Smart Cities – key to hitting climate targets?

In the 21st century, cities are increasingly at the forefront of the way human societies are organised. The urban population will grow from about 4 billion currently to 6.5 billion by 2050, and two thirds of the globe will be living in cities by 2066. Correspondingly, urban infrastructures are having to scale up to meet the projected demand for city living, and opportunities for efficiency gains are opening with it. The rapid pace of information and communication technologies (ICT) connect physical and digital infrastructures, which are set to allow for better resource management.

At least, that’s the hope. The UK’s Environmental Industries Commission recently published a report into whether ‘smart’ approaches can offer cities practical new ways to tackle entrenched environmental challenges, particularly in light of the pressures of an increasingly environmentally conscious world. Despite the Smart City being relatively new, the report found that there is already potential for progress to be made across a broad scope of environmental challenges, such as carbon emissions, air quality, recycling rates, and the effective management of both waste and water.

The problem that cities face in doing so, however, is that they are constrained by a range of factors; most notably, financial issues. This is not simply a lack of money per se, but more pressingly, a lack of control over how money is spent. Issues that have typically been considered separately, with separate teams and, crucially, separate budgets, must now be considered together as part of a broader strategy if the true potential of smart cities’ environmental pursuits are to be realised. At the moment, frameworks tend to be overcomplicated and bureaucratic, with organisational structures varying from city to city. Overhanging this is a fundamental uncertainty about the levels of funding municipalities are likely to receive from central government in the longer term. Priorities tend to change with different cabinet members and governing parties, so it’s tough to reach consensus and plan ahead.

Yet the picture that is emerging makes it clear that purposeful environmental action needs to be taken. A cluster of factors make cities frequently environmentally unfriendly places, which will need to be addressed to ensure sustainability. These are:

  • An increase in the number of diesel vehicles, which cause a greater degree of pollutive particle emissions
  • Rapid population growth – centred in cities – which leads to a concomitant increase of carbon emissions
  • A levelling off in improvements on rates of recycling (which makes it clear that new ideas are needed)
  • Ageing infrastructure of water pipes, leading to frequent damage and leaks
  • Local environmental quality worsening due to rapid urbanisation and comparably slow rates of infrastructure change

Can so-called smart data be used to face up to these challenges and, ultimately, to solve them? Already, pioneering steps have been taken to address all five of the central challenges above, which demonstrate the efficiency gains offered by smart cities. We list the most important applications below, which each address

Smart Parking

As industry-wide initiatives are calling for a reduction of the number of diesel-powered vehicles on the road, in favour of environmentally sustainable alternatives, other projects at the municipal level could also look to reduce the amount of pollution emitted from vehicles wholesale. For example, smart parking is one application that is already being used in several pioneering Smart Cities worldwide. Its implementation requires the installation of sensors (naturally, operating at ultra-low power), to report whether a parking space is occupied or vacant in real-time, then delivering this information to an app to be used by drivers. 30% of city congestion is thought to be caused by drivers swarming the streets in search of parking spot, while idling traffic is estimated to contribute more than 64% of air pollution alone. This alone would be a huge step towards environmentally sustainable city living.

Smart Water

‘Smart Water’ is set to be the answer to the current challenges caused by the damaged infrastructure of water pipes. Managing the supply of water is a critical task for cities and their water utilities globally – particularly as they struggle to create and attract sustainable businesses. Water networks struggle to identify and fix leaks, which Ofwat has claimed can regularly result in 20% of potable water being lost from networks. Leakage control, distribution and planning can all be improved by the enhanced data water companies can have, using smart censors. This also has benefits for personal households. Smart metering, or ‘Smart Water’ as it is sometimes known, allows water companies to manage the consumption of water, improve their relationships with their customers and ultimately, use quality and accurate data to effectively bill them. Ofwat predicted smart water utilisation could reduce consumption per capita by up to 10%, wastage by up to 20%, and the average bill collection cost for householders by $15.

Smart Transport

In light of the vast increases in urban population, which follows the cluster of jobs and accommodation in city centre, cities are having to urgently examine their transport systems in light of environmental concerns from vehicular pollution. Transport systems in cities are increasingly strained, and in the worse (yet not uncommon) cases, traffic can be stuck in a permanent gridlock, with dire effects on local air quality. However, smart transport technology is set to change that. Video-embedded traffic light sensors, which can communicate with other devices to display green or red according to where cars are and the time of day, helping to alleviate traffic. Parking sensors are another form of tech making a big difference – information about available spaces can be relayed onto an app with GPS guidance for drivers, which will save fuel and reduce traffic.

Meanwhile, car manufacturers around the world are using IoT sensors in prototypes designed to self-drive – which might mean one day public transport as well. Using connected objects and the enormous amounts of data they can transmit in real-time,  cloud-based traffic and GPS services will allow these vehicles to save energy – and time for their passengers – in picking the quickest route from A to B.

Smart Litter

So-called ‘smart bins’ have been trialled in a number of municipalities across the UK, as an attempt to improve the way litter is collected and managed. Sensors are placed inside public litter bins which detect waste levels and notify the waste collection authority of when they need emptying. This also improves the visibility of waste bins for drivers, who might otherwise miss their locations.  This has not only the benefit of ensuring there is always space for the public to dispose of waste (avoiding ugly overflows), but also conserves energy, as drivers don’t need to make unnecessary journeys. Similarly, sensors can communicate via GPS with other sensors monitoring traffic to ensure waste disposal drivers take the most efficient route to address bins which need emptying. This should lead to waste disposal that is conducted in the most sustainable way possible.

Smart Energy

The future of energy management will be to install smart meters in each British household and in buildings for public and private use. Truly offering us a ‘revolution on our doorstep’, and already widely tested in several global cities, including in the UK (where over 8 million smart meters have already been installed), smart meters enable accurate billing from information provided in real-time on energy use and corresponding pounds and pence pricing. They also offer greater control over the way energy is purchased and used. There is widespread national support for the energy efficiency revolution underway. Sasha Deshmukh, chief executive of Smart Energy GB, an independent organisation founded by the government to spread awareness in Britain about the new technology’s benefits on offer, recently told the Telegraph, “in 2018, smart meter installations will jump from several thousand a day up into tens of thousands a day.” Ultimately, smart energy systems allow greener energy to be produced and less of it to be used and wasted. The International Energy Agency has suggested that renewables will comprise 28% of global power supply by 2017. The variability of those electricity sources presents major problems matching supply and demand, which smart grid systems can mitigate by smoothing daily demand, both for individual households and ultimately at city-wide level.

Other uses of smart energy have a broader public function. Several cities have already installed smart LED streetlights, which use sensors to detect when pedestrians are in a locality at night, only using energy when needed. When there are no pedestrians around, the lights will dim to conserve energy. The sensors attached to these lights can have further utility for urban management. For example, sensors tested in Hampshire recently could even monitor weather and road surface temperatures and report it to local authorities as part of a smart control central management system. So, for example, if roads in a given area are likely to need salting (due to weather conditions the sensors in the lighting can detect), the sensors would then send a signal to public workers to mobilise in that area. The broad potential for further development of the capabilities of smart lighting censors is set to be harnessed in the near future: Gartner predicts that there could be 2.54 billion units of smart lighting installed globally by 2020 (the figure in 2015 was ‘just’ 46 million). The day when we’ll all be living in truly ‘electric avenues’ isn’t far off.

Building A Smarter Future – Slowly but Surely

As we have outlined, plans to build Smart Cities capable of meeting environmental challenges are still in their early stages, and further technological development and ongoing infrastructural rethinking could change the possible utility and applications of this new technology at breakneck speed. But the benefits are already clear to towns and cities looking to meet sustainable energy goals against the broader challenge of climate change. The challenge of environmentally-friendly energy usage is a complex one, particularly against the backdrop of rapid urbanisation and ever-increasing demand for energy but modern technologies can, and are, offering substantial assistance in reducing wastage.

IntechnologyWiFi’s integrated connectivity, data, communications and engagement platform for towns and cities can provide the perfect platform from which to manage climate targets against ongoing city usage data in real time. Our secure and safe platform can support the harnessing of IoT sensors to move towards a ‘Smart City’ concept with robust usage of information analytics and centralised control. To find out more about how climate challenges are likely to be overcome using Smart City technology, or to learn more about our Connected City Platform, please get in touch.

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Whether you’re a local authority looking to provide public WiFi or seeking a connectivity solution for Smart Cities, the IoT or 5G / Small Cells in your town or city, or if you are interested in partnering with us around the Connected City Platform in any of our forthcoming town and city roll-outs, we’d love to explain more about who we are and what we do.

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