This morning as I pulled up outside the co-working space where I hotdesk and locked the helmet back in the smart bike I had just ridden across the city, I thought: “This is kind of futuristic, eh? Is this what a smart city is, a place where I can watch my food order being delivered on an app, know to the second when my bus or train will arrive or book a yoga class with three minutes’ notice wherever I happen to find myself with a spare 60 minutes and a need to disconnect?”
Besides the irony of the latter, all the above examples are the front-facing elements of the far greater machinations of the smart city zeitgeist. The World Health Organization identifies that even in less developed countries, half the world’s people live in cities. And, every week, two million more move in. “What defines a smart city is essentially the leverage of technology to create better urban experiences for people,” says Steve Bushby, a smart cities consultant with UrbanBio, which has offices in Sydney and Christchurch. “A smart city’s greatest attribute is not its technology but its ability to bring people together, to facilitate the sharing of ideas, culture and commerce.”
The catchcry of smart cities advocates is “liveability, workability and sustainability” – the melding of the three being facilitated by digital transformation. Dr Jonathan Reichental, the chief information officer of the city of Palo Alto (the centre of Silicon Valley), travels the world speaking about and investigating smart cities. So, what is the key asset we require to build smart cities? “An engaged community,” says Reichental. “We have significant challenges in our cities – transportation options, the impact our cities are having on climate change, energy and energy solutions, health, public safety. So, if we bring together massive city problems – and these are tough ones – all of these things are going to benefit from an improved and innovative technology. If you kind of mash that together you really have the beginning of a definition of a future in which cities operate better; they create a better quality of life.”
THE INTERNET OF ALL THE THINGS
Sensor laden, data driven and internet connected – that’s the future of every space and service. Smart cities use Internet of Things (IoT) devices such as connected lights and meters to collect and analyse data. If every streetlight also included air quality detectors, asthma sufferers could tap into useful information about the areas they live or work in rather than taking an antihistamine because the morning news says there’s a high pollen count in the city. As trivial as it sounds, if many of our mundane tasks could be automated, would we be free to do more of what we love? Rather than running down to the shops for milk, we could possibly fit in a yoga class if we knew that our fridge had already ordered online when the bottle was emptied that morning.
The big picture is big data, which is not to mean we are being watched necessarily. With sensors in, for example, every water and electricity meter, and this information being fed into a database, there is essential information about how the city works that can be used to make systems more efficient. There is a push to make this data openly available. Anyone can access open data from the government (data.gov.au, data.govt.nz), which means anyone can contribute and innovate. “The value of data is intrinsically linked to the value we place in each other,” says Kevin Keith, strategy director of GovHack, which is an example of how people in Australia and New Zealand are using this data to solve problems. It is an annual hackathon competition where participants create software applications using open data. “GovHack expands the definition of us and shrinks the definition of them. Government alongside community alongside enterprise, strengthens democracy and solves challenges through the knowledge and creativity of the many, for the many.”
FROM CARPARKS TO PUBLIC SPACES
Can you visualise your street with no parked cars, or the parking levels of your office building or shopping mall completely empty? Automated vehicles are coming within our lifetimes. When this happens, traffic signals will communicate with vehicles and cars will only stop to pick up passengers. Consider this: you only use your car five per cent of the time. Vast areas of urban land currently occupied by parking lots – potentially half of the area of cities – will be up for grabs.
“We can expect multi-storey carparks to be transformed into community spaces, on-street parking becoming a walk or cycle lane and home garages being used as green space or extra living areas instead,” says Rita Excell, executive director of the Australia and New Zealand Driverless Vehicle Initiative.
Shaking your head? It’s not so farfetched – Ohmio Automation launched its driverless shuttles in Christchurch in September. Okay, it will be a while before they’re on the roads, but expect to be driverless in the medium-term at airports and on campuses.
Desks, bikes, cars, houses. When Airbnb was founded in 2008, the idea having a stranger or two come sleep in the spare room, use coffee maker and meet the kids seemed ridiculous. Now sharing the house for a weekend or more is routine. The concept extends to cars too – either with us as surrogate designated drivers (Uber) or a generous sibling (Car Next Door). The biggest factor in the equation – trust – has been enabled by technology building in accountability
The sharing economy can be confined to peer-to-peer activity, but more and more we’re seeing fleet ownership enabling short-term access to everything from cars to bicycles (those yellow and red bikes propagating on most city street corners as well as in a few waterways, unfortunately) to umbrella-sharing (an umbrella rental start-up has launched trials in major Chinese cities. “Cars are an underutilised asset and therefore prime for the sharing economy. Potentially we may not own our cars, allowing us to upgrade or downgrade depending on the journey,” says Bushby. “And it will be so much more convenient when the car you are renting is capable of coming to you.” Elon Musk has announced that every new Tesla comes with all the hardware needed for fully autonomous driving.
The future of autonomous vehicles could see fleets put on the road by the likes of Google, or our personal Tesla out and about making money until it’s time to pick us up at the end of the work day. These scenarios could coexist – pending implementation of the road management infrastructure required. In the meantime, I’m heading to a hackathon to build a peer-to-peer umbrella-rental app.
SMART CITIES FROM SCRATCH
“Retrofitting a smart city is like changing the wings on a plane while it’s flying,” says Dr Jonathan Reichental, CIO of Palo Alto. It’s far more straightforward for a new city to be built smart from the start. Here are four locations doing just that:
Peña Station NEXT, Denver, Colorado, US
This community is a technological testing ground for Panasonic. It already features air monitoring devices, high-density wi-fi and an autonomous (driverless) shuttle bus. Connected lights instantly notify the maintenance department when a light is out, but this rarely happens due to them being energy-efficient LED. These smart lights can flash or turn into a guiding light for people in emergencies.
Songdo, South Korea
Songdo international business district is being built from scratch on 600 hectares of reclaimed waterfront 65 kilometres south-west of Seoul. As an example, its futuristic waste management service sucks rubbish directly from kitchens to a processing centre, where it is then used to produce renewable energy. The city has been planned around a central park, and designed so that every resident can walk to work in the business district.
Dubai South, United Arab Emirates
The 145 sq/km master-planned city will be home to Al Maktoum International Airport, the world’s largest, in preparation for the World Expo 2020. The city has brought tech company Huawei on board to create an IoT ecosystem, especially based around security and identification.
Sidewalk Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Google has signed on to reinvent Toronto’s waterfront area as Sidewalk Toronto, where private cars will be banned and only autonomous vehicles allowed, freight robots will use underground tunnels and intelligent signals will manage traffic on pedestrian-friendly streets.