Hail the urban OS

Read time 8min 20sec

The city of the future will not only look and sound different, its very functioning will depend on a radically altered system of information - one that's highly adaptable and citizen-driven.

Part one of this series featured some of the enterprising cities involved in intelligent urban planning, while part two focused on how the smart city promotes citizen engagement. In the final instalment, industry players reveal the changes in energy and innovation that will prepare the way for a new industrial order.

Talkin' bout a revolution

For today's expanding cities, providing secure and sustainable energy for their citizens will be a key challenge in years to come, notes IBM's executive for public sector, Ahmed Simjee. “Globally, almost one in three people lack access to electricity, and while access to energy is widespread in more developed cities, it is still not secure.”

He adds that cities are fast realising current energy systems are insufficient and unsustainable, and that their contribution to GHG emissions has to be curbed. “Global emissions of CO2... are expected to have increased by more than 45% between 1990 and 2010, driven largely by the growth of cities.

“As a result, city policymakers are under growing pressure - from citizens and from investors - to incorporate into their policymaking environmental sustainability in general and greenhouse gas emissions in particular.”

To achieve these goals, many cities are undergoing a dramatic overhaul of the system at the heart of modern living - the electricity grid. In the past, electricity generally flowed in one direction from utility to users, like the petals of a flower radiating from a central point. In future, this arrangement could be replaced with a distributed system that functions as a dynamic, multi-source network of incoming and outgoing energy flows - a system wherein energy is not only channelled to citizens, but from them as well.

Enough electricity is lost annually to power India, Germany and Canada for an entire year.


Those promoting the democratisation of energy, including US economist Jeremy Rifkin, describe a world where decentralised networks utilise multiple clean energy sources and distribute them via an intelligent system, in what's been dubbed 'the third industrial revolution'.

Rifkin suggests in his book of the same name that Internet technology and renewable energies are merging to create a powerful new infrastructure that will change the world:

“In the coming era, hundreds of millions of people will produce their own green energy in their homes, offices, and factories and share it with each other in an 'energy Internet', just like we now create and share information online,” he writes.

Rifkin argues that this development will bring about a fundamental reordering of human relationships, impacting the way people conduct business and engage in civic life.

“If the industrial era emphasised the values of rigid discipline and hard work, the top-down flow of authority, the importance of financial capital, the workings of the marketplace and private property relations, the collaborative era is more about creative play, peer-to-peer interactivity, social capital, participation in open commons and access to global networks,” notes Rifkin.

The ability to generate and distribute power will shift from being the exclusive domain of governments and corporations, to one where households and communities can contribute, as they become increasingly equipped with solar panels and wind turbines, he adds.

In the same vein, people themselves will become potential energy sources in the near future, according to IBM. One of its '5 in 5' innovations set to change society during the next five years is “people power”.

This involves using anything that moves or produces heat as a potential source of energy. IBM argues that advances in renewable energy technology will allow individuals to collect this kinetic energy, which now goes to waste, and use it to help power homes, offices and cities.

It points out that current electricity generation and distribution systems are incredibly wasteful: “With little or no intelligence to balance loads or monitor power flows, enough electricity is lost annually to power India, Germany and Canada for an entire year.”

The advent of smarter electricity grids will see the use of sensors, meters, analytic tools and feedback mechanisms to monitor and control the two-way flow of energy, says IBM. “A power company can optimise grid performance, prevent outages, and allow consumers to manage energy usage right down to the individual networked appliance.”

One initiative testing this form of integrated energy provision is the Edison Project in Denmark. It aims to make electric vehicles a key component of the smart grid, and is being tested on the Danish island of Bornholm, where almost 50% of the electricity is supplied by wind.

One of the difficulties with wind energy is that the wind doesn't blow all the time, making it tricky to balance power demand and consumption. The solution being tested would enable managers to modify consumption according to the available generation, and store extra power to be tapped when needed. The project is based on the concept of an electric vehicle virtual power plant, in which vehicles attached to the grid are treated as a single energy source to help balance the delivery of wind power.

Project organisers say this EV plant could be treated as any other generation source, integrating with existing infrastructures and enabling higher levels of renewables in the system.

Open innovation

According to Bruno Berthon, MD of sustainability services at Accenture, the city of the future will be based on open innovation, involving citizens and third-party innovators, to transform urban services and infrastructure.

It is less a technical challenge and more an organisational one.

Bruno Berthon, Accenture

He adds that the integration of various initiatives within the city is vital to create truly intelligent systems and services. “The successful introduction of electric vehicles, for instance, requires integration between the transport, energy, automotive and telecommunications sectors, as well as municipal taxation and traffic management authorities.”

In order for IT systems to integrate across all these functions, says Berthon, cities need an open, interoperable platform that allows for modular design and the ability to scale solutions city-wide. He argues that cities cannot afford to make short-term decisions based on proprietary technical implementations: “They need the flexibility that open standards provide.

“But at the same time, 'we are where we are'; in other words, cities are faced with a legacy estate of systems based on different technology and approaches and they need to be able to integrate them.”

Mike Small, IBM's government solutions leader for the Middle East and Africa, says a major hurdle for cities is where and how to begin.

“Communities know they must start integrating systems, but how do they do it without being locked into a particular vendor's technology? Do they do everything at once in a large project? Or how do they know that subsequent projects will integrate with previous systems to deliver the vision?”

He believes cities need a roadmap they can follow to deploy capabilities that will continuously improve their core systems. This will enable cities to implement their long-term strategy through a series of short-term projects, by investing in a few systems that will have the greatest impact.

Berthon says that up until recently, most cities introduced specific digital solutions in a fragmented way. “It is less a technical challenge and more an organisational one, not just between the public and private sectors, but between public sector silos that do not work together effectively.”

Much of it boils down to organisational and performance culture, notes Berthon. “Take the availability of open application programming interfaces (APIs). That takes courage and a change from a closed and policy-driven culture to one that is open and which accepts a loss of some control in return for greater innovation.”

In a report released in December, Arup, the Climate Group and Accenture call for cities to open up their digital assets to third-party developers, in the form of open APIs. “Consider the city and its infrastructure as a network of systems and flows of information, which can be effectively leveraged if they can communicate with each other,” explains Berthon.

Small points to the City of Madrid as an example, which wanted to raise the levels of public safety through more coordinated emergency response. Using IBM's Intelligent Operations Centre as an integration platform, the city was able to share information between various urban systems.

With the insight gained through a real-time view of events across the city, Madrid's emergency managers were able to better assess needs, prioritise and coordinate actions, and deploy assets to address and prevent multiple incidents, according to IBM. Ultimately, the solution reduced emergency response time by 25%.

A similar initiative was implemented in the City of Rio, where rainfall can lead to catastrophic landslides. A smart operations centre gave emergency services a more accurate view of weather, integrated with other city information, to better predict rain and flooding. In this way it could act pre-emptively to reduce the impact of these events on the city.

Small notes that technologies are being deployed across the globe to help communities manage resources so they can create economically competitive cities that are also exciting places to live, while managing the environment effectively.

“No longer are these mutually exclusive trade-offs - by leveraging information effectively and deploying smarter cities technology, we can make our cities great places to live, work and play, and reduce our demands on the environment.”

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