The smart city is a slippery concept. I wrote previously about how we might define the elusive smart city as a collection of technologies that are able to learn and grow in real time to meet the evolving needs of the citizens, but even that definition leaves out one crucial point. Truly useful smart cities are about more than just flexing our technological muscles. They’re about people, about improving your life and my life on a tangible, daily basis.
I have no doubt that smart cities, like Eko Atlantic, are the future. With all the focus on building bigger and better systems, on discovering the next big thing, however, it is worth taking a moment to remember why we do what we do. The answer is to make better lives for everyone, from the little moments of time and convenience saved throughout the day, to responding to an emergency with immediate, skilled help when you most need it. Here are a few of the ways that an intelligently positioned smart city can create a wonderful place to live for us all.
Analysing the immense amounts of data that a smart city can provide will streamline urban living in a million different ways, saving every citizen time, effort, and stress not just once, but continuously. Let’s take transportation as just one example.
About 30% of the traffic clogging inner-city streets is just cars circling as they search for available parking. That’s a huge inefficiency. In a connected city, you’ll simply plug your destination into your GPS and your car will contact the parking meters ahead of time. By the time you arrive, you’ll be directed to a parking spot reserved just for you, and you’ll pay for exactly the amount of time you need using your mobile phone. As cars become more autonomous, huge amounts of prime city real estate will be freed up for commercial and citizen use as parking is consolidated.
On the way there, you’ll be guided through the fastest routes possible using the immediate traffic information from roadside sensors and cameras. Wireless traffic lights will also use this information to direct the flow of traffic at rush hour to reduce congestion and get you where you’re going as quickly as possible.
Of course, you may not even need a car. Instead of investing time and money in a personal vehicle that sits idle 95% of the time, you may just take advantage of a universal transportation subscription service that combines access to state-of-the-art public transportation, ride sharing, and bicycle sharing that provides easy, immediate, cheap access to the entire city.
Intelligent data analysis won’t only make life more convenient, but healthier as well. Strategically placed sensors can closely monitor every system we rely on to keep us well. There’ll be real-time updates on the lead content of the tap water or food poisoning so that the city management can act immediately if a problem arises, and individuals are empowered with the knowledge to protect their families from any risk. Similar systems can share information about air quality for those with respiratory ailments like asthma.
Sensors can also give us the tools to attack threats to our health at their source. A large number of small, cheap, energy efficient sensors can be integrated into complex industries like the farms and factories that produce our food. There, they can monitor a huge number of important factors, including temperature, pressure, water quality, motion, pollutants, animal care, vibration, etc to ensure that everything we eat is being produced safely and healthfully in accordance with the best practices available. They can also be a huge boost for agricultural efficiency, which means more high quality food for everyone.
The same way small agricultural drones can be used to monitor crop health, they can also be employed inside the city. For instance, small drones could be programed to map standing water where mosquitoes are likely to breed and either alert city maintenance or simply automatically distribute non-toxic mosquito poison, effectively guarding citizens against an outbreak of Zika virus or other mosquito-born illness.
To illustrate the value of connectivity in saving lives, let’s take one of the most common health emergencies: heart attack. Because heart attacks can happen at any time and it is often difficult for emergency personnel to respond as quickly as they are needed, many cities have tried to place defibrillators in various public locations. It’s a good idea, but when someone suddenly drops to the ground with a failing heart, what are the chances that you will be aware of the closest defibrillator, let alone know how to use it? A smart city can respond to this need with an app that directs you to the nearest defibrillator, and calls the nearest person with first aid certification to the scene, proving life-saving assistance many precious minutes before an ambulance is able to arrive.
And what of long-range healthful living? Some cities have already seen success using GPS data to determine the best and most popular routes for runners, sports players, and other exercisers. The city design can then work to not only accommodate but encourage daily exercise. If your doctor prescribes more activity, the doctor’s orders can simply be programed into your GPS or transportation service. The devices can then automatically build the right amount of exercise into your daily transportation plan so that it becomes second nature.
One of the largest challenges for any well-run city is keeping its citizens safe. To this end, a connected city offers more powerful tools than ever before. The same cameras and sensors that speed up your daily commute also combine with intelligent license plate and facial recognition to reduce police blind spots. The same drones that can scout for diseased pests can be re-routed to monitor situations where safety is of particularly great concern, such as crowded sporting events.
But more importantly, for the first time ever, the incredible amount of data produced by a smart city allows us to change the very nature of the way a city protects our safety. Historical data can help police allocate their resources for crowd control and predict the specific situations where crime is most likely to take place. Instead of simply waiting around for an emergency to occur and then trying to react as quickly as possible while the clock ticks, big data allows us to shift to preventing or anticipating emergencies before they happen.
And it isn’t just about police action against interpersonal threats. Delicate sensors can also predict natural disasters before they occur so that the authorities can be ready and waiting with all the resources needed to save lives.
Citizens themselves can also be mobilized as another line of defense — the eyes and ears on the ground. These days, disasters are often “reported” on social media more quickly and accurately than they are called into emergency services. Smart cities can take advantage of social posting as an early warning system, providing real-time information about an emergency to guide first responders. Take a look at Jakarta, which floods more than any other city in the world. Luckily, they’ve created a live, crowdsourced map of flooding that can simultaneously save citizens and direct emergency personnel — all by tapping into Twitter.
The best thing about smart city concepts is that the possibilities are endless. So long as developers and planners remember our true purpose — improving the lives of our citizens in every way possible, large and small alike — it is clear that the future is bright for both the technology and those of us who will find our lives improved in myriad tiny ways.
What’s next? Well, with programs like Paris’ “Madame Mayor, I Have an Idea,” that’s up to you to decide. What do you want your city to do for you?