An estimated 54.5% of today’s global population now live in urban settlements. The United Nations predicts that it will swell to 60% by 2030, with one in three people to live in cities with at least half a million inhabitants.
In response to this trend, city planners and governments around the world are looking to harness innovative technology to better address all the problems that come with high-density city living. This covers everything from safety and public transportation, to food security and the environment.
Today, this collective push towards ever more connected cities is known as the smart city initiative. The smart city refers to a data-driven urban system that uses a grid of broadband services and sensors to provide a myriad of city functions in real time. With goals of efficient delivery of public services and resilient economic growth, the smart city vision is definitely an ambitious one, and as such, faces a variety of roadblocks before any system can be fully realised.
What makes a smart city?
This is not to say, of course, that smart cities do not exist yet. In truth, governments in key regions across the globe are currently pouring resources into the development of smart cities — either as purpose-built locations or retrofitted metropolises — with different areas of focus. The common vision, however, is to use emerging technology like the Internet of Things (IoT) to improve city living.
For instance, Copenhagen is the leading smart city here in Europe and it’s known for its efforts in ensuring a better environment for businesses and communities. In Asia, India’s Dholera is one of dozens currently being built that will have a smart grid that connects every home to every utility, and every citizen to each other and civic services.
Some other applications of IoT technology in cities include smart traffic lights like those in London, which are equipped with sensors that can detect and prioritise bicycles, buses, and ambulances when directing traffic. IoT sensors can also be utilised in spaces within cramped cities to provide drivers with a real-time map of parking spots, or in infrastructure to monitor the structural health of bridges, roads, and buildings. Over in America, the IoT is helping implement regulations for road safety and improved driver behaviour. Verizon Connect explains that the Electronic Logging Device Mandate by the FMCSA requires business fleet owners to use ELDs to better monitor truck health and movement. This, in turn, promotes safety practices on the country’s roads while also ensuring good labour practices in its truck-dependent economy.
Despite all of these developments, the world is only at the cusp of what smart cities of the future could look like. The advanced technology needed to bring these cities to life open up just as many challenges as they do opportunities, something that city planners all over the world today must address to reap the benefits of a true smart city.
Power and tech advancements
Forbes points out that smart cities need rich data to work, as well as many sensors to collect it – a whopping 1 trillion sensors by 2020, to be precise. This initial observation alone brings up a lot of issues around the energy needed to power a smart city system in our current energy paradigms.
The next roadblock to full implementation is in policy and regulation. Although it is good that many cities are racing towards innovation, policies and governance aren’t always as quick to adjust, especially when it comes to city ordinances on building codes and road policies. For instance, smart parking in Pennsylvania encountered difficulties not in the required technology, but in a decades-old policy that prohibits the placements of signage in certain areas of the road. This delay added an extra six months in the rolling out process of the project.
Another crucial concern for smart city planning is making sure that the drive for innovation benefits the marginalised, such as farmers, informal workers, micro-entrepreneurs, indigenous people, and the poor. The digital divide must be diminished, not worsened, by the efforts towards smart cities. Because smart cities need to be cities for all, citizen’s rights and participation must to be at the centre of discussion and development for smart cities.
Security and privacy
Today’s governments are already facing problems with personal information protection on the
internet – and they will definitely have to deal with it even more, once people start connecting more everyday things to each other. As previously explored here on the European Business Magazine, the big data arising from increasing world connectivity can be harnessed for both good and bad, and this is something that smart city researchers and developers must look into to prevent potential data-related disasters and abuse.
Finally, the global race towards smart cities should look into long-term sustainability – not just in terms of the environment, but also with regard to the amount of infrastructure going into making smart cities work. Much of today’s discussions on smart cities revolve around short-term benefits instead of long-term sustainability. With technology developing at a blistering pace, the issue of keeping smart city sensors and grids from going obsolete a few years into deployment must also be taken into account.
As echoed here on European Business Magazine, technology is a means to an end and not an end in itself. The stakes for ensuring that city-wide IoT systems will be truly beneficial, sustainable, and inclusive are higher than ever. While smart cities promise exciting possibilities for the future of our communities, much work remains to be done in ensuring that these smart cities will enable growth and protect citizens in the long run.
Written by Annie Myers