Smart Cities: What and How

By Lu

November 8, 2016

Cities are growing fast. United Nation forecasted that about two-thirds of the world population would live in cities by 2050. Aided by recent technology advances, some municipal governments started new initiatives to sustain city growth in smart ways.

What is a Smart City

A smart city can be defined as a sustainable and innovative city that uses information and communication technologies and other means to improve the quality of life and efficiency of urban operations and services.

Two notable advances in technologies, Internet of Things (IoT) and Big Data, make it easier to transform traditional cities to smart cities.

The Internet of Things (IoT) uses internet to interconnect physical objects (called Things) of smart cities, including urban structures, buildings, energy systems, vehicles, computers, smartphones, sensors, etc. All the interconnected data can be collected and analyzed on-line by Big Data analytical tools to derive responsive actions. These measures are then sent to the “things”, which are smart enough to execute immediately.

For example, systems are damaged after a storm and many offices and homes are without power. On- line data are collected by sensors and analyzed by tools for the smart systems to initiate repairs, restore power and resume operations to citizens very quickly.

Three phases in implementation

The first phase of smart cities was initiated by technology providers (e.g. Cisco, Siemens, IBM). They began research ten years ago and then introduced digital products, sensors and analytical computer programs for smart cities, Long before the efforts of these providers, telecommunication companies have been installing fiber and wireless networks in big and small cities to enable interconnection of various components of smart cities.

The second phase was driven by municipal governments who decided what and how technologies can best be deployed in their cities to improve operation efficiency and people’s lives. They partnered with technology providers to implement a number of smart city projects.

The third phase and the most important phase is to get citizens participate in these smart city projects. Citizens work together with city governments in efficiency improvement and energy conservation and provide feedback. Furthermore, they can take initiatives to suggest new ideas and provide data on their environments.

Some smart cities might have just started Phase 1 or Phase 2, or they had already involved their citizens in Phase 3. Two US cities described below show how smart cities are implemented.

Smart City: Seattle

Seattle is the pioneer city in Project 2030 Districts. 2030 Districts are public-private partnerships formed by cities throughout North America, and committed to meet specific targets in energy use, water use and vehicle emission reduction by 2030. Besides Seattle, there are 12 cities in US and Canada in this project.

In July 2013, Seattle launched High Performance Building, participated by technology providers, the city and building owners. This is a combined phase 1, 2 and 3 implementation described earlier for a smart city. Data are collected by sensors on building’s heating, cooling and lighting systems and analyzed to identify inefficiency and energy waste. The system settings can then be adjusted to achieve targets and savings.

A RainWatch program was started in 2014 to protect Seattle city from flooding caused by rain storms. It combines radar imagery and rain gauge data gathered from a network of sensors to forecast correctly rainfall in specific locations, so that preventive actions can be taken early.

Smart City: New York

New York City launched a plan in early 2016 to convert old payphone kiosks into new LinkNYC sidewalk kiosks, which have free WiFi and tablets for web browsing. There will be about 7500 kiosks of this kind, interconnected by fibre cables. New York City is funding the sidewalk kiosks entirely through advertising. These kiosks can become smart by equipping with sensors to gather city data, such as air quality, traffic and noise levels.

New York City authority recently initiated a commercial Real Time Energy Management (RTEM) program to install on-line energy and water management systems in commercial buildings to achieve more efficient operation and energy and water savings. Eligible building owners and management companies are encouraged to apply for participation.

A long term goal

The two smart cities in US showed how technology providers, city officials and consumers cooperated to work together for the benefits of higher efficiency and better living.

Experience in similar smart city projects in US and the rest of the world showed that substantial funding was vital to make these projects work.

It will take a long time to convert traditional cities into smart cities, because of the wide scope of works and high level of investment and citizen participation.