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Using the power of data to build smart cities

smart city
(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/ jamesteohart)

In 2018, the UN predicted that the world’s population in cities would rise from 55 percent to 68 percent by 2050. However, this prediction now feels slightly redundant as this number was reached before the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, since then, the pandemic brought about many changes in the way we live and work and as a result inspired many people to move out of cities in search of bigger living spaces and a quieter pace of life. 

Additionally, during the almost two years since the pandemic started, many businesses have shifted their working models to accommodate a more flexible and hybrid workforce, and employees have valued an improved work-life balance. In fact, a recent Owl Labs report states that 89 percent of European companies now plan on having a hybrid workforce. This could possibly accelerate the process of deurbanization as people will not have to prioritize shorter commuting times in favor of cheaper, more attractive properties.

Interestingly, the PwC’s UK Economic Outlook report highlighted that London’s population could fall for the first time in more than 30 years this year. The change in working habits combined with a migration out of conurbations could therefore have a significant impact on the nature of today’s cities, how we use our offices and landscape in general. 

As our interactions with cities like London begin to change, data holds the key to helping organizations and local governments to reimagine these spaces and begin to develop ‘smart cities’. In doing so, businesses, councils, and individuals can expect to see benefits ranging from cost-savings and enhanced efficiency to a reduced carbon footprint and improved mental and physical wellbeing.

The data behind smart cities

Smart cities will be able to do amazing things, promote economic growth and improve our quality of life. For example, smart parking could help drivers to find a parking space and allow for a digital payment at parking meters. Smart buildings could offer real-time status reports and flag when repairs are necessary. Smart traffic management could be able to optimize traffic lights to reduce congestion, and smart power grids could help us conserve energy and become a more sustainable population. 

All of this and more is possible with the use of technology. By combining automation, the Internet of Things and machine learning, we can gain granular data that will form a fundamental building block for smart cities. This data should include everything from how many people are located in an area and demand for services, to transport usage patterns and purchasing data. This information will help organizations to understand how spaces are being used to inform decisions such as how many new properties need to be developed, and how much energy should be supplied to an area. 

In addition, such comprehensive data can be used to spot patterns and inform decisions regarding long-term strategic planning. For instance, identifying trends in transport usage can be used to help inform how to evolve and adapt travel networks in the future, or where, and how many charging points need to be installed for our smart vehicles. Local authorities can make smarter decisions about what to do with abandoned car parks, freeing up land for productive developments. By making decisions based on reliable data, we can overcome cost-efficiency issues and ultimately help to shape the infrastructure of cities in years to come. 

Overcoming privacy issues

One of the biggest challenges that arise from the development of smart cities is overcoming the issue of privacy. People are becoming more hesitant to give up their data as they feel many businesses have abused it in the past by selling it to competitors or other third-party suppliers. 

Therefore, smart cities need to collect data in a responsible, controlled, and appropriate way. Organizations must be respectful of the individual’s right to privacy and obtain informed consent, fostering continuous transparency throughout. This will help people to understand what they will use the data for and just how beneficial sharing their data could be within a smart city environment. 

This can then be supplemented with passive data, collected from the flow of resources in the city, such as water and energy consumption, waste management and the movement of vehicles, which will help them to gain a greater understanding of how cities are being used. 

Armed with this data, councils can gain a multi-dimensional view of the cities and make informed decisions around key infrastructure, for example, ensuring there are enough cycle lanes or that bus and train timetables align with demand. They can revitalize shopping areas and encourage people to go back to highstreets, without the worries of finding a parking space thanks to smart parking features. There are also huge potentials to reduce the environmental impact of transport networks, prevent overcrowding, and improve the experience of those using the services. Or reducing crime with real-time mapping to help allocate policing resources more efficiently, making the cities of tomorrow a safer place to live and visit.

Reinventing the future of cities

Many countries have begun investing in their smart city’s ecosystems, for example Korea, Singapore, Japan, Norway, Spain, and Denmark, to name a few. While Oslo is embracing a wide use of sensors to control the city’s heating, lighting, and cooling, Copenhagen utilizes smart traffic monitoring system to help cyclists move about quicker.

In towns across the UK, councils have also started using data to plan how to rearchitect and rejuvenate highstreets, which roads to resurface, and which facilities will be of most benefit to the local people. While this is no doubt easier in smaller towns than in mega-cities like London, it is just the start of the revolution in how cities will be designed over the next several decades. It is worth remembering though that for smart cities to be beneficial to its citizens, local authorities and businesses, consent must be obtained, and complete data transparency must be fostered. Only that way, can smart cities evolve and succeed, and a true revolution in the way we live and work in the future can begin.

Jon Payne, Manager – Sales Engineering, InterSystems

Jon Payne is a database engineer at InterSystems.