Smart cities: the key to gridlock

Advances in technology and transportation science are providing the world’s cities with 21st-century infrastructures that allow for the free flow of people in urban spaces. Vision looks at how our cities are becoming smarter and more networked as a result

A number of universities have set up multidisciplinary programmes in recent years for the study of cities. Several companies have also launched smart-cities initiatives. Why have cities become such a hot topic in business and academia? The answer is pretty straightforward: it’s where the people are.

Over the past century, we have gone through a major period of urbanisation that is continuing at an accelerated rate. In 1900, less than 15 per cent of the global population lived in cities. By 1950, the number had gone up to 30 per cent. According to the latest UN estimates, 52 per cent of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. It is expected to rise to 60 per cent by 2030, and go up to nearly 70 per cent by 2050.

We are living in an age of technology acceleration, which has the potential to vastly improve the quality of urban living. A combination of infrastructure integration marks the gateway to the future of urban transport

Ayesha Khanna, Founder and Director, Hybrid Reality Institute

In the 1990s, it was suggested that with our emerging global village people would no longer need to live in cities in order to work, communicate and meet with thousands of others. The internet would enable people to work from anywhere, so they would choose to live in less populated areas where lower costs and more space would allow for a better quality of life.    

But experts such as Carlo Ratti, Director of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab, believe that the opposite is actually the case. New technologies have made it easier for us to live outside cities, but they have also made it easier for us to live in them, and there are compelling reasons for doing so. After observing pedestrians in the streets of New York City for more than 20 years, the eminent sociologist William H Whyte concluded in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces: “What attracts people is first of all other people.”

Better infrastructure

Something must be done to make cities better able to absorb all these people, and provide them with the right infrastructure, jobs, places to live, public safety, education, healthcare and many other services, all the while being aware of the impact that this growing urbanisation will have on the sustainability of the planet.

The concept of smart cities is one of the most innovative ideas for the future of our metropolises. It involves leveraging information and communications technologies to better manage all of a city’s assets: physical, environmental, economic and social. A number of technology companies, such as IBM and Siemens, have smart-cities programmes.
What makes such initiatives possible is that just about anything we care about can be sensed and measured: any person, object, process or service can become digitally aware and networked. We can then make all these elements much more intelligent by turning the information we gather from instrumented components and their interactions into real insights, using sophisticated analysis and powerful supercomputers.

Rio de Janeiro is leading the way in this area. After a torrential storm in 2008 caused flash floods in the city, it became clear to Mayor Eduardo Paes that the city had no predetermined location from which to monitor the situation and oversee a response. A collaboration between IBM and the government of Rio de Janeiro followed, resulting in a highly sophisticated operations centre – the first of its kind in the world – that provides a base from which to manage and coordinate the real-time operations of 30 agencies.

Carlo Ratti also points to the Trash | Track project, where 3,000 items of household waste were tracked with sensors. “The waste system is still unacceptably opaque. Everybody has seen images of unhealthy E-waste recycling in remote villages, or has followed the story of the trash barge Mobro 4000 that went on an unintended Caribbean cruise with large amounts of New York City’s trash. Yet there is a substantive lack of data. Because of this lack, we need to come up with creative ways to collect data, understand its peculiarities, or combine different data sources to get at the phenomena we are interested in.”

Digital management

We typically associate smart-cities projects with the application of technology to transform the quality and efficiency of public infrastructures and services. This includes digital IT infrastructures, such as universal broadband access, but much more. Given our ability to now embed computational power into just about any physical object we want to measure and control, the digital and physical infrastructures of cities are converging. We can now better manage traffic congestion, energy use, public transportation and water distribution.

Ayesha Khanna, Founder and Director of the Hybrid Reality Institute, believes that finding innovative solutions is key to the future of successful urban mobility. “We are living in an age of technology acceleration – a phenomenon that has the potential to vastly improve the quality of urban living. A combination of both soft and hard infrastructure integration – including the internet, solar panels and electric vehicles – marks the gateway to the future of urban transport.”

For Khanna, what future cities need is a clean and efficient system of intermodal transport. Dubai’s new Metro system, for example, has eased congestion throughout the Emirate by moving people away from individual ownership and into shared mobility services. Likewise, Singapore’s intelligent traffic-management systems combined with congestion charging have been extremely effective. Singapore was the first country to introduce an electronic congestion-charging system in 1998. It also led the way with initiatives such as real-time bus-status screens at bus stops and national parking-guidance systems, while its i-transport system is at the cutting edge of predictive traffic-flow modelling, using historic and real-time traffic data.

We have much to learn about cities: how to improve their operations by leveraging technology and engineering; how to best manage them by using all the real-time information at our disposal; and how to best plan for their future by viewing cities as ‘systems of systems’. The challenges are enormous, but so are the opportunities to do something about them.