Smart Cities: 9 Tech Trends That Will Transform Urban Living
2020 will go down as a watershed year in the development of smart cities. Not because of any big tech breakthrough, but because the global Covid-19 disaster forced us to examine the way we look at urban spaces.
We saw haunting images of empty streets from New York to Sydney, from Rome to Beijing. As the world reopened, we saw offices, restaurants, and public transport find innovative solutions to social distancing.
The new normal may take years to emerge. Now is the time for us to ask: should cities go back to the way they were?
Or can we create something better?
What are Smart Cities?
The National Institute for Research in Digital Science and Technology (INRIA) offers a unified definition of the term.
How we define “Smart”
For something to be considered Smart, it needs four elements:
- Structure:First, you need a digital infrastructure. This means fast communications and powerful analytics platforms. You also need skilled people who can bring everything together.
- Input:Smart structures need a constant flow of incoming data. This can come from Internet of Things (IoT) devices, from mobile apps downloaded by citizens, from production databases, or any other data-generating system.
- Function:Smart structures have to do something with data. They might add it to a database, initiate a process, or send a message to someone.
- Focus:All data relates to a specific part of the system. In a city, this focus could be transport, infrastructure, security, or the environment. Smart technology could also focus on the cultural or political life of the city.
Definition of “city”
Defining a smart factory is easy because a factory has a defined purpose, as well as measurable inputs and outputs. But what is the function of a city? What are its outputs? In other words, what are the metrics of success when planning a smart city?
There are two things to consider here: stakeholders and outcomes.
Stakeholders include people like:
- Citizens:People who live within the city and rely on local services such as education and healthcare. A group of citizens is a community, which requires things like safe public spaces.
- Professionals:People who work within the city and depend on local services like transport and hospitality. A group of professionals works together as a business, which requires things like communications technology and efficient energy.
- Government and institutions:Non-commercial bodies that deliver key services to communities and businesses.
Stakeholders don’t really care about smart technology. They care about outcomes, such as:
- Sustainability:Cities should have low levels of local pollution. They should also contribute to the global green effort.
- Quality of life:Citizens and professionals alike want their city to be clean and safe. They also want quality-of-life-enhancing amenities, like car parking and green spaces.
- Equity:Everyone in the city should have access to services and amenities.
- Liveability:The city should facilitate long-term living. This means efficient zoning, plus access to core amenities like healthcare and education.
- Resilience:The city infrastructure must be able to withstand disaster. It should also help everyone to recover with minimal disruption.
In summary, a smart city uses technology and data to provide desirable outcomes for the people who live and work there.
9 Tech Trends That Will Shape Smart Cities
We know the goals. Now, let’s take a look at the technologies that will enable smart cities to thrive.
1. 5G will be the foundation of smart cities
We already have much of the technology we need to build smart cities, but we’re missing the right communications infrastructure to tie everything together. That’s all about to change with the global launch of the fifth-generation mobile network, 5G.
The first thing you’ll notice about 5G is that it’s much faster. While 4G LTE networks max out at 1Gbps, 5G can deliver speeds of 20Gbps. This makes a huge difference to high-volume data streaming on mobile networks, which will transform remote work and e-learning for many.
But 5G is more than just the same, but faster. This new data infrastructure also offers:
5G can handle more individual connections than 4G, allowing millions of IoT devices within a city to connect concurrently.
High reliability and low latency:
5G creates a reliable real-time data flow between devices. This is essential when you need a stable connection, such as when operating an autonomous vehicle.
Ultra–low power consumption:
Connecting to 5G doesn’t eat battery, which is essential for IoT devices with small power cells.
5G allows for intelligent switching between indoor and outdoor connection without the need for reauthentication. This means that every device can optimize the available connection, whether that’s WiFi or 5G mobile internet.
5G is a foundational technology for smart cities. With a next-gen data network, all devices can talk to each other in real-time, whether they’re stationary (such as an energy-efficient smart lamppost), moving (like a drone or self-driving car), or carried in your pocket (a mobile app that serves you local information).
2. IoT will be in everything
Internet of Things technology is already in use in cities across the world. San Diego replaced their streetlights as far back as 2012 with smart dimmers that reduce brightness when there are no cars or people nearby. The result? Almost $2 million saved annually.
IoT devices are generally limited-purpose, either gathering data (such as a smart thermometer collecting temperatures) or performing a single function (like adjusting the brightness of a street lamp).
Thanks to 5G, you can now place an almost unlimited number of IoT devices anywhere you want. A paper by Intel imagines the streetlamp of the future, stuffed with IoT devices, such as:
- Light-sensing photocells to modulate brightness
- Motion detectors to sense oncoming pedestrians and traffic
- Camera for security and monitoring
- Sound sensor to detect unusual sounds, such as gunshots or car crashes
- Digital signage for public notices and advertising
- Wireless transmitter for sending data to a centralized location
This futuristic streetlight is optimized for energy efficiency, saving the city a substantial amount of money. Data from the streetlight is also useful – traffic data can help with planning, for example. Monitoring devices can be used for crime prevention, as well as monitoring minor violations such as parking and littering offenses.
It’s not just the humble streetlight, either. IoT devices can fit in traffic signals, street signs, kiosks, advertising hoardings, and any other city fixtures.
3. Autonomous vehicles will take to the road
The self-driving car is a little behind schedule, with companies like Tesla and Uber having failed to meet their promises of fleets of autonomous vehicles on the road by 2020. Public transport may be a more viable option, with Qatar and Volkswagen aiming to have an autonomous bus network in place for the 2022 World Cup.
But, if you’ve been to SoCal recently, you may have another kind of autonomous vehicle on the streets: delivery droids. Amazon tested a fleet of robot courier droids in 2019, and the results were positive enough to consider a national rollout. FedEx is also exploring these autonomous delivery vehicles, while Amazon may take to the sky with delivery drones.
Autonomous vehicles are dependent on two main branches of technology: communications and Artificial Intelligence. As we’ve seen, 5G can offer the kind of always-on connectivity required by an autonomous vehicle. However, AI still has some ways to go before it can safely respond to road driving’s myriad challenges.
So, in the next few years, autonomous vehicles may focus on safe options, such as lightweight delivery droids or fixed-route public transport.
4. Mobility as a Service will help you get from A to B
We often talk about public transport as if it were a unified thing. The truth is that most cities operate on a barely connected network of competing systems. Locals and visitors alike struggle with journey-planning, payment systems, and the final leg is often a challenge. It’s often easier to just jump in a taxi or hire a private car.
Mobility-as-a-Service is a technological solution to this issue. It begins by taking a step back and realizing that every journey starts with one question: what’s the easiest way to get from A to B? If public transport is the answer, then people will rely on public solutions.
MaaS is currently under trial in Helsinki, with the goal of eliminating private car ownership by 2025. From a citizen’s point of view, it’s remarkably simple. You open up the MaaS app, give it your starting point and your destination, and the app plots a route for you.
This route includes all available public transport options, such as bus and rail. It also provides bikeshare, rideshare, and taxi options. Some of these services are integrated into the payment system, so you can pay a single fare for the entire journey, with frictionless ticketing between stages. IoT with 5G means that it’s easier to track vehicles, so users have access to precise bus and train timetables, as well as bikeshare and rideshare availability.
We’ve already seen the explosion in ridesharing across the world thanks to companies Uber and Lyft. According to 86% of users, the main benefit is that they save time and stress. If public transport options can become equally hassle-free, we may see a soaring uptick of public options in smart cities.
5. Greater inclusion through smart services
Cities don’t work for everyone. Citizens and professionals alike can find themselves excluded from urban living in several ways. They might be economically excluded from the city’s luxuries, politically excluded from decision-making, or spatially excluded due to the city’s physical structure.
Smart cities can address all of the main causes of urban exclusion. Already, we see examples of how this has been applied around the world:
The Virtual Warsaw project has created a network of beacon sensors around the Polish capital. These beacons can transmit via Bluetooth to a smartphone, helping visually impaired people navigate the city.
In Kolkatta, geolocation technology helped create a postal address system in temporary housing areas. This allowed the city’s poorest residents to register with government agencies and receive official documents.
In LA county, the local authority created a digital portal where citizens can raise concerns about vulnerable homeless people. Through data analytics and GIS mapping, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) has been able to identify clusters of homelessness across the county. The LAHSA Outreach program connects with these individuals and matches them with services that can help.
Of course, technology doesn’t guarantee that cities will become more equitable over time. Technology can just as easily drive inequality. Some cities may choose to only invest in the wealthiest areas, which helps those neighborhoods grow even further. Less-developed areas could then fall even further behind.
6. Urban analytics will create people-friendly cities
Data analytics has led to a revolution in enterprise. It’s not just about streamlining and efficiency – businesses can use analytics to figure out what they’re not doing for their customers. This insight has opened up new products, new markets, and even new industries.
Urban analytics can do the same thing for cities. The data we gather from smartphones and IoT devices can tell us things we otherwise might not know, like:
- How does traffic impact access to urgent healthcare?
- Are there any locales with 5G/WiFi blackspots?
- Which areas are most vulnerable in the event of a disaster?
- Does each locale have adequate parking allocations?
- How do essential works impact local businesses?
- Are there cluster patterns in issues such as crime, littering, parking violations, or complaints about public services?
From a structural point of view, urban analytics works in the same way as commercial data analytics. Data scientists work with a centralized pool of data, which is gathered from all available sources: IoT devices, smartphone data, and local databases. The scientists use machine learning and statistical techniques to find data patterns that are invisible to the naked eye.
The difference in urban analytics is the focus on outcomes. Urban analytics experts are focused on finding data insights that will help deliver one of the key smart city objectives: sustainability, quality of life, equity, liveability, and resilience.
Data insights can be descriptive, telling you what has happened in the past, or predictive, telling what may happen in the future. But analytics can’t set policy. If urban analytics is to be effective, it must have the support of a creative, engaged city authority that can take action on data insights.
7. Your city will be twinned with a digital version of itself
Digital twinning has saved billions of dollars in manufacturing and aeronautics. The concept is simple: instead of testing something on a real factory or rocket, you create a computer simulation of those assets. If the simulation is realistic enough, you can run through all kinds of scenarios and get a realistic idea of the outcomes.
Building a digital twin of a city is a much bigger challenge. There are endless variables, from people to traffic to the weather, each adding exponentially to the model’s complexity.
Still, this hasn’t prevented cities from trying. Singapore, a leader in the smart city revolution, has invested millions in a Virtual Singapore project. Their goal is to create “the authoritative 3D digital platform intended for use by the public, private, people and research sectors.” Similar models are underway in Boston, Glasgow, Jaipur, and Helsinki, while India plans to create an entirely new city based on a digital model.
Digital twins rely on two key technologies. First, they need as much data as possible, which can come from IoT devices as well as other available sources. Next, they require sophisticated AI that can game the various scenarios and produce a detailed outcome. Most digital twin platforms include Virtual Reality (VR) functionality so users can look inside the virtual city.
The benefits of digital twinning are enormous. City planners can simulate everything in advance, allowing them to see how new buildings would look, or estimate the effect roadworks will have on traffic. Digital twins can also help work out the likely effects of natural disasters like fire, flood, and earthquakes. Using this information, planners can take preventative steps now, and hopefully save lives in the future.
8. AR will reshape public spaces
Augmented Reality has already impacted public spaces, with the rise of AR games like Pokémon Go and Ingress. With the help of a smartphone, these games transform ordinary city streets into exciting digital playgrounds. The 5G revolution means that the next generation of AR applications will be faster, richer, and more diverse.
This means that cities will have a new dimension: the digital space. This new aspect of cities will change the way that people interact with public spaces.
Communication is one of the biggest challenges in city planning. Right now, we’re generally forced to fill public spaces with large, intrusive signs with both civic information and advertising. When this communication moves to AR devices, planners can start to reclaim that space for more aesthetically pleasing purposes.
For example, many urban bus stops have expensive digital signs that display the next service’s expected arrival time. These could all be replaced with simple AR markers. Service users simply need to point their phone at the marker, and they will see a fully detailed timetable with precise arrival times. If they’re tourists, they could view this sign in their native language, and then follow a link for ticketing information.
As cities become smarter, AR will become more responsive. User devices will be able to interact with IoT devices, which will create a personalized, localized experience. For the user, this means accurate information, bespoke offers, and a richer cultural experience. AR can also help to distribute important information, such as emergency information during a disaster.
9. Cyber threats will force a citywide resilience strategy
As cities get smarter, they also become more vulnerable to hackers. Each IoT device is a potential attack vector; each database a lucrative prize. In the last decade, we saw American cities under siege, with Baltimore, Atlanta and New Orleans all having suffered major cyberattacks. In this decade, the threat will worsen.
The only way smart cities can withstand this threat is to take a unified, city-wide approach. That involves the following crucial steps:
Take a security-first approach:
The first question should always be, “Is this secure?” No upgrade or technology is worth the hassle of data loss or ransomware attacks.
Integrate security policy:
Local governments will need a dedicated security team to set policy for the entire city. A unified approach will make the city stronger.
Educate, educate, educate:
People are always the weakest link in any security framework. The city will have to offer security education to everyone, including employees, contractors, and citizens who use digital services.
Regulate data access:
Many cyberattacks turn out to be inside jobs. Every organization needs a clear data access policy that ensures that only authorized personnel can use sensitive systems. Ideally, the city should log all activity so that malicious actions can be traced back to the culprit.
Keep technology updated:
This might be one of the biggest obstacles to a secure smart city. In a budgetary crisis, cities may be forced to cut back on digital maintenance work, such as installing updates or replacing obsolete devices. But these updates are often essential for patching security vulnerabilities, and a delay to the updates may create risk.
Digital security costs money, and cities always have to make tough budget decisions. But when you consider that Atlanta’s cyberattack cost the city $2.7 million, you see that cybersecurity is not something you can skimp on.
Beyond Smart Cities
How will technology shape the cities of the future?
The truth is: we don’t know. No one guessed that the mass-produced automobile would lead to a boom in suburban living. Equally, no one guessed that the rise of smartphones and 4G would lead to apps like Uber and Lyft that completely changed the way we get around cities.
In all of those cases, new technology interacted with a deep human need. Suburbia arose because people wanted to work in cities while living in a wide space. Uber and Lyft arose because people wanted a fast, cheap personal transport option.
What will happen when today’s urban dwellers have access to 5G, IoT and AR? It’s impossible to say. But with good planning and equitable distribution, smart cities could be great places to live and work for everyone.