WHEN CITIES GET SMART
When cities get smart
IT WAS BACK IN 2005, WHEN BILL CLINTON AND HIS FOUNDATION ISSUED A CHALLENGE TO IT GIANT CISCO, THAT THE “SMART CITY” CONCEPT WAS BORN. SHANGHAI, SEOUL, SINGAPORE, BARCELONA, LONDON, NICE, LYON… ENERGYGUZZLING, POLLUTION-SPEWING, CITIES ARE BEING REDESIGNED WITH A VIEW TO BECOMING "SMARTER”. IT’S A WORLD WIDE PHENOMENON THAT’S SWEEPING THROUGH URBAN AREAS RIGHT ACROSS THE GLOBE, FROM THE MOST OPULENT TO THE MOST DEPRIVED, THE MOST ANCIENT TO THE MOST RECENTLY BUILT.
Although cities only cover a mere 2% of the planet’s surface, they are already home to 50% of the world’s population. By 2050, when that percentage will have risen still further to 70%, our cities will be using 75% of all energy generated as well as being responsible for 80% of all CO² emissions. Energy and pollution aren’t the only areas demanding attention – the lengthy list also includes health systems, transport, waste management, property, social cohesion and living together… There’s no doubt about it, managing urban areas has become one of the major development challenges of the XXIst century!
It was back in 2005, when Bill Clinton and his foundation issued a challenge to IT giant Cisco, that the “Smart City” concept was born. Things have come a long way since then, and today there is not a single city that can afford to ignore the challenges posed by rampant urbanization, the increasing shortage of fossil fuels, global warming and social divisions, not to mention the budgetary constraints forcing local authorities to constantly do more with less.
Unique cities, unique challenges
There is no specific blueprint, no magic recipe for becoming a Smart City. It is up to each individual city to identify its own priorities based on its current situation and goals. Scandinavian countries, for example, have chosen to focus on social and environmental issues, rolling-out ambitious plans targeting carbon neutrality. Berlin has placed the emphasis on well-being: in the space of just a few years, the German capital has become a cultural metropolis, attracting people from all over Europe by championing urban creativity and quality of life. In Japan and England, attempts are being made to resolve the demographic problem by building innovative underwater cities or creating entire floating districts like the one on the Thames. Smart traffic lights that change to green or red depending on the density of traffic have been introduced in the Chinese city of Wuxi, whilst London and Stockholm have both rolled out a congestion charge system to reduce both traffic and pollution. Barcelona, meanwhile, has introduced smart refuse bins to optimize refuse collection, whilst Nice and Singapore both have smart street lights that automatically adjust their brightness depending on how dark it is. Then there are the green roofs that have started to appear all over New York and Montreal … Projects are popping up wherever you look all around the world.
IN CERTAIN CHINA'S CITIES, TRAFFIC LIGHTS NOW WORK DEPENDING TRAFFIC AND POLLUTION
The need for reinvention
The priorities may vary from one city to the next, but sustainable mobility and energy efficiency always remain core issues. Transport systems are being redesigned to serve disadvantaged neighbourhoods and generate less air and noise pollution. Electric vehicles and cycle lanes are being introduced, cities are being densified to curb the kind of urban sprawl that triggers an increase in the number of cars and the distances needed to be covered, local shops are being reopened, efforts are being made to bring the workplace and home closer together to put an end to the principle of division by business sector thereby tackling ghettoization… All these initiatives are small pieces in a much bigger picture, underpinned by a series of measures that profoundly transform the city.
An increasing number of initiatives are also being introduced to target energy use, but as is the case with transport, the real revolution will come in the form of real-time data processing.
Smart Cities are, indeed, often associated with digital technology, and with good reason. Pavements, cameras, street lights, streets, homes… the city of the future is peppered with sensors collecting an avalanche of information that is analysed in real-time by the kind of IT systems we associate with the Big Data phenomenon. It consequently becomes far easier to anticipate and prevent the formation of a traffic jam by adjusting the traffic lights, indicating alternative routes or making changes to public transport – something that already happens in both London and Singapore, for example. Similarly, installing smart electric meters, capable of providing real-time energy-use readings for every single household, should help energy operators fine-tune their electricity production, a concept known as the “Smart Grid”.
Riddled with sensors to provide a brand new range of urban services geared towards promoting well-being, tomorrow’s cities also run the risk of becoming Big Brother-like surveillance systems. This is a key democratic issue, with the Smart City raising questions about citizens’ right to privacy. Questions that currently remain largely unanswered.