Smart Cities & Intelligent Infrastructure

13 May 2015

In the future everything in a city, from the electricity grid, to the sewer pipes to roads, buildings and cars will be connected to the network. Buildings will turn off the lights for you, self-driving cars will find you that sought-after parking space and even the rubbish bins will be smart. The city becomes a living laboratory for smart technologies that can handle all major systems - water, transport, security, garbage, green buildings, clean energy, and more.


We already are familiar with CCTV cameras being deployed for traffic management and safety & security. Increasingly intelligent sensors are being deployed for a wide range of city related services traffic management, dam level monitoring, environmental monitoring, pollution management, fire detection, electricity grid management, busses, etc.

In Birmingham, lamp-posts are being fitted with sensors. In Norway, more than 40,000 bus stops are connected and even tweet. In Cape Town, usage of inner city parking bays are monitored via a wireless network that knows when the bay is empty and when it is being used, how long your car has been parked in a parking bay, etc. Potentially, you could be directed to empty parking bays as you enter the city. The data to do this already exists.

At MIT's Senseable City Lab, 5,000 pieces of rubbish in Seattle were geo-tagged and tracked around the country for three months to find out whether recycling was really efficient.

The so-called internet of things offers a new way to analyse and measure city life, from whether water pipes are leaking to how traffic is flowing on the roads and whether buildings are using energy in the most efficient way. And this data can be used in different ways.

Rio is often used as an example of an emergent smart city of the future. Rio is set to to experience the full glare of the worldwide media in the next few years as it plays host to both the Football World Cup in 2014, followed by the Olympic Games two years later. It has built a Nasa-style control room where banks of screens suck up data from sensors and cameras located around the city. This means that officials from across the city can now collaborate to manage the movement of traffic and public transportation systems, while also ensuring that power and water supplies work more efficiently. A coordinated response can be rolled out in the event of a crisis, such as collapsing building. Transport systems can be shut down, emergency services mobilised and gas supplies can be cut off, while citizens can be informed of alternative routes via Twitter. China is busy building dozens of new cities and is starting to adopt huge control rooms like the one in Rio.

However, there are differences in opinion on this. Andrew Hudson-Smith, director of the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College, London says that while a lot of the big technology firms are looking at the control room model, this is backward thinking. "Why put the technology in one room when you can put it in the hands of everyone?" he has asks.

He and his team have created a city dashboard as part of plans to make London smarter. Like Rio's control room, the dashboard collates data such as pollution, weather and river levels. But it also looks at some things that Rio doesn't - such as what is trending on Twitter and how happy the city is.

A version of the dashboard is hooked up on a wall of iPads in the office of the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. They claim that this as powerful as the large scale control room but significantly cheaper. But more importantly, there is also a version available on the web, so that the public has the same information as the policy-makers and that has the potential to be incredibly powerful.

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