improvement of urban spaces and fostering different communities. As a result, a more informed society will take better decisions, taking personal responsibility for the well-being of the whole community.
Capitalizing on data
One thing we have learned from the ongoing smart revolution is that no data is final – cities are rapidly changing and what is true today might not be true tomorrow. Cities need to learn to be flexible and act quickly when data suggests a need to change. The need for adaptivity will become even more obvious in relation to the looming climate crisis. Resilience is built with knowledge, so it is crucial to listen to the changing needs of cities and learn from the experience of others.
What comes next?
As we have seen in the past few years, nothing is a given. Our environment and our societies are changing, and cities need to take a step back and reconsider their role in our common path forward. The needs of the individual need to be reconciled with the needs of the community in order to achieve balance. And even though it may be out of reach now, aggregating as much data as possible might just give us the necessary knowledge to become more flexible.