Making cities smarter with technology

By Stuart Sumner
22 Feb 2011 View Comments
Guangzhou in China

Populations in cities across the world, and in the UK especially, are growing. London is currently home to more than 7.5 million people, and that figure is expected to grow by more than a million by 2029, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Unsurprisingly, this growth further burdens municipal infrastructures, which are already creaking with over-use and under-investment. So how do we arrest the decline, especially in these austere times?

Further reading

Perhaps one answer is to make them work smarter. There are estimated to be one billion transistors in existence for every person on the planet. Many of these exist in smart sensors, which infest every aspect of the modern city’s infrastructure.

That’s an awful lot of information gathering, but what use is it?

Defining his company’s “Smarter Planet” campaign, John Bentley, partner at IBM, said: “We can bring that information together to get a real-time picture of the way things are working, and make more intelligent decisions about the way that we optimise our infrastructure.”

But before we can work out how valuable a smart city is, we must first determine what it is.

“A smart city is the integration of many services and departments. It integrates commodities such as electricity, water, gas and waste as well as security and emergency infrastructure and transport,” said Bastian Fischer, vice president and general manager of the utilities global business unit at Oracle.

The objective of a smart city is not just to optimise the city’s processes, but to
help service the citizen. It is also about getting transparency on the municipal and city resources.

But besides millions of smart sensors and meters, what is needed to make all this work?

“From a technical perspective, you can use applications that are available off the shelf today. For example, ERP [enterprise resource planning] and financial systems to manage the city’s resources and internal operational processes. On the utility side we have network management applications to manage energy, gas and water networks to ensure efficient use. This needs to integrate with intermittent renewable energy, which is much more difficult to forecast, predict and integrate into a network that was originally not designed to manage energy of this sort.”

With so many sensors gathering information, data volume and scaling becomes a further problem.

“Every city captures this information, but what’s new with smart cities is that most of it is integrated and consolidated – it converges on one control centre. The areas that produce the most data are not the traditional disciplines such as tax, or municipal registration, because these are familiar areas that we have been dealing with for years. The problem area that produces lots of new data is the energy smart grid and the telecom infrastructure.”

On the smart energy grid, sensors in the network collect data every 15 minutes or so for all customers. Non-smart grids collect monthly readings. And zooming out to the macro level and the network backbone, values are taken every minute. This creates massive data volumes.

Fortunately, firms such as Oracle, IBM and SAP are used to designing applications to deal with huge data volumes in the field of business intelligence and analytics.

“It requires proper architecture,” Fischer said. “It requires clear application architecture, data architecture and infrastructure architecture to ensure responsiveness and timely performance.”

Smart cities are being developed in Dubai, with the Dubai Internet City (which is actually more of a business park), and Kochi in India, which is currently in the planning stage. Guangzhou in China has also seen huge recent investment, with the intention to turn the city smart by 2013.

But why aren’t we seeing this in Europe?

“We have no greenfield cities in western Europe,” said Fischer. “We have existing cities and existing infrastructures, existing legislation and existing habits.”

These habits include a propensity to be extremely wary of the capture of our personal data by government bodies, especially on such a large scale. One example of the UK public's fear of all things remotely Orwellian is the recent death of the government’s ID cards plan.

But we do have smart city initiatives in the UK.

“London is integrating and optimising the collaboration between the energy utilities and transport programmes to limit emissions, to be more sustainable and to incentivise citizens to change their behaviour,” Fischer said.

He explained that, for example, some cities – London included – have implemented charging infrastructures aimed at encouraging electric vehicles and hybrids. Road congestion road pricing and tax breaks are added incentives. Pricing can also be used to drive people to adjust their energy consumption to utilise more green energy – to consume more when there is lots of wind or sun.

“For that we need smart meters and the smart grid to notify customers about when to consume,” concludes Fischer.

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