Creating cleaner, greener and smarter cities

A new initiative to bring together users of smart technologies and big data to create cleaner, greener cities has been launched by the Environmental Industries Commission. Sam Ibbott reports.

Cities around the globe exist in a state of perpetual flux, constantly evolving and growing exponentially. Over 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities (75% within the EU), with the newer category of ‘megacity’ being created for the world’s largest urban metropolises. Such is their magnetism and political and economic influence, some say that future geopolitics will be conducted between these megacities directly, with traditional nation states being relegated to support acts. 

But despite this constant change, the basic needs of a city, and the underlying environmental challenges faced by city governments, remain constant: the need to tackle air pollution; manage energy demand; abate carbon emissions; collect and recycle waste; and provide clean, accessible water. Cities may well be magnets for the ‘new’, but these are old issues – and ones which become more acute as populations and densities grow. 

As it has always done however, hope lies in technological innovation to provide us with new ways of dealing with old challenges – unlocking new approaches and new solutions, and ultimately improving our quality of life in ways not previously possible. 

At the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC), we have been looking at this very issue. Can the latest smart technologies, the use of real-time remote sensoring, the analysis of newly-available big data and the rollout of the ‘Internet of Things’, open up new, more effective and more (cost) efficient solutions to entrenched environmental challenges? 

Our research suggests so, but the growth of the nascent market which supports this innovation is not growing without challenge. One of the more major barriers our work has highlighted is the lack of hard evidence that these smart solutions work at a city-wide scale. We hear lots of ‘coulds’ and ‘shoulds’, but fewer ‘hads’ and ‘wills’. Just because an innovative technology works in laboratory conditions, does not mean automatically it will work across an entire city with a vastly increased number of variables. And this is a problem. 

Cities, particularly in the UK, remain in an age of austerity. Money is scarce, and it is a gamble to invest potentially significant sums in untested technologies which may or may not work. This leads to a chicken and egg situation: with city authorities hesitant to unlock investment without hard evidence, but with hard evidence not being created until a technology has been tested at that scale.  

EIC established a taskforce consisting of city and central government representatives, technology manufacturers, consultants, universities and NGOs to look at how this problem could be solved in a pragmatic way. It was argued that a central industry repository to promote case studies, share best practice, and better match the cities facing these environmental challenges with cost-effective smart solutions would be beneficial – and so this is what we have done. 

Later this month we will launch a new online platform, www.SustainableSmartCities.org. This free-to-access website will provide an industry-led resource to provide a central focal point for all stakeholders involved in the use of smart technologies and big data to create cleaner, greener, and more sustainable city environments. 

The site will be used as the foundation from which to promote the accelerated growth of this industry through a series of targeted activities, including:

  • The provision of a platform for sharing international case studies and best practice to underpin investment decision making.
  • Connecting people and encouraging collaboration by acting as a neutral broker between parties, through networking events, roundtables and seminars; and operating as the nexus between technology, cities, policy makers and academia.  
  • Providing thought leadership, market intelligence and investment insight through in-depth policy reports, briefings and blogposts by leading industry stakeholders.
  • Proactively lobbying governments and policy makers at both city and national levels for a regulatory framework to support and encourage innovation.

A launch event for this new initiative is being held in central London on 25 May 2017, bringing together the wide range of stakeholders necessary to make this market work. To attend or to get involved in the taskforce which will continue to guide this work please contact me at sam.ibbott@eic-uk.co.uk   

Sam Ibbott is head of smart cities at the Environmental Industries Commission, a UK-based trade association for the environmental technologies and services sector.