We have the tech to make “smart city” utopias. Why don’t we use it?

  • Published on June 28th, 2017

Imagine you live in a smart city of the future. As you commute to work in your connected car, the traffic lights are all green. The lane you drive in will be free of congestion. Your parking space will be reserved for you and a wireless charger will top up your battery while you work. Connected to the grid, the charger will also allow the battery in your car to provide electricity to the grid as needed to help balance consumption and keep peaker plants offline.

By Steve Hanley the interconnected smart city of the future

At work, facial recognition software will record your arrival and keep unauthorized people out. Your smartphone will direct you to the proper elevator that will whisk you directly to your floor, where your workspace will be at the correct temperature. It will have windows that provide enough natural sunlight to keep interior lighting needs to a minimum while keeping out the heat of the sun to reduce cooling loads. A greywater recycling system will provide irrigation for fruits and vegetables growing on the roof, next to garden space where employees can gather during the day to socialize and relax.

City water and sewage systems will be connected to promote maximum efficiency at minimal cost. Internet of Things sensors embedded in streets, light poles, and buildings will manage the flow of autonomous vehicles to reduce congestion and whisk people from place to place with a minimum of delay. Emergency vehicles will be dispatched to where they are needed and arrive quickly, thanks to priority access to city streets.

 

Are Smart Cities Utopia?

Is this utopia? Certainly, but it’s possible with the technology available to city planners and entrepreneurs today. So why are we still waiting for it? “Every city has its own challenges,” says Blake Miller of Think Big Partners, a startup working with Cisco Systems to make Kansas City a smarter city. “Cities are big, huge moving ships that don’t move very quickly,” he says. Merging various computer platforms is a daunting task. By the time everything is in place and operating together properly, what was once new technology will be well on its way to becoming obsolete.

Arvind Satyam, Cisco’s managing director of smart cities and digitization division, claims the biggest component in a city’s success is having leaders who are committed to a clearly defined goal. Barcelona is a good example. Five years ago, its government was willing to embrace technology and focused on getting different departments to work together. “It’s not just about being smart in individual verticals, it’s about tying all these verticals together,” he says. When a city has a strategic goal in mind — becoming carbon neutral, for example — it requires collaboration across the board.

Changing The Urban Landscape

Retrofitting cities with new technology won’t significantly change how they look. “It won’t look like Minority Report and it won’t look like The Fifth Element,” says Satyam. “A lot of people think about smart cities and they think about flying cars and futuristic skyscrapers, and stuff like that. We believe that cities won’t fundamentally look different in the next 10 years, but cities will be a lot more efficiently managed.”

Money is not always the biggest issue. “Procurement is a nightmare,” said Charles Brennan, CIO for Philadelphia. “I have less trouble getting money than I have spending it.” Lengthy forms to fill out may stymie some new ventures. Local ordinances written for the 20th century simply make no provision for the changes that have happened in computer technology in the past 20 years. Cities also find it difficult to recruit top tier programmers and IT engineers in a time when everyone wants to work in Silicon Valley.

Connectivity And Security Go Hand In Hand

Digital security is something people are more aware of today, thanks to the swirling rumors about Russian hackers during the last election. Anything connected to the internet can potentially be hacked, including public water supplies, electrical grids, and traffic control systems. Public health and safety requires greater security measures as more and more functions are automated and connected. Connected cities offer great promise but will require significant public investment at a time when municipal budgets are stretched to the breaking point.

(Originally appeared at our sister-site, Cleantechnica.)

About the Author

writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island. You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.