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Smartphones have transformed how we engage with almost every aspect of our daily lives. Now the outward progression of this technology – the so-called “Internet of Things” – has begun to encapsulate even more of our everyday interactions. Today entire cities are striving to perform in a way that harnesses the benefits of “Big Data” and digital technologies, promising residents a more eco-efficient and sustainable standard of living.
Digital communication tools are being used to around the world to better improve municipal services and enhance the capabilities of basic city infrastructure. By bringing formerly analog services and devices online, cities can more effectively manage the way they use energy and resources, and include their citizens in the improvement process. Today these urban ecosystems are referred to as the modern “smart city.”
Traditionally, cities have consumed vast quantities of natural resources and produced mountains of waste and pollution. Growing worldwide populations demand more of everything – energy, living space, food – and the negative environmental impact is increasingly apparent. But more accessible data and better technology are changing this. According to Alberta Energy, energy efficiency is what’s known as the “fifth fuel”, and is the most immediately important step towards ameliorating the mounting climate and energy crises.
Reports from the United Nations estimate that the world’s urban populations will reach 6.3 billion by 2050, and as it stands we are in no way on track to run our power grids on renewable energy alone. But by improving the way we monitor and manage our power usage, and outfitting formerly low-tech city aspects (such as water, waste, energy, and transportation) with the technological capability to connect to the Internet and transmit information, we can tap the efficiency resource to its utmost potential.
Smart city tech depends on massive collections of data – information from digital technology at the core of a city’s most important responsibilities. With information on energy consumption, waste production and transportation from everywhere in the city, smart cities are able to direct the flow of traffic, direct new routes, shift power use to high demand areas, monitor consumption and weather patterns, as well as maintain water and energy levels.
Enabling communication between elements of the city such as motor vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians, as well as a buildings and other infrastructure, helps reduce gridlock and pollution while conserving fuel and water resources. Ideally, all cars in coming years will be capable of communicating information to do with traffic, parking, and accidents. By connecting an electric vehicle to a smart grid network, utilities can be informed as to how, when and where EV charging occurs, while collecting additional data for both their purposes and that of the consumer. Technology that allows for two-way communication between utilities and consumers, while providing real-time analytics on everything from energy use to air quality, are indispensable to smart city success.
A number of cities around the globe are already implementing smart technology, and even more are slated to soon follow suit. Glasgow, Boston and Singapore current qualify as some of the “smartest” cities, with digitally driven infrastructures already in place to communicate and regulate much of the city’s systems. Songdo, South Korea was recently completed as the first master-planned, built from scratch smart city, and Barcelona was named ‘Global Smart City 2015’ for its efficient smart street lighting, power grids and traffic management. The United States has put forth an effort too, by launched a Smart City Challenge, which aims to identify and support mid-range cities willing to embrace smart traffic technology, automated cars and digitally managed traffic systems.
Internationally recognized companies such as IBM and AT&T are partnering with urban planners worldwide to design and implement technologies that will continually drive cities towards greater efficiency and sustainability. As populations grow and important natural resources come under greater strain, “smart” city systems will lead the way into a greener, cleaner future.