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A focus on infrastructure: are we really ready for the rise of the megacity?

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/everything possible)

The United Nations estimates that 60 per cent of the global population will be urban by 2030, and as people flock to cities over the world, an increasing number of urban areas are exceeding 10 million inhabitants - reaching megacity status. Today there are 33 areas that meet the definition of a megacity from London and Cairo, to Beijing and São Paulo. By 2030, experts say that eight more cities will join the club.

Indeed, urbanisation is progressing so quickly that a new category of urban agglomeration has emerged: the gigacity. These supercities of more than 50 million inhabitants are almost unimaginable, yet they may soon become reality in China. It has even been reported that the Chinese Government is planning to connect multiple cities in five integrated urban conurbations, which would together be home to half a billion people by 2020.

Huge urban areas like this present big opportunities for economic growth. Today’s megacities account for a significant portion of their nation’s overall prosperity, and, when they run properly, are undoubtedly the epicentre of people, ideas and innovation.

However, whilst megacities bring plenty of benefits, they also pose unique challenges. Enormous and continued growth puts significant strain on infrastructure such as power distribution, sewage, water systems, transport, education, policing and welfare.

So how do we find the right balance between growth and opportunity and a sustainable quality of life? What does a city of the future have to look like in order to make life worth living in it? There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to these questions, but the success of the megacitiy is under the hood; in the infrastructure, and more specifically, the IT that supports the city.

The rise of the smart city

Technology innovation is fast transforming cities like Shanghai, Nairobi and Mexico City into so-called “smart cities” that can leverage their huge populations to power their economies. The ultimate goal is to use data to bring intelligence to urban environments, and to improve the quality of life for residents.

The adoption of smart applications, which use connected data, can provide a range of benefits, from public safety to health and transportation. Take traffic for example. Urban areas are often magnets for traffic congestion, but there’s not much to beat the traffic chaos of Beijing. The gridlock there was once so bad that drivers there were stuck for twelve days. Today, smart city devices have become the saviour of Beijing’s commuters - now monitoring the flow of traffic and optimising driving conditions, and smart parking systems guide drivers to the nearest available space.

Smart Grids are another great example of technological innovation which brings significant benefits to citizens. They’re designed to modernise older electricity distribution management by leveraging intelligent computing, renewable energy storage, smart appliances and big data analytics. Smart lighting systems enhance street lighting initiatives by providing actionable usage data to improve energy efficiency, reduce costs and keep communities safer - and smart street lights have the ability to adapt their brightness to local environmental conditions.

However, whilst the benefits of the smart megacity are extensive, they will only be realised when digital infrastructures can physically link dispersed machines and sensors so they can exchange information in real time. If they are to tap into the potential value of “big data”, interconnections between people and applications, data, content, clouds and the network needs to be seamless.

Getting the data centre strategy right

There’s no doubt that people are flocking to cities, but without core infrastructure changes, IT systems could buckle under the stress.

Smart applications require lots of connectivity, data storage and computing power and so the data centre will be at the heart of the smart megacity. Being able to store Internet of Things (IoT) generated data, the ability to access and interpret it as meaningful actionable information - very quickly - is vitally important and will give huge competitive advantage to organisations and municipalities that do it well.

How do megacity’s Governments and businesses get their data strategy right? Smart cities can’t simply build infrastructures from scratch. They will need to mix the old and the new - dealing with legacy infrastructure as well as building new facilities. For some this might mean that traditional “core” connectivity hubs will have to work alongside smaller data centres optimised for Edge computing. Providers may also need a work-around to cope with disparate local energy regulations and prices - and work out where data centre facilities can be optimally located. And as more and more applications are required to service immediate engagement – such as streaming, ecommerce and financial services - data centres must be located correctly for this type of need too.

Multi-tenant colocation facilities have been cornerstones of the Internet economy since the 1990s, and will continue to be important as we enter into the age of the smart, tech powered, megacity environment, providing the best in interconnectivity, flexibility and scalability. High Performance Computing (HPC) will likely power smart megacity applications, as it presents a compelling way to address the challenges presented by IoT and Big Data, and data centre managers will continue to adopt High Density innovation strategies in order to maximise productivity and efficiency, increase available power density and condense the physical footprint computing power of the data centres; vital in power heavy big data application.

On the flip side, the implications of not getting the infrastructure right are potentially disastrous. Failures in the network could result in energy systems being shut down, companies unable to do business and huge transportation disruptions - as well as hospitals and schools suffering huge outages. Smart megacities must turn to decentralised energy-generation and storage systems which will be able to minimise the impact of power outages or natural disasters.

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Megacities are, for many, in equal part risk and reward. Whilst on one hand there are incredible opportunities for smart megacities, we also know that population size may be their downfall, if the infrastructure is not there to support it. Indeed, the only way to improve the quality of life for tens of millions of people is to improve the technology that underpins smart city innovation. At the heart of this ambition lies the data centre - the linchpin of innovation, choice and growth.

Neil Cresswell, CEO, VIRTUS Data Centres
Image source: Shutterstock/everything possible