In 1997, a London academic published a startling vision on how humans will live in the future. Professor Michael Batty, a renowned urban planner, summed it up in one phrase: “The Computable City”. By 2050, he says, there will be a “massive convergence” of computers and communications technologies, with highways and “smart buildings” connected via the internet in new kinds of vast information infrastructures. “Everything around us,” he wrote, “will be some form of computer.”
His only mistake was underestimating just how quickly such a vision would become reality.
According to a UN World Urbanization Prospects Report in 2011, 3.6 billion – over half of the world’s population – already live in cities. This will rise to more than 6.3 billion people, or 75% of the population, by 2050.
Such rapid urbanisation places enormous pressure on transport networks, emergency services and utilities, some of which are already stretched to capacity.
To meet this challenge, more than 2,500 cities around the globe already have “smart” projects in progress – each collating vast amounts of data on municipal functions such as transportation, healthcare, public safety, utilities and governance.
This data is not just collected from more obvious information sources, such as traffic cameras or the inhabitants themselves, but increasingly from sensors attached to streetlights, buses and rubbish bins, and even buried in the roads themselves.
Piece by piece, this so-called “internet of things” is helping to build cities that organise themselves – reacting to everything from a leaking water pipe to a motorway pile-up – and coordinate resources automatically.
All of these systems will inevitably necessitate an explosion of sophisticated new technology – the likes of which even Prof Batty may not have foreseen.
Smart cities in action
Take the old Spanish port city of Santander, for example. After an €11m European Union grant in 2011, over 12,000 sensors have been installed, recording everything from air pollution levels to free parking spaces.
Streetlights now automatically dim when no one is around, while rubbish bins notify collectors when they’re full. These advances save local authorities about 25% on electricity bills and 20% on waste management.
This data has to be collated with a huge information infrastructure – in this case, the vast cloud computing servers of what Santander calls its “command-and-control centre”.
In a smart city, the information being produced is vast. Some experts estimate that by 2016 we will generate 4.1 terabytes of information per day per square kilometre (or 10.1 terabytes per square mile) of urbanised land area – the equivalent of more than four average home computer harddrives.
But the Santander centre’s purpose is not just to serve the local government. It also makes this sensor data freely available to Santander citizens themselves. Via their smartphones, residents can access up-to-the-minute information on everything from local traffic congestion, parking availability or even pollen counts.
Other smart city projects are even more diverse. In Norway, for example, more than 40,000 bus stops for local transport company Kolumbus are already making scheduling announcements via Twitter. Passengers can also scan a type of two-dimensional barcode, known as a Quick Response (QR) Code, affixed to each stop and leave messages about their experiences.
While in Boston, a system called ShotSpotter is using acoustic sensors to detect and pinpoint the location of gunshots, helping police reduce crime.
Agility is key
With such diverse information flying around a smart city, new technology is needed to coordinate not only this vast amount of data, but also the array of applications it may have.
One solution to coordinate data is an “agile network” – a system that uses new technology to automatically control and configure data. This data can also be disseminated across a number of varying devices.
Chinese company Huawei Enterprise is one firm helping to build these agile networks, as well as the cloud computing data centres that they hope will help make Smart Cities a reality.
“Driven by the major trends of big data, cloud computing, mobility and socialisation, traditional enterprises are becoming digital enterprises. This calls for a shift of ICT [information communications technology] infrastructure,” says Leon He, President of Huawei’s Enterprise Business Group in Western Europe. The company has participated in more than 60 smart city projects in over 20 countries – from intelligent traffic initiatives in Ecuador and the Maldives, to emergency services operations in Nigeria, Venezuela and Laos.
Another key component of smart cities is the speed and reliability of communication.
In 2013, Huawei Enterprise used its 4G wireless system, Enterprise LTE (eLTE), to launch the world’s first urban rail network in Zhengzhou, China. The technology rolls data, voice and video transmissions into one network meaning passenger information boards, CCTV, and communication-based train control can all be on the same infrastructure.
Such advances are helping to deliver faster and more reliable wireless systems, enabling local authorities and services to help meet the growing needs of cities.
But as the urban population increases year-on-year, new challenges will undoubtedly arise – not least in building sustainable living conditions that do not harm the environment. Inevitably, these changes will warrant more complex city management requiring ever more intelligent technology.
“Urbanisation is one of the biggest challenges around the globe,” says Johann Strauss, Director of Global Partner Solutions at Huawei.
“Cities are centres of our modern society – and they are getting more complex and demanding every day.”
Via BBC Future