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The city gets personal

In future, citizens will not only rely on urban infrastructure, they'll be part of it.

Read time 9min 00sec

Cities around the world are gearing up for a drastically altered future, one in which they'll have to support billions of people while conserving resources and coping with the effects of climate change.

Part one of this series featured some of the forward-thinking cities that are ushering in an evolution in the way people live, work and play. While these urban centres have adopted approaches specially suited to their contexts, there are several broader trends stretching across initiatives. In part two, industry analysts sum up a few of the major trends shaping the next generation of urban life.

Internet of things

With one billion transistors for every person and one trillion things connected to the Internet, the world is becoming a vast network of interlinked devices, systems and individuals. This collective intelligence could prove a powerful resource for cities as they grapple with major global challenges.

Engineering firm Arup notes that many cities are already highly 'connected', with tech-savvy populations, public WiFi networks, and advanced sensor and metering systems.

“But the smart city also describes a step-change in both the intensity and extent of connection in that almost all aspects of infrastructure - transit networks, energy, waste, water, housing - can wirelessly communicate information about their activities via sensors and networks,“ says Arup.

“This concept is known as 'the Internet of things', in which almost every device can produce and receive information to some degree.”

Even when the official objectives are set in carbon emissions reduction, the long-term goal is about attractiveness and competitiveness.

Bruno Berthon, Accenture

Ultimately, this ICT-enabling platform will allow for the standardisation, monitoring and optimisation of energy consumption throughout the city, across all sectors of the economy.

Publically accessible platforms that collate data from people's surroundings will also give them unprecedented insight, so they can make more informed choices about everyday activities.

In Singapore, for example, a fuel-saving project developed in conjunction with MIT allows travellers to anticipate traffic light changes via their dashboard-mounted smartphone. The SignalGuru app monitors and records the timing of traffic signals using the collected data from thousands of smartphones to alert drivers when slowing down could help them avoid idling at lights. Trials in the US and Singapore showed SignalGuru brought an average 20.3% saving in fuel consumption.

Not only will this digitally-aware urban landscape streamline services, it could also help drastically reduce cities' impact on the environment. The Climate Group's Smart 2020 report found 15% of emissions could be cut in 2020 if cities start employing smart technologies to achieve greater energy and resource efficiency.

Mike Small, IBM's government solutions leader for the Middle East and Africa, says the emphasis should be on smarter rather than smart cities, and on putting enablers in place to kick-start the process of transformation.

“Success requires a shift in thinking and a break from the past. It requires that we stop investing in some of the traditional targets for city investment, and switch the investment to making better use of information to achieve the same or better effect.”

Take transport, a sector responsible for approximately 15% of total GHG emissions. Instead of building entirely new infrastructure, cities can use dynamic pricing and real-time feedback to optimise the use of existing roads. Small cites Stockholm as an example, which introduced a variable congestion charge for cars entering the city. The initiative reduced inner-city traffic by 25% and emissions by 14%, while creating new revenue streams.

Yet, smart cities are not simply those that deploy ICT, says Arup. These cities combine new technology with novel ways of thinking about technologies' role in organisation, design and planning. “Think about the smart city as a holistic system; and consider ways that new systems can result in positive behavioural change.”

A Seattle-based project, for example, gave households access to live energy prices so consumers could adjust their use accordingly, reducing stress on the grid by up to 15% and energy bills by an average of 10%.

“Better access to information enables us to do what we all want to do: make better use of resources, and the most of our precious time and money,” says Small.

Touch and engage

Traffic buster

A smarter travel initiative in the City of Dubuque, Iowa, uses a smartphone app to gather data from volunteers' phones, GPS and RFID vehicle tracking devices, fare collection systems, weather data and public video cameras.
The solution creates a visual representation of the network in real-time, so traffic authorities and emergency services don't have to rely on snapshot surveys of how transport is being used - they can see it happening and make immediate adjustments to improve efficiency.
The solution isn't just a one-way stream of information: content can be directly accessed by citizens using the public transport network so they can plan ahead and avoid unnecessary delays.

City dwellers are no longer satisfied with simply consuming whichever services the city has made available - no matter how advanced. Citizens want to be actively engaged in the provision of services that affect their daily lives. Technology may be the first step in transforming cities, but the human interaction component is vital if any real progress is to be made.

Ahmed Simjee, executive for public sector at IBM, says the rise in demand for personalised services is putting city authorities under increased pressure to transform their approach. “This requires far greater integration of the different services and actors involved in their delivery, in order to give greater focus on the end-user rather than the individual provider of services.”

Bruno Berthon, MD of sustainability services at Accenture, says cities could take a leaf from the corporate book: “In the same way that consumer brands are involving consumers in the development of future products through social media, city authorities should consider opening up interaction with residents in ways that will accelerate the understanding of consumer behaviour and technology acceptance.”

Berthon cites the city of Amsterdam, where a 'Smart Schools Battle' saw six primary schools competing to see who could save the most energy. Through a special teaching programme, online energy portal and cartoon characters Bonny and Blitz, children were able to learn about energy saving in a fun and engaging way.

On the other end of the spectrum, a 'smart working network' encourages Amsterdam businesses to share their redundant space and even telepresence facilities in what the city calls workspace-as-a-service'. With the belief that everyone should have access to a good workplace within biking distance, it has set up a network of over 50 smart work centres which corporate users and individuals can book directly via a central online system.

“The irony is that the success of Amsterdam is not its immediate success, but its openness to short-term failure,” says Berthon. “Some pilots work, some pilots do not. City authorities must experiment with a range of technologies and services in the knowledge that it is their acceptance and use by consumers and residents that matters, not their technological brilliance.”

In the US City of Dubuque (Iowa), for example, citizens have been provided with real-time information about their power consumption, and the overall consumption of the city. Because households have a visible display of their impact on the city's supply, they can modify their behaviour to help the demand to match supply, and so reduce peak loads on the city's infrastructure.

“Tapping into this small city's sense of community spirit through a simple 'green points' reward system inspired friendly competition with their neighbours to deliver up to 11% savings in energy costs,” notes Small. He says it serves as a key example of how technology can enable city leaders to promote a sense of civic participation and create a win-win scenario.

The knowledge economy

A global shift in work culture is placing new demands on cities, requiring them to compete for a vastly more mobile workforce, which finds it easier to move countries and occupations depending on which area offers the best living environment.

Accenture's Berthon notes that smart cities' quest for environmental sustainability is paralleled by another goal: creating an attractive economic and social space that attracts and retains citizens, wealth, talent, investors and entrepreneurs.

“We call this situation for cities one of establishing 'competitive responsibility'. These two goals are driving the movement towards intelligent cities, and even when the official objectives are set in carbon emissions reduction, the long-term goal is about attractiveness and competitiveness.”

Traditional 'bricks-and-mortar' drivers of economic growth are giving way to an economy based on 'brains and creativity'.

Mike Small, IBM

Small adds that a knowledge-based society is becoming increasingly important to the future of cities: “More than ever, the traditional 'bricks-and-mortar' drivers of economic growth are giving way to an economy based on 'brains and creativity'.

As a result, says Small, the skills, aptitude, knowledge, and innovation of a workforce - which can be collectively viewed as the talent pool in the economy - have become increasingly important drivers of economic growth and activity.

The idea of 'sustainable prosperity' is one of the guiding tenets for the city of the future, he says.

“Cities across the globe are transforming from where people go to find work, to ones where people want to live because they are great places to be, and at the same time, places where citizens can share services to reduce our demand on the world's resources.”

To deliver these goals, notes IBM's Simjee, cities must look to the systems on which they are basing their ambitions and make them more efficient and effective - ultimately, smarter.

“The biggest challenge is enabling city officials to see the big picture and to help them make investment decisions which lead to an integrated city - often in the face of scepticism from other city departments or those promoting different agendas,” says Small.

He believes the secret is to quickly deploy a small project which creates the environment for interaction within fixed boundaries, to demonstrate the benefits of this implementation, and then scale from there.

The City of Madrid, for example, is trialling an Urban Energy Management system with the hope of transforming the city centre into a more accessible, attractive, and competitive area. Madrid's local council realised the need to focus on how energy is generated and consumed, and is running the pilot in a 33-apartment building to serve as a test bed for subsequent projects. The building will incorporate bioclimatic design as well as heating and cooling using geothermal and solar technologies. These innovations, together with the Urban Energy Management platform and an Urban Energy Controller, could deliver estimated energy savings of up to 85%. The aim is to replicate this model in other cities across the world embarking on similar smart city roadmaps.

To discover more about the innovations shaping the next evolution in urban living, look out for part three, which features a radical development in cities' electricity access - the energy Internet.

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