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From the Design Quarterly: 9 facets of smart cities

March 19, 2019

By Richard Baker

There’s no easy definition for “smart cities,” but by beginning to describe them, we can anticipate what’s next

The era of smart cities is approaching fast, elements of it may already be with us, but definitions of the term are practically limitless and hard to grasp. Ask people to define a smart city, and you’ll get a different answer from an urban planner, a developer, and a technologist. We spoke with a variety of experts to some key facets of smart cities that help us anticipate what’s to come.

What are smart cities, anyway?

A true smart city is where advanced technologies work in the background, unseen, to connect people and things. This network of an internet of things links elements of the city like street lights, trash collection bins, water quality system, traffic lights, and so on. Interconnectivity between systems and these functional things means they can communicate relevant information with each other. Sitting atop all this is an intelligent software platform that makes sense of all these connected things and the data they gather so that it can tell an agency what it needs to do to prevent a problem or how to be proactive in providing services where needed.

Following are nine facets of smart cities.

Brooklyn Village, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

1. It’s about people, not technology.

The smart city is an approach to problem solving. It’s the application of technology in a way that creates a more livable, sustainable city environment for people. Technology is not the dominant force, it’s behind the scenes. Lots of companies want to talk about and sell products, but a city manager doesn’t care about specific tech or piece of software, they want to provide relevant reliable services to their citizens.

Read and download the Design Quarterly Issue 05 | Smart and Livable Cities

2. Smart cities benefit from open data, but privacy issues must be addressed.

The key for technology is obviously big data. One definition of smart cities is that they have sensors and are actuated. That means they have technology that senses and reports data and does something―it takes action.

The overall goal of a smart city is to be intelligent, to break down silos, and access data and KPIs previously held by various entities. The more open the data, the more smart cities can leverage it for problem solving, anticipating crises, and taking action. But there are big questions around who owns the data, how much of it should be open, and what are the privacy rights of citizens and visitors.

3. Elements of smart cities are already here, addressing today’s problems.

Predictive and prescriptive analytics will make cities smarter. With sensors and software working together, systems will monitor data and predict a problem before it happens.

Cities are already using technology to analyze traffic in real time. Adaptive traffic lights lengthen the time for green lights to smooth traffic on a congested artery, and even redirect traffic to alternate routes to ease jams on main routes. Smart grid technologies have been in use for a decade in some parts to measure and distribute electricity. Elements such as smart meters, low-voltage systems, and LED lights are already widely available.

So, these elements of smart cities already exist. The questions are: Can they be taken further? Can then be spread further out and put in places where needed to make our cities even smarter?

4. Smart cities will be predictive and proactive.

Predictive and prescriptive analytics will make cities smarter. With sensors and software working together, systems will monitor data and predict a problem before it happens, enabling, for example, a city to dispatch a maintenance crew and avert a crisis before infrastructure fails.

5. We will drive safer in smart cities.

In the US, there are nearly 40,000 fatalities a year from car accidents. Cars are a major killer. Thus, the main catalyst for automated and driverless vehicles is safety. We want to bring that fatality number to zero.

While automation and testing are advancing, despite some setbacks, the technology will eventually achieve a high level of safety, at which point, the major hurdle will be public policy and laws to permit these vehicles. Beyond the safety component, these automated vehicles (AVs) also promise independent, safe transport for the blind and elderly. It’s going to take many years for the tech to reach a mature level, but it is coming.

LA Metro El Monte Station in Los Angeles, California.

6. Smart buildings, inside and out.

Building occupant experience will also change with the arrival of smart buildings. Picture a day at work. You will swipe your card early in the morning when you enter your building. The elevator will automatically open and take you to your floor. Your corridor path is illuminated. Your thermostat is already set to the temperature it knows you like. Your task lights are on, too.

The hospitality market has already begun to design rooms such as the YOTEL Boston Dream Cabin (a project developed in association with Stantec’s Greenlight research program). In the Dream Cabin, the room knows the guest’s wake-up time and need for sleep and it will tune the room’s lighting and temperature to encourage a good night’s sleep, soothe restlessness, and provide a timely wake-up by tapping into the body’s circadian rhythms and natural responses to the light spectrum.

7. Buildings will respond to individual users automatically.

User experience of buildings will increasingly be influenced by a symphony of electrical engineering systems, communication systems, security systems, and information systems. They will communicate back to us, as well. Smart buildings that are designed to harvest their own energy like Evolv1 in Waterloo, Ontario, can share data with users about their company’s energy use on their office floor in real time. Further down the road, these building systems will be more integrated into the smart city itself, so that data on energy and peak usage of buildings can be tracked and used by relevant stakeholders.

Brooklyn Village, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

8. Smart cities require smart policy.

While some aspects of smart cities are here, many aspects won’t happen organically. They will require deliberate choices by policymakers—how to harvest and share data, investment in smart grid tech, for instance. While we are accustomed to hearing about smart city initiatives from big cities, medium and small cities will have a greater challenge, in that they are unlikely to have the funding and staff for a robust internal program but will also want to reap the benefits of modernization. They will need to partner with organizations, companies or foundations that help them fund their programs, refine their goals, and implement them. We expect that smart city funding innovation will emerge from smaller cities and communities as they are forced to think creatively to get smart initiatives rolling.

9. Smart cities will have to contend with concerns about digital equity and culture.

To truly bring the benefits of smart cities to all residents, cities will need to bridge the digital divide in areas like smart phone and high-speed internet access. Looming on the horizon are more questions, who will have access to AVs, for instance? Will they augment and supplant affordable public transportation? And globally, the adoption of smart city tech is bound to bump up against local and regional culture. How can rich cultural traditions be preserved as download and upload speeds advance and megacities embrace big data as a policy tool?

  • Richard Baker

    As an information and communications technology designer, Richard's role consists of design, coordination and implementation of the infrastructure for technology systems in buildings.

    Contact Richard
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