The smart city construct blurs the lines between human activity, data and the built environment.

The aim is to create urban landscapes that are more sustainable, that are more enjoyable places to live and work, instructed by artificial intelligence, and fuelled by almost unimaginable data collection. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, information is incoming.

The Internet of Things (IoT), including our current gadgets from smart phones to smart light bulbs feed the cloud with the threads of our life story. By the end of this very decade it is estimated there will be 30 billion (some reports say 50 billion) IoT devices on this earth. However, that data is for the most part unlinked.

The big picture, the patterns, remain largely unseen. Despite all this information, in its present form, we simply don’t know enough of what is happening in our growing towns. However, change is afoot.

“We have no idea what is going on in our cities. Not at all,” says Adam Beck, executive director of the Smart Cities Council for Australia and New Zealand. However, Beck says Australia is changing.

“We’ve gone from sleepy to awake very quickly.”

But why do we need cities need to get smart? 
More people than ever are moving to cities, walking away from rural communities. To make this exodus workable, supportable, cities have to change. 

The poster boy for Smart Cities has been Milton Keynes in the UK, but competition is growing globally, and Australian cities are in the race, spurred on no doubt by the 2017 $50m federal grant designed specifically for Smart City projects across Australia.

According to Beck that was the push that kicked everything up a gear.

What will it take? More data and more analysis. City planners have to find out more about our spatial use – who goes where, when, how often and for how long. It’s behavioural mapping that will inform the planners, the designers of our future. And how will it look? Indeed, will we see anything different at all?

The unprecedented integration of analytics will alter everything in our lives from traffic management, such as holding a traffic walk sign longer for disabled (RFID card carrying) pedestrians, to adjusting city water flow for sewerage, parking locators and smart medicine bottles that alert doctors when a patient has failed to take their medication. 

Tesla is eager to link the road sensor data to their on-board computers – alerting drivers to the proximity of everything from Lycra-clad cyclists to en-route traffic accidents by feeding data to the car dashboard. 

In Seattle, homeless people can wear data ‘beacons’ that alert passers-by phones (via an app) to their personal backstory, and via those same smartphones funds can be sent to the homeless persons’ store account with a screen tap. The Samaritan app, as it’s known, promotes social inclusion, though not every ‘unsheltered’ person is keen to wear their story around their necks for all to see. But, in many ways that is what Smart Cities promise.

On a moment to moment basis our interactions will be watched. Take a simple city street. Fill it with sensors. Start storing.

How many cars use a road, how many passengers in the car, is it the same car over and over again searching for a parking spot? Are the buses too full to stop? Are pedestrians crossing against the light to avoid a homeless person  he crossing? 

The sensors in this one intersection collect data that is useful to traffic management, parking lot planning, public transport, social services and the health and justice departments. 

Society itself is interdependent, so it follows that successful city-wide analytics means sharing data.

Formerly this intersection data set would be locked up, accessed only by traffic management. A social resource lost. Smart Cities will take the data, analyse it, openly share it, act on it, in real time, and then store it in the cloud. Forever.

It is the ‘real time’ response to data that was once collected via hard wired sensor banks that will help the most. New sensors won’t feed a node, new sensors will have their own IP address and communicate directly.

George Verghese, Business Manager at Gerard Lighting explains the role sensors play in their new offering, which he says will make cities smarter and safer.

“Our sensors will pick up air quality – sensing unsafe levels of gases such as carbon dioxide, this is reported back to the authority in the area.” As the rollout expands this may also encompass some alerts in bushfire prone areas. 

Parking information, which may sound trite but is an issue faced by most drivers, is also about to revamped by Gerrard. Their data uptake will come via cameras which may cover 300-400 spots in, say, a rail station carpark.

They detect vacant spaces and via a phone app will tell an approaching driver if there are free spaces, where they are, and in association with Google maps will direct you to the actual spot. The data management will be handled by Gerard, with only top line analytics taken on board by the client, in this case the rail authority.

Electric cars are a hot topic, with sceptics suggesting their power needs will further overload strained city power grids. 

Christian Schiemann from the highly respected artificial technology and robotics firm ABB sees this as an opportunity for artificial intelligence to prove its value.

He puts forward the scenario of everyone with electric cars pulling into their home garages at 6.00pm, ready to recharge. 

“An intelligent system,” says Schiemann “will look at the overall picture, and ask when is this car needed again? Tomorrow at 600am? Okay, we will schedule it for recharge at 3.00am or whatever works [for that city].”

Equally, he puts forward the scenario that you park your fully charged electric car at the airport, you are leaving for a few days. You plug into the airport system. It asks the car when are you needed again? Five days?

“If the airport system is in need of power, at a peak time, it can access your car’s charge.” And then when the demand is low, it will recharge the car in time for your return. It is a smart management of the power resource. Perhaps allowing that resource to be cheaper and more available.

Enter the Jevons Paradox. In environmental economics, the Jevons Paradox refers to fuel efficiency, and proposes that when progress increases efficiency, reducing the rate (and cost) at which a resource is used, consumption of that resource will increase in demand. It gives one pause for thought – can humans be trusted with good news?

Participants in the Smart Cities Council are now numbering over 200, with networks in Australia and New Zealand, North Africa, Europe, India and of course, North America. Data, projects and opportunities are growing exponentially – as is the relatively new involvement of architects.

According to Smart Cities’ Beck, until recently general city planning has been missing an important input.

“Built environment professionals, professionals such as architects have not been at the table,” says Beck. “[city planning] has been a technically led agenda. Architecture has been more analogue.”

“We should be procuring projects digitally,” says Beck clearly frustrated with systems, including BIM, which he compares to using a “Melways rather than Google Maps.”

However, in a project basis at least, some cities and councils are very much linked into the digital design option.

The full version of this story can be found in the July / August issue of INFOLINK | BPN.