Over the last few years, articles on smart cities have been popping up everywhere. Like a whole lot of mushrooms after a rainfall. Just like the word ‘mushroom’ is a blanket term for all sorts of fungi that function in different ways, the word “smart” used with the word “city” seems to have become a catch-all term for many variations of urban development. When can a city really be called “smart”? Is it enough to install city-wide coordinated traffic lights? Or is there some fixed amount of technology that an urban area must have to be able to proudly stick a smart label on itself? Maybe, it is all just a marketing gimmick to get the inhabitants thinking that their lives are better than they truly are.
Come with us on a short trip through the urban landscape to find out if smart cities are real at present, and what a true smart city of the future may look like.
What Makes A City “Smart”?
Let’s start at the very beginning. Of course, years ago, cities were not smart at all. They grew from need. Some were founded by groups of people who saw the monetary importance of living on well-traveled trade routes, next to rivers, or in sheltered sea harbors. Hamburg in northern Germany, with its large port, is a good example of this. Others grew when certain tradespeople and producers saw the advantage of being all in one place e.g., Manchester, England that grew exponentially due to its textile mills during the Industrial Revolution. Cities often expand haphazardly, with little planning involved. This can still be seen to be happening in rapidly growing modern urban landscapes, such as Mumbai, India where people flock to the city to find work and set up living quarters whenever they can find a bit of spare ground.
It has been reported that over 60% of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050. That means billions of people around the world will be carrying out their lives in close confines with billions of others. To keep cities functioning smoothly, all those people will need to have access to clean water, energy, and food. More than ever before, urban areas should support their populations economically, and socially, while keeping the surroundings as clean and unpolluted as possible to protect the lives of their citizens. Random expansion can no longer continue if these goals are to be met. This is where smart technology comes into the picture.
What Goes Into The Making Of A “Smart City”?
For a city to be truly smart, there are several necessary technologies that a city must have in place. First and foremost, the city has to have a highly developed communications infrastructure that is absolutely reliable.
Once the information network is in place, a plethora of IoT devices, sensors of all different kinds, and actuators (any mechanical devices that control the movement of equipment, such as motors that open automatic sliding doors) have to be set up all over the urban zone. These connected components can then be used to control every aspect of life in the city.
To make all this complicated set-up work smoothly so that the inhabitants of the smart city can work and relax in complete comfort, there is another part of the smart network that is even more important. Every byte of information collected by the IoT devices and sensors spread through the urban zone must be collected, analysed, and acted upon at lightning speed. This requires an exceptionally secure, fast, and infallible operating system.
Without these three features working seamlessly together, a “smart” metropolis will turn quickly into chaos, causing the city to grind to a halt.
The Last Piece Of The Smart City Puzzle
The very last piece of the puzzle needed to make a smart city work efficiently is possibly one of the least obvious. No, it doesn’t exactly involve technology, but something far less concrete: it is us – the people who live in the city. If we are not willing to openly opt in to our information being regularly collected and analyzed, a smart city cannot work. The city governance must track the daily routines of all inhabitants for the system to run perfectly. No information is too trivial. Information is gathered to monitor how and when we commute to work or school every day, how often we shop, even how often we flush our toilet or have a shower.
All this is necessary so that the data can be analysed and the system can be modified in an instant to overcome possible blockages. This means, for example, that traffic and transit systems have an optimized flow during high-density times. If many people use the bathroom at the same time, the capacity of the sewage system can be quickly altered to accommodate the extra wastewater. Monitoring the movement and actions of the inhabitants and smartly using the data cuts down on pollution, and makes city-living more comfortable in every facet of daily life.
Are Any Cities In The World Completely Smart?
At present, there are no completely smart cities anywhere in the world. Some have embraced technology more openly than others, such as London, which ranks highly in its development of smart networks in almost all areas of city life. However, the monetary outlay needed to set up a holistic smart system can be prohibitive for many cities. The difficulties faced in developing a smart city occur on both sides of the fence. The commitment companies need to dedicate to install and maintain a full network in a city can also be a project that they are not prepared to invest in.
Many urban areas around the world have decided to go for a “pick and mix” strategy. They have chosen to install only the intelligent technologies that solve immediate issues in their environment. San Francisco in California uses smart technology to monitor how quickly public trash-bins become filled to keep their rising rat population under control. Rotterdam in The Netherlands is concentrating on making its very busy port smart, to increase its productivity while decreasing its impact on the environment.
Is This The Future Of Smart Cities?
Maybe the futuristic “real” smart city is not so far away. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, announced just last week that the construction of a high-tech smart city called “The Line” will start this year. The Line will house 1 million people, and stretch in a straight line over 170km (105 miles). It will use only 100 % clean energy, with no traffic or roads on the surface. A layer below will hold an ultra high-speed transit line. All aspects of the city will be controlled by Artificial Intelligence.
Will this be the utopic prototype for the real smart cities to come? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, remember that the key component of a successful smart city is not the technology used to make it smart, but you and I – the everyday people who live in it. It is us and our desire to live in a cleaner and better world that will pave the way for the future of urban living.
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