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Why we shouldn't be so quick to write off the potential of smart cities

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(Image credit: Shutterstock / Ekaphone maneechot)

Over the past decade, there has been an explosion of embedded sensors, mobile devices, high-speed wireless connectivity and advanced analytics within urban spaces. These have provided city agencies with a wealth of data and insights that resulted in the creation of the “smart city,” places where technology and data are used to enable better decisions that improve citizens’ quality of life – not only in terms of affordability and convenience, but also in terms of deeper social bonds and stronger communities.

While some have dismissed this as techno-utopianism – citing the false starts of smart cities like Masdar in the United Arab Emirates or Songdo, South Korea – such dismissal would be a mistake. Smart transformation is advancing rapidly around the world. 

In fact, a McKinsey report has found that smart city technologies can reduce fatalities by 8–10 percent, accelerate emergency response times by 20–35 percent, cut the average commute by 15–20 percent and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10–15 percent.

Indeed, there are credible reasons for hope, and clearly, reports of the smart city’s death are premature. In fact, we may now be witnessing the concept truly coming into its own. Welcome to the next generation of the smart city, where smart gets real. 

This new generation of the smart city is about capitalizing on our understanding of microlocation — our ability to map information in real-time about specific neighborhoods, blocks and buildings down to the floor, hallway and even room levels — for macro transformation. This will empower our cities to make better decisions and ultimately use resources more sustainably.

We see this playing out around the world, in four key ways - civic inclusion, operational efficiency, data-driven performance, and planning and engineering. Let me describe some examples of each.

Civic inclusion

This is perhaps the most important pillar that the second wave of smart cities must learn from the first, as several first-generation smart cities encountered repeated cultural and societal roadblocks that stemmed from rolling out technology without including citizens.

Fundamentally, smart cities must deliver visible benefit to citizens. The benefits they deliver must be aimed at improving and empowering the people living within smart cities, not just benefiting the corporations who supply the technology and consulting services.

Real smart cities have learned that they must engage with communities from the start by identifying citizen priorities, empowering groups with special concerns and needs, and working to improve social equity.

This helps to produce real-time hubs for communication and collaboration that can truly help the city’s inhabitants. For example, homeless people in San Bernardino, California are linked with the resources they need to transition from life on the street. Meanwhile, public safety officials use mobile apps to document and share information on homeless persons and track the location of their camps – which proved critical when water released from a dam threatened people camping in riverbeds. 

Operational efficiency

Smart cities are able to leverage data and analytics to create digital dashboards. These dashboards are a key tool for enabling managers of enterprises and agencies to use data and improve decision making, saving time and money. As a result, smart cities can ultimately streamline workflows and business processes to determine where to place resources for maximum benefit.

For example, a dashboard of publicly available datasets in Hong Kong provides both city leaders and the public with access to air quality index data, real-time traffic flows, camera feeds, and dynamic car parking availability information. In the US, Gresham, Oregon created a smart asset management system, including a location-based registry that serves as a system of record for all of Gresham’s public service assets. This enables the city to optimize everything from street reconstruction projects, traffic counts and the city’s hydrant flushing program, to asset repair and replacement, expense management and street repaving.

Data-driven performance

Second, by leveraging data streams from IoT, mobile devices and sensors embedded in the city’s infrastructure, vehicles and buildings, smart cities can implement data-driven performance. This is achieved thanks to advances in deep learning and artificial intelligence, which can analyze data and produce insights which humans would not be able to discover without the help of technology. This can result in improved mobility through adaptive traffic signals, as well as enabling a broad shift from static to real-time decision making across city and business services.

For example, in Abu Dhabi, government agencies use common geospatial infrastructure to share data on planning, public safety, real-time traffic, weather, planned and unplanned events, and much more, enabling better and more accurate decision making across government.  

Planning and engineering

Finally, smart cities are transforming planning and engineering through human-centered design and digital 3D models to anticipate and minimize shocks and stresses, whether economic, environmental or social. These maps – also known as “digital twins” – encompass buildings, infrastructure, vegetation, transit and more. They are the underlying platform for the real smart city.

On top of this basemap, project planners add new data layers to explore and optimize for expected changes. Just as virtual reality gamers immerse themselves in simulated environments, urban planners can now see illuminating details about their cities and conduct more complex analysis. Consider Singapore, where the integrated ‘OneMap’ system informs development plans and daily government operations. Using 3-D models with local planning guidelines and design standards built in, future planning scenarios and impacts on built and natural systems are visualized well in advance of any ground being broken. Singapore’s focus is now on creating an underground masterplan to better utilize the country’s limited physical resources.

Digital twins are now being applied at the individual building level. Whether you're on the third floor of an apartment building or the second floor of an office building, you have the ability to see data that is immediately relevant to you. Real estate managers can plug in smart systems to understand where different assets are and what their status and condition is, from room temperature to the amount of carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide in the air. Hundreds of companies and cities – from Exxon to the city of New York – are now deploying floor-aware maps for operations and maintenance, including organizations developing plans for reopening safely in the context of Covid-19. 

Challenges remain. Even with shared, real-time data and the power of visualization, red tape can slow ambitious projects — especially those that involve multiple urban systems and agencies. Establishing trust with multiple stakeholders can take time. And legacy gaps of economic and racial inequality pose challenges that technology alone cannot solve. 

That said, the future of smart cities holds enormous promise. This should not surprise us. The story of human civilization, is, quite simply, the story of the city; they even have the same Latin root. The city and its systems were the means by which we’ve concentrated our collective creativity, community and enterprise in order to effectively take over an entire planet. 

Now, with more advanced tools, we have the chance to reinvent those systems to achieve a smarter, fairer and more sustainable harmony with our planet — and with one another.

Charles Kennelly, Chief Technology Officer, Esri UK

Charles Kennelly is CTO at Esri UK, a global technology and data science company.