Smarter cities: the drive to safe and sustainable future environments

(Image credit: Image Credit: Jamesteohart / Shutterstock)

In all the hype regarding new technologies and the search for greater efficiencies, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the push for smarter, more connected city environments should really have one purpose at its heart: a better quality of life for the citizens who live there.

Smart cities, with their vast networks of real-time sensors, can do much to improve the quality of life for residents, not least in the areas of safety and security. One area of particular interest that is emerging, however, is the ability to connect these best-of-breed, open data sources to achieve sustainable and environmental benefits.

A sustainably smart city

As an example, at last year’s Smart City Expo World Congress, the city of Atlanta won the mobility award for its continued work on “North Avenue Smart Corridor”. Almost a hundred network video cameras have been installed along 2.3 miles of road, which is able to derive real-time information regarding volume and velocity of traffic through visual analysis alone. This data is then used to optimise traffic lights along the way, keeping traffic moving.

Ten years ago, Atlanta was notable as one of the most congested cities in the US with the second highest levels of traffic-related air pollution. The North Avenue Smart Corridor is just one of many initiatives that the local government has put into place to tackle these issues, and one of the most promising. Traffic flow along the corridor has reduced commuter times by as much as 25 per cent, and the implications for air quality are also significant.

Network video, in this kind of instance, is one of many technologies that contributes to such positive congestion and environmental results. Swedish researchers recently calculated that as many as 4 per cent of all premature deaths could be linked to air pollution from traffic. Reducing congestion makes a big difference to quality of air by our roadsides.

Smart buildings that protect us

Indoors, too, smart technology is driving sustainable business practices. Many offices today, for example, use motion sensor detection systems to turn lights on and off when there are people around, reducing the amount of energy wasted illuminating unused spaces.

A group of students from Finland, however, demonstrated that by drawing on multiple sources of data – including video analytics – building managers can gain much more detailed insights into patterns of movement around office spaces. These can, in turn, be used to predict the need for climate control and lighting more accurately. This highlights how small, incremental changes such as adding another data source can result in great cost savings and reduced energy consumption.

Potential environmental benefits also include traditional health and safety concerns. In South Africa, for example, one company has deployed thermal imaging cameras with internal GPS sensors to identify shack fires and alert emergency response units, helping to overcome the challenge that many settlements don’t have formal road names that can be used to direct fire fighters to a blaze.

Elsewhere in the world, similar cameras are being deployed to help identify chemical leaks or spillages, combining information with other on the ground sensors to quickly map out the scale of an emergency and contain its spread faster. The future for applications such as these is exciting.

The pressing need for sustainable business practice

We are just at the beginning of understanding what all the environmental benefits for citizens in smart cities will be, but it’s clear that there can be huge potential in combining multiple, real-time data sources to optimise health. What’s also clear is that we need to ensure Proof-of-Concepts (PoC) are developed to learn and evolve, with a view to creating deployable solutions that add value.

More than half of the world’s population currently live in urban environments, and approximately three million people move into cities every week. Around the world, city infrastructure investments are struggling to keep up with the demands of the increased and ageing population, a fact reflected in increased congestion, power shortages and overwhelmed social care, health and housing services.

Applying intelligent technology to these complex problems must be part of the solution for the future.

What’s important to remember, however, is the maxim that we must, as vendors and technology providers, “first do no harm”. There are too many examples in recent history of good ideas which are undermined by poor execution and therefore never realise their potential. It has become clear there is no silver bullet when it comes to solutions for smart cities, one vendor alone will not be the answer.

If we are to take the steps from conceptual solutions to those that are deployed and make a positive impact on a city, then this must be underpinned by openness, both in regard to technology and also mindset. Partners and vendors should collaborate and take a best-of-breed approach to develop solutions that deliver a smarter and safer environment for a city’s citizens, businesses and visitors.

Furthermore. the billions of Internet of Things devices that are expected to be deployed in our cities all consume resources during manufacture. The onus is on us to ensure that this consumption is kept to an absolute minimum, with more investment in recycled and recyclable materials urgently needed.

We must think ahead, too, and consider what happens at the end of the lifecycle of our products. We can, and should, be making sure that as many components and materials are recoverable rather than destined to add to the mountains of waste around the world, themselves a significant environmental hazard to local communities.

There should be no tolerance for devices which may leak dangerous chemicals after their disposal. Our supply chains need to be examined and held accountable for dirty factories, or mining practices which are to the detriment of those who work there, too.

And just as importantly, smart technologies which deliver efficiency and sustainability, but that are not deployed with cybersecurity in mind, cannot fully claim to be improving quality of life no matter what the intention of their use.

But get all of these things right and there is huge promise in the positive impact of smart city technology. All we need now are new ideas for ways that we can put it to use.

Daren Lang, Regional Manager, Business Development, Axis Communications
Image Credit: Jamesteohart / Shutterstock