How can smart cities solve structural and societal issues?

Turley sustainability director Barny Evans outlines how smart cities could solve structural and societal issues.

Barny Evans, director of sustainability at planning and development consultancy Turley.

The world’s population is expected to reach heights of 9.7 billion people by 2050, with 68% living in urban areas. This urbanisation faces a challenge, particularly in the developed world; people need to live in and travel to cities less as they can work from home and shop online. Technology and data can enable cities to provide a quality of life, efficiency and convenience that will reinvigorate their attraction.

The concept of smart cities and the use of technology and data to inform decisions, improve community, productivity and people’s happiness often evokes images of movie-like utopian societies, but the reality is closer than we think. 91% of the world population now has access to a smart phone, putting smart technology directly into citizens’ hands and making the possibility of smart cities being connected through one huge user interface an immediate reality. 

McKinsey Global Institute discovered cities who adopt smart technologies could shave 15-30 minutes off daily commutes, save up to 300 lives a year in cities with a population of 5 million and reduce crime by 30-40%, all whilst speeding up emergency services and making healthcare more accessible. The most advanced smart cities as of today are in Singapore, Amsterdam, Stockholm, and New York, however even these cities are only 2/3 of the way to what would be considered a ‘fully comprehensive technology base’.

Climate change is the major driver for the adoption of Internet of Things (IoT) in our cities, and we are seeing great examples of city planners making considerable strides to reduce emissions. For instance, Beijing successfully reduced airborne pollutants by around 20% in less than a year by tracking sources of pollution through technology and regulating traffic and construction accordingly. 

As a result of climate change, city planners are increasingly working to tackle overheating in traditionally cooler cities as a result of global warming, with better utilisation of data and technology becoming an increasingly popular solution.

For example, many cities now require increased biodiversity with green roofs, to help cool urban areas. Others have advocated for passive cooling building design and lighter-coloured material usage to reflect more sunlight and trap less heat. The new Madrid Nuevo Norte district is employing a combination of green spaces and trees, building layout and shapes to enhance ventilation, with the aim of making the climate bearable during hot summers. 

As cities decarbonise and electrify there is a smart revolution going on around how to manage the increased electrical demand with more energy coming from intermittent solar, wind, and inflexible nuclear power. Better control systems and evolving algorithms can help balance this energy system by increasing and reducing demand, such as from cooling systems and electric vehicle charging. 

Even now, within most cities there is huge energy storage capacity in the form of hot water tanks and electric vehicles that support energy flexibility. Batteries charged up when there is lots of power can supply energy when needed. As well as supporting the transition to net zero carbon, it reduces the cost of electrical networks and the need to make major upgrades, supporting cities to keep moving. The changes here are as much regulatory as they are technological.

Creating smart cities doesn’t come without its challenges. It is inherently dependent on stronger connection between devices across cities. Constant connection, however, means a higher risk of hacking and privacy breaches. There are already increasing concerns about data being mined and sold to third-party groups and companies, with citizens being apprehensive over private companies that fund these ‘smart cities’ projects. 

We see this when attempting to employ smart energy management systems on residential developments. Strong anonymisation and allowing individuals to share data and controls for mutual benefit is the way forward.

Despite the challenges, there is no denying that implementation of heightened data and digital technology can shed light on the best-performing solutions to pressing issues such as pollution and health, saving lives and reducing negative consequences of densely populated urban living. 

However, they can only be mutually beneficial to citizens and systems if they are designed to be transparent, unbiased, and progressive. 

Cities are in a moment of crisis. These technologies and approaches have their risks; privacy, equality of opportunity, and an increased sense of human disconnection from each other and where we live. These can be managed and even reversed. Used well they can make cities attractive again and enhance our productivity. City authorities must work with technology and utility providers to trial and implement them.

Barny Evans is director of sustainability at planning and development consultancy Turley.

If you would like to contact Rob O’Connor about this, or any other story, please email roconnor@infrastructure-intelligence.com.