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How smart cities can underpin our drive to a sustainable world

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/ jamesteohart)

Sustainability is a powerful force for positive change in our world; one that is driving transformation, innovation and improvement across all aspects of society. No longer limited to conserving natural resources, sustainability now encompasses a range of challenges including urban growth, transportation, carbon footprint and even work-life balance. As the world’s population is expected to increase by an estimated 33% before 2050, and with nearly 70% of those people living in urban environments, sustainability has become a focal point for forward-thinking cities. Making city life work sustainably for all is a growing concern but one which is not insurmountable. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) and smart city technology hold an important key to success. In fact, Gartner predicts that by 2020, half of all smart city objectives will be centred around climate change, resilience and sustainability. With an expected growth rate of more than 19% every year, the global smart cities market is predicted to reach $3651 billion USD by 2025, up from $773 billion in 2016. Innovative businesses and municipalities see the potential, and are working together on programs that illuminate just what smart cities can do to meet global sustainability goals. 

Using smart city infrastructure to our advantage

Smart cities are built on a complex and intelligent framework of ubiquitous digital networks, connecting citizens, governments and objects that simultaneously send and receive data. Cloud-based software applications receive, manage and analyse this data, and transform it into real time intelligence that ultimately improves the way we work, travel and live.   

In a smart city for instance, intelligent garbage solutions are redefining and optimising waste management. The World Bank estimates that the global cost of managing our landfill collections will rise to $375 billion by 2025 – an unsustainable cost in the long term. Smart garbage bins, self-powered with solar technology, have the ability to communicate in real time when they are full, preventing overflow and eliminating unnecessary scheduled pick-ups that ultimately save time, fuel and wear and tear on roads. 

BigBelly is one such company transforming the way we approach waste collection. With successful pilot programmes around the world, from Singapore, to New York City to Melbourne, it is working to reduce the frequency of collections by 70-80% and limit our dependence on rubbish bins. In Dún Laoghaire, a small portside town outside of Dublin, BigBelly helps to manage the waste left behind by tourists and to provide a real-time solution to the issues posed by Ireland’s unpredictable weather and resulting waste collection. The result has been an annual saving of €200,000 in costs and 69 tons in CO2 output. 

Providing the complete city experience

Yet, the IoT’s sustainable reach extends beyond smart city waste management. Take Quayside in Toronto, for instance, a 12-acre area which Google’s Sidewalk Labs has covered in IoT sensors to monitor and optimise processes all over the city. It has been designed specifically to tackle the challenges of urban growth and to achieve new standards of sustainability. By embedding these strategically placed sensors, city managers can monitor traffic flow, noise levels, air quality, energy usage and travel patterns in real time. These insights allow businesses, citizens and the government to quickly review and make changes to improve city services and amenities.   

Similarly, Belmont, an initiative associated with Bill Gates, was envisaged to be a sustainable, technologically advanced community built from the ground up in the Arizona desert. This city is at the forefront of the sustainability movement and is based on a communication and infrastructure foundation that encompasses cutting-edge technology, high-speed digital networks, data centres and autonomous vehicles to optimise how we live our lives. 

While these projects might appear isolated, it’s difficult not to imagine a future where every town and city around the world has similar IoT sensors embedded in its infrastructure that will reduce our environmental footprint and improve the way we live. 

Taking it to the next level

Like any growing business, scalability is always an issue. In order to expand these projects to have an impact at a city, national or even global level, governments and businesses alike must overcome the barriers to success. In China for example, they plan to build 100 new smart cities from 2016 – 2020 focusing on innovation and information-intensive infrastructure. However, lack of investment in infrastructure or trust in security are often cited as holding smart cities back. This is often because decision makers are not given substantial promises on ROI. The way to do this is to prove that there is demand from citizens for these sustainability projects.

With engaged citizens, governments and businesses alike can make more informed decisions on investing in technology which the public both want and will use. Barcelona, for instance, has a long-standing reputation as a metropolis at the forefront of technological innovation and has recently reviewed its smart city agenda to make sure it keeps its citizens at its heart. After all, smart bins or intelligent lighting are only beneficial if people will use them. 

We are already seeing practical examples at a city level. Copenhagen’s meteoric rise to become the world’s leading smart city can be traced back to its sustainability profile and smart city ecosystem. Elsewhere, San Diego’s smart city movement has revolutionised the city’s approach to climate change, sustainability and green innovation with intelligent street lights and solar-powered charging stations.   

It’s all about trust 

While infrastructure provides the smart city capabilities, open data, and more importantly, trust in its use and security, underpins the future of a sustainable city. Historically, governments, enterprises and individuals have all held their data close, sharing as little as possible. Privacy concerns and fear of security breaches far outweighed the value of sharing information. Who can blame them – with breaches such as WannaCry or NotPetya sending shockwaves around the world, it’s understandable that the prospect of openly shared data is not one which is quickly adopted.

This resistance can only be overcome when citizens trust the city and the people put in charge of protecting their data. Every government and business must buy into a model that is built with security in its foundation. Initiatives such as the UK’s Open Data Institute go some way in establishing a trustworthy data eco-system, but we must go further. Secure solutions, ranging from data anonymisation, whereby information cannot be directly traced back to the individual, to digital identities, smart encryption and cognitive threat detection will be crucial in making citizens feel comfortable in sharing their data. If they remain reluctant, smart city initiatives will fail, slowing our progression to a sustainable world.   

We are all rapidly reshaping our planet and our global culture is embracing sustainability as the battle cry for a viable future. Today’s innovations, such as those demonstrated by BigBelly or Quayside are but a glimpse of the immense potential smart city technology holds to meet the collective desire for a sustainable world. But, the only way we can maximise the potential of smart cities to deliver on this, is with the combined trust of citizens, businesses and governments. Without it, we risk patchy and underwhelming deployment which is only to our detriment.

Haider Iqbal, Director of IoT, Public Services & Transport at Gemalto 

Image Credit: Jamesteohart / Shutterstock

Haider Iqbal
Haider Iqbal is the Director of IoT, Public Services & Transport at Gemalto.