A blueprint for a green and connected city

Cities are significant contributors to climate change, pollution and other adverse effects on the Earth. As resources continue to decline and challenges emerge, cities are tasked with evolving into green, sustainable environments that can house ever-growing populations while striving to technologically advance on top of aging infrastructure. 

How will the cities of today become the green spaces of tomorrow? Quite frankly, those that embrace technology and citizen activism will lead the next wave of the world’s greenest cities.   

In this article, I’ll break down the major elements that city leaders should consider when implementing connected, green initiatives. 

Choose Green Technology   

Lighting 

When most people think of green technology, the first thing that comes to mind is lighting. Traditional lighting systems are inefficient and are being replaced with LED technology. LED systems provide many advantages over traditional lighting--from cooler running temperatures to longevity. But the most interesting aspect of LED technology is that it’s built from the ground up with application programming interfaces (APIs) that can be leveraged for intelligent management in mind.   

Regardless of whether a city’s lighting is halogen or LED, if it does not have the inherent capability to adapt to changing conditions, it will be inefficient. Within the realm of adaptive lighting, there is a large difference between lights that can turn on and off based on light sensors, and those that are individually addressable and can adapt to factors from foot traffic, sunlight and events taking place in the area.   

Traffic Management   

Traffic is the intersection of vehicles, public transit, bikes and people on foot. Cities have shifted away from a vehicle-focused traffic design to a more holistic approach that accounts for the many means of transport at a person’s disposal. Managing various modes of transportation is a complex jigsaw of constant compromise between each method. When you place foot traffic above vehicles, road congestion increases. When you place public transit over bikes, bicyclists ride on the sidewalk, creating more congestion and danger for pedestrians.     

Using intelligent systems that account for all of these factors and can respond in real time is necessary for cities that continue growing. When you combine vehicle traffic patterns, bike density, pedestrian routes and public transit, you not only gain efficiencies in traffic management, but also “green” benefits like efficient stoplight management and reduced pollution. By analyzing traffic patterns, lighting can be adjusted based on historical data of foot traffic, and when vehicles flow more efficiently, there is less buildup of noxious gases.  

Energy   

Green and sustainable energy comes in many forms. The obvious is alternative energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal. Sustainability can also be derived from the management and allocation of those resources. Since alternative energy sources have been covered in-depth everywhere, I’ll focus on the management and distribution aspects of clean energy.   

Any intelligent management system starts with the basics: making sure everyone has access. After that is achieved, the focus can shift to increasing efficiency and improving the resilience of the energy source. The best, “smart” approach to managing the energy grid is by using a mix of intelligent systems that can analyze trends and reactions to outages with sensors and connected devices. This enables faster reactions to an outage or sudden increase in demand for energy or resources without causing a blackout elsewhere.   

Connect those systems so they can talk to each other Green technology is great by itself, but without connecting the various systems involved, the real potential of a green and connected city will remain a pie in the sky idea.   

The tech industry has embraced an API-first approach to architecture, and it is time for cities to do the same. By leveraging API-driven technologies, cities can innovate faster and experiment with new uses.   

When talking about integration, it is important to distinguish between traditional (like ETL or custom development) and contemporary integration platforms. Developing these connections manually or from scratch no longer makes sense. Don't spend the time building what already exists. Instead, spend that time creating more value from the systems you are connecting.   

By leveraging cloud-based services, existing systems and robust integration, a city can build its own platform that is tailored to its exact needs without compromise. The resulting platform is also future-proof and can improve continuously because of the API-first nature of modern integration. This allows cities to be agile and able to constantly experiment with new technology and ideas without incurring the cost of traditional POCs.   

Vivek Ranadive, owner of the Sacramento Kings said it best that “every single night, your Tesla updates. So we need to have that same philosophy when it comes to our arena.” And so the same should be for cities: physical architecture should be built with a software architecture, API and microservices approach in order for it to be valuable in years to come.

Leverage data to make smart, real-time decisions 

Once you select the best-in-class green technologies and connect them, it is time to take advantage of all the data your systems are now generating. By combining the data from multiple systems and platforms, you can create new opportunities for innovation. Data is not a passive collection channel; your most valuable resource, citizens, can help add data points and context. 

Take Louisville, Kentucky for example. It equipped its citizens who have asthma with connected inhalers that take air samples and track when a person takes a puff. This allowed the city to see which areas had the worst air quality and caused the most discomfort for citizens.   

Another example of leveraging real-time data to make a greener city is smart commute programs. By using data aggregated from commuters, the city can identify which routes are the most congested and adjust carpooling, public transit and traffic flow in real-time to alleviate congestion and reduce the idle time.    

There are any number of ways that a progressive, green and tech-forward city could leverage technology to solve for interesting problems. 

Leverage predictive analytics to build for the future   Real-time decision making is a great first step for a system that can consume data, analyze it and predict issues or areas of improvement before the problem even arises. Predictive analytics takes the existing framework of data modeling and analysis and brings it to the future. Artificial intelligence and machine learning have paved the way for systems that can analyze vast troves of historical data and predict potential issues with high accuracy.   

With predictive analytics, cities will not be reliant on constant human monitoring to spot problems. Instead, city managers will be able to monitor dashboards and heat maps that provide concise, actionable intelligence that shows where issues are occurring and will occur. Kansas has begun experimenting with a small version of a "dashboard for the city" by monitoring traffic and parking availability along a main thoroughfare. This will allow the city to more efficiently manage parking and traffic signals so that traffic will flow smoothly and citizens can find parking without driving around the block.

Successfully implementing and maintaining this new wave of city initiatives and systems may seem like a daunting task, but small POCs can be scaled up into robust, citywide initiatives. Start somewhere, anywhere and then continue to build out from there.   

Green and Digital Transformation is a Process 

When a company embraces digital technology we call the process a ‘digital transformation.’ This is exactly what cities are doing when they prescribe and build a green, connected initiative or POC. The most important thing to understand about the digital transformation process is that it is a journey, so the steps that city leaders take to improve the way things work don’t have to happen all at once. Instead, cities should be built for the future in an iterative and digestible way. 

 Parthiv Patel, Technical Marketing Manager, Built.io   

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