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The rise of the smart city

Wed Apr 04 04:00:00 EDT 2018

The Internet of Things

In 1999, the future interaction of humans and computers was envisioned in two very different ways. On cinema screens, The Matrix depicted a dark future in which intelligent computers grow human beings in huge farms to power their infrastructure, keeping them ‘plugged in’ to an imaginary world. Meanwhile, in real life, Kevin Ashton, then assistant brand manager at Procter & Gamble, unwittingly coined the term ‘The Internet of Things’ (IoT) on a slide in a PowerPoint presentation. Instead of computers using humans to power their world, IoT would see humans equip everyday objects with electronics, sensors and software, then network them through the internet.

In the early-2000s, the first applications of IoT were small-scale and mostly confined to the concept of ‘smart homes’. People were excited at the prospect of connecting TVs, lighting, alarms and heating through their home network. Smart homes, therefore, promised to give home automation an intelligence upgrade.

Today, the potential for IoT is exponentially greater thanks to the flourishing of smart devices and the spread of wireless internet. Instead of being restricted to the home, connected devices are built into roads, transport networks, commercial buildings, energy-monitoring platforms, waste-management systems and more. Smart homes are still a thing, but now they’re just one part of a larger ecosystem of connected things: a smart city.

The power of a connected city

The concept that powers a connected city is giving computers sensors to collect their own information about the world, instead of inputting information into computers through keyboards and other devices, as we have for decades. Then, through machine learning, systems automatically improve their performance on specific tasks. The goals of these tasks can be set by researchers, city officials, or even proposed by the public, as they are in Amsterdam, which is now one of the most data-driven cities in the world.

The Amsterdam Smart City Initiative started in 2009 and has since produced more than 80 projects, including saving energy through smart lamp posts that adjust to the weather, reducing pollution with a fleet of autonomous boats, and using thousands of city-wide sensors to optimise traffic flow and parking efficiency. Elsewhere in the world, hundreds of other projects are exploring the possibilities of a digitised city. Some are more experimental, like AT&T’s connected drones, which autonomously fly to the scene of an accident to collect information for first responders. Others are fully operational and are now part of our daily experience, such as real-time parking occupancy displays.

The future of parking

In Santander, Spain, four hundred sensors across the city register whether parking spaces are free or occupied and wirelessly send the information to the cloud before directing drivers to the next available space using connected lighting systems. In Patras, Greece’s third-largest city, a similar sensor-based system has been used to make on-street parking more efficient. It interacts with drivers directly, notifying them of available spaces through an app.

In the UK, councils in Coventry and London have also introduced real-time parking availability information to reduce wait times, congestion and pollution. AppyParking, in partnership with Westminster Council and the Department for Transport, has launched One Click Parking – the world’s first frictionless pay-as-you-park connected car solution, which only charges for the number of minutes the space is in use and aims to reduce the average waiting time to park from 20 minutes to just 30 seconds.

Safer cities for drivers and pedestrians

As well as improving how vehicles move through a city, data-driven insights can also make environments safer for people on foot. In San Diego, cameras fitted to streetlights monitor pedestrian traffic and reroute cars during peak hours to prevent accidents.

The speed at which remote sensors can respond to problems is one of the major benefits. For example, at intersections in Las Vegas, if a pedestrian crossing at the wrong time is detected, lights automatically change from green to red to stop oncoming cars.

In U.S. cities where crime can be as dangerous as traffic accidents, a gunshot detection system called ShotSpotter uses strategically placed microphones to listen for gunfire and alert police in real time via dots on maps and alerts sent to apps on their phones. The technology is live in more than 90 American cities.

Frictionless payments

As well as making life in connected cities safer, the Internet of Things promises to make the experience of interacting with our environment and each other more seamless. One of the most significant ways it’s already doing this is through contactless payments. On average, a contactless transaction is 15 seconds faster than using cash, which when multiplied across millions of purchases in a single day within a large city equates to thousands of hours saved.

The benefit of swapping cash for contactless has been seen in London, where buses stopped using cash in 2014. It resulted in an immediate annual saving of £24 million, and a planned overall saving of £130 million by 2023. Barclaycard data shows that passenger railways have seen the largest spike in mobile and wearable payments over the last 12 months (235 percent), followed by car parks (132 percent).

Even smarter cities?

By 2050, 66% of the world’s population is predicted to be living in urban areas, up from 30% in 1950. This means solutions for streamlining city living will be increasingly important, from keeping traffic moving with sensors and saving energy through smart grids, to frictionless payments at all points of sale.

So far, cities across the world have been retrofitting smart solutions to fix problems and find new opportunities. The next challenge is how to make a city smart from day one. Bill Gates and his investment firm have put $80 million into building a smart city in the Arizona desert from scratch, which will be based on high-speed digital networks and autonomous logistics and vehicles. Also $8 billion has been allocated to making Dubai a leading smart city by 2021.

Today, Chicago, London, New York, San Francisco and Singapore are the world’s leading cities integrating IoT technology, according to a recent report by Juniper Research. It estimated that, if cities across the world universally adopt smart-city services, the average citizen will save three working weeks of their time every year, thanks to increased mobility, healthcare and productivity.