Get smart: making our cities great places to live

Smart city, in broad terms, describes a city that uses technology and data to  improve operations, enhance quality of life and reduce running costs. Illustrations by Ellen Porteus.

To remain livable and economically competitive, rapidly growing cities need to embrace high-tech solutions to solve their many practical problems. However, how willing are citizens to sacrifice their privacy for the benefits of smart cities, and can government regulations keep up with new tech?

Cities are often described as one of humanity’s greatest inventions, yet they also pose one of our biggest challenges. The United Nations estimates that more than two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050 – that’s up from about 54 per cent today.

This places a significant burden on vital infrastructure, such as transport, housing, energy supply, health care and waste management. Livability in the megacities of tomorrow will largely be determined by the smart solutions being developed today.

The term “smart city” is popular among policymakers worldwide. In broad terms, it describes a city that uses technology and data to improve operations, enhance quality of life and reduce running costs. For instance, Juniper Research estimates that by 2019, cities will save about US$17 billion a year in energy bills alone by installing smart streetlights and devices such as parking and garbage sensors.

Smart cities are wired for progress

Some places are well on their way. Barcelona, for example, is one of the most wired locations in the world, largely thanks to its 500km of fibre-optic cable laid across the city. This serves as the backbone for integrated city systems, such as car-park sensors that inform drivers, via a phone app, which spots are vacant, and in-ground sensors that regulate public park irrigation to help prevent exacerbating the city’s water shortages.

In London, a contactless payment system speeds up the movement of millions of passengers across one of the busiest public transport systems in the world. Passengers can swipe their credit card, smartphone or smartwatch to pay and keep on moving. 

Christchurch will include early detection sensors in its NZ$40 billion reconstruction of the city, after an earthquake in 2011 flattened the centre of the city and vast swathes of its suburbs. 

Innovative approaches to energy consumption are also coming from the start-up community. In New York City, start-up LO3 Energy has teamed with Siemens to create the Brooklyn Microgrid, a peer-to-peer energy trading system built on blockchain technology that allows Brooklyn residents with solar panels to sell excess energy to their neighbours.

“This is where the future of our cities is heading,” says Catherine Caruana-McManus, director of Meshed, a Sydney-based Internet of Things (IoT) integration company that provides public and private IoT networks and applications. 

“We’ll see more disruptive business models that will play a big part in shaping the livability of our cities.”

Beyond flying drones and robots: data to better understand cities and residents

While there are many challenges associated with building smart cities, those groups and authorities that harness data to better understand their cities and residents are producing the most successful results.

By 2020, the amount of data stored globally is expected to reach 44 trillion gigabytes. Adding to the volume are the 1.9 billion monthly Facebook users, 2.4 billion people turning on their smartphone every day, and the 40,000 Google search queries processed every second.

Market intelligence organisation International Data Corporation estimates that by 2020 about 30 billion embedded sensors globally will also monitor and manage countless activities in our lives, from catching a bus to watering the garden.

“Data is the new gold,” says Caruana-McManus. “Anyone who doesn’t take advantage of it will struggle to innovate.”

Countries such as Singapore are digging deep. Its government aims to convert all of its 110,000 lamp posts in the city-state into an interconnected network of wireless sensors as part of its Smart Nation Sensor Platform (SNSP).

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Jacqueline Poh, chief executive of Government Technology Agency (GovTech) in Singapore, says SNSP is designed to improve the efficiency of city services, such as environmental and transport management, and enhance public safety. 

“SNSP could enable data from cameras used by one agency for traffic enforcement to be shared with a municipal agency,” she says. 

“This will prevent the need to duplicate resources and ensure efficient data sharing across the whole of government.”

This monitoring throws up questions about security and privacy. However, Adam Beck, executive director of Smart Cities Council Australia and New Zealand, a division of the global organisation that promotes the use of digital technology and intelligent design for cities, says smart cities use technology to improve lives, not control them.

“This year, the city of Washington in the US deployed sensors in their bins in public spaces, so they can record the amount of foraging and determine where the hotspots are for homeless people,” Beck says. “This will allow the city to deploy targeted strategies for assisting them. 

“If you think a smart city is just about flying drones and robots taking your jobs, you’re missing the point,” he adds. “It really relates to fundamental services at a municipal level. To some local authorities, waste management is their biggest budget item, so any potential opportunity to make it more efficient needs to be explored.”

Densely populated problems

Hong Kong is exploring smart initiatives to assess the health of its ageing buildings. Dr Albert Wong, a director at PwC Hong Kong and lead consultant on the Smart City Hong Kong Blueprint, which provides recommendations for long-term planning and development, explains that a high percentage of buildings are more than 40 years old and, as many of them are tall, maintenance is an issue.

Hong Kong’s 40-plus-year-old buildings were constructed before current building standards came in. Before 1973, commercial buildings were not even required to have fire-sprinkler systems. Some of these older buildings pose a serious safety concern; many insurers in Hong Kong will not cover buildings aged 40 years and over, and some banks won’t provide mortgages for them.

“We had an entire building collapse a few years ago,” says Wong. “Government is engaging with academia to investigate whether sensors can be installed or whether drones can be used to monitor building conditions. In the meantime, we’re still using a manual approach.”

“Data is the new gold. Anyone who doesn’t take advantage of it will struggle to innovate.” Catherine Caruana-McManus, Meshed

Wong says data sharing is currently the greatest obstacle in Hong Kong’s transition to a smart city. 

“People are very passionate about their privacy but there is a balance we need to strike around data sharing, improved services and the protection of privacy,” he says.

“Coordination between government departments also needs to be improved. We know that the issues that require a smart response don’t fall squarely into one policy program area. Fortunately, high-level coordination of all smart city work is now being established.”

Wong adds that while cities face common challenges as they grow, smart responses are shaped by the local context. 

“Smart rubbish  bins that compress when they’re full and send a signal for city management to collect them just wouldn’t work in Hong Kong,” he says. 

“We’re a small place with a lot of people and our rubbish bins fill up very quickly. A smarter placement of bins and an optimised route for cleaning and collecting them would be more helpful for Hong Kong.”

Smart tech in smaller cities

In smaller cities such as Adelaide, however, smart rubbish bins look set to be a winner. The city recently piloted a number of Clean Cube bins, which are fitted with a solar-powered compactor that crushes rubbish to increase the capacity of a standard 80-litre bin. 

“It equates to about an 80 per cent reduction in the frequency of rubbish bin collection and there’s no overflowing rubbish,” says Peter Auhl, chief information officer at City of Adelaide.

Streetlights in the city centre have also been fitted with smart technology to help achieve Adelaide’s goal of becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral city. These will monitor energy consumption of streetlights.

“They can measure the ambient light in the atmosphere and turn on to ensure lighting is at a safe level,” explains Auhl. 

“They can also sense when someone is in the street and light up. It’s almost like they are moving with the people.” 

Much of Adelaide’s transformation into an innovation centre is a direct response to the decline in key industries such as manufacturing. 

“We need to position our cities to compete in the global economy and use technology to amplify our economic prospects,” says Auhl. 

The city is investing in its start-up community to develop new technologies. Its Smart City Studio is a new hub where entrepreneurs can develop, test and commercialise IoT applications and services.

“Smart cities are the ones that recognise the basic rights of their citizens and welcome citizen engagement.” Adam Fennessy, EY

Other smart tech projects in Adelaide include the Smart Parking pilot, which enables drivers to locate and pay for on-street parking via a smartphone app, and the Smart Environmental Monitoring project, which deploys sensors to collect data on environmental factors such as carbon dioxide, dust and temperature.

Other Australian cities also look set to benefit from increased investment in smart city programs. An Australian Government Smart Cities and Suburbs Program, announced in November 2017, pointed to 52 projects that will share A$28.5 million in federal funding.

Red tape, however, remains a barrier to progress in Australia. Drone technology, for example, is moving faster than the regulations imposed by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, which does not allow operators to fly unmanned aerial vehicles beyond the line of sight. This helps explain why parcel delivery by drones is languishing at the trial stage in Australia.

Meanwhile in Amsterdam, robot boat prototypes called Roboats began transporting parcels along the city’s canals in 2017. As well as dropping off the mail, the boats monitor water quality as they go and collect data to identify more efficient ways to clear the canals of floating waste. The delivery service gets packages to customers, while the city will benefit from cleaner canals. That’s the sort of win-win situation that smart, sustainable thinking can create. 

“One of the key challenges now is whether the regulatory environment can keep up with changes in technology and business models,” says Caruana-McManus. “What we see in smart cities is government and regulators engaging with disruptive technology. This is how we can build more sustainable cities in the Australian context.”  

The livable cities of the future will be smart cities that harness real-time data made available by technology to meet the unique needs of their inhabitants. In London that’s moving a lot of people quickly, in Christchurch its setting up an earthquake detection system. How a city collects that data will make it smart, but what it does with it will make it clever. 

Rebuilding the smart way

At lunchtime on 22 February 2011, a devastating earthquake hit Christchurch in New Zealand, wreaking havoc on the city centre and ultimately killing 185 people. Now, Christchurch City Council is using smart technology to future-proof its city. 

Teresa McCallum, its Smart Cities program manager, says the city is being rebuilt to include seismic monitoring, and is investigating several earthquake early warning systems. “New Zealand doesn’t legislate to have seismic monitoring in our cities,” she explains. “Part of the role of our Smart Cities program is to test cases for these sorts of things. We want to be a centre of excellence.”

Christchurch City Council is partnering with a number of local businesses, such as Canterbury Seismic Instruments, to develop infrastructure sensors, and Sense3 to develop the Earthquake Response Visualiser, which uses ground acceleration data from sensors to display the force and impact of an earthquake.

The city is also about to launch its SmartView online information hub, which will provide information to residents about water quality, roadworks and real-time updates of bus locations.

“We can only do it with masses of data,” McCallum says. “We need to be able to trial things and roll them out quickly, and this is not the way councils usually work. Technology evolves quickly, so you must adapt and move fast.”

Beyond technology: harnessing people power

Adam Fennessy, partner – advisory, government and public sector at EY in Melbourne, and the company’s Oceania leader for future cities, says smart cities are about more than technological advancements.

“Smart cities are the ones that recognise the basic rights of their citizens and welcome citizen engagement,” he says.

By this measure, cities in Brazil are the lead innovators. The country’s municipal governments can voluntarily adopt a program known as participatory budgeting, which delegates financial decision-making authority directly to citizens. Funding amounts can represent up to 100 per cent of all new capital spending projects. 

A 2014 study published in the World Development Journal showed those municipal governments that adopted participatory budgeting in Brazil spent more on education and sanitation and saw a decrease in infant mortality.

Fennessy also cites examples such as Melbourne, which is convening citizens’ juries to consider issues such as infrastructure spending. 

“It allows for richer discussions and collaborations,” he says. 

“A couple of years ago, the City of Melbourne held a citizens’ jury to make decisions around A$20 million of annual spending. An independent methodology was used to select participants and the process was very successful,” he says. 

“A truly smart city evolves its government for citizens and asks communities how the city can be improved.”

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March 2018
March 2018

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