Here Come the Smart Cities

As Urban Density Increases, Cities Aim to Optimise

At the end of 2014 more than half the world’s population lived in urban areas. This is expected to increase to 75 percent by 2050. This population shift from rural to urban areas has put a squeeze on resources at a time when they are already stretched thin.

The pressure of growing populations exacerbates the problems of deteriorating infrastructure like bridges, electrical grids, roads, schools, transportation and water supplies. This is especially true in cities in developing countries, where service outages and interruptions are a daily occurrence.

At the same time, cities must address health problems caused by poor air quality. Respiratory disorders are on the rise thanks to an increase in the frequency of smog and air pollution. This is apparent in cities like Beijing and New Delhi, where the particulate matter is several times the norm. This week in Beijing, several days were coded as “red alerts”, with schools and factories closed because of poor air quality.

The stress that many major metropolitan areas are under is forcing local authorities to consider the use of sensors and other IT-based methods to monitor conditions and boost communications. In some cases, cities are being established from scratch as smart cities from the ground up. China has plans to build 300 new smart cities and India plans 200 during the coming years.

In some cases, governments offer businesses significant incentives to settle in a new city. In order to attract new businesses and individuals, smart cities offer free economic zones, renewable energy, smart buildings, smart transportation and broadband connectivity to potential tenants.

These problems — and potential solutions — are not confined to developing markets. In the West, cities like New York, London and Sao Paolo face all of the same issues and pressures and would also benefit from the more joined-up approach between departments that a smart city promises. Although there are many smart city projects under way in the West, we expect slower progress. Full-scale implementation of a smart city is a long, complex and expensive project. It is longer than the electoral cycle for the mayor in those cities and requires funds that will be demanded for other things. This means that there will be a political dimension to the projects, which will be less evident in China, for example.

Cities in the West can still offer examples of quick victories, however. In the UK, Bournemouth council plans to install city-wide Wi-Fi on lamp posts as part of a project to replace street lights with LED lamps. The savings generated by the energy-efficient LEDs pay for the Wi-Fi, which can then be used to connect sensors and other smart city elements. The mere presence of a Wi-Fi network doesn’t make a city smart, but it’s a first step.

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