As every aspect of our lives gets increasingly dependent on technology, with every device getting smarter by the minute, we’re rapidly arriving at the point where our cities will become autonomous entities that can think for themselves and make our lives easier, safer and cleaner. These smart cities are not in the realm of science fiction no longer, as more and more city planners are trying to accomplish this goal and some cities around the world are almost there.

Of course, it will be a while before The Machine City from Matrix will become a reality (hopefully without the grim part of human harvesting), but more like a city that is communicating with its inhabitants and providing them with information on traffic, entertainment and air quality, as well tending to the needs of everyday life such as management of waste products or providing energy. How close are we to this scenario?

What makes a city “smart”?

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Some might think that a “smart” city is a massive computer mainframe that talks to its inhabitants and regulates every part of their lives in order for them to stand idly and watch everything happen on its own (something like in the movie Wall-E where the spaceship is a massive city run by mostly robots). However, this is not an accurate description of a smart city, as in reality, in order for a city to be considered smart, it has to constantly provide information from different areas and then give this information back to the people that inhabit it.

In a sense, the smart city is not an autonomous robot, but a mechanism that works with humans in order to create a healthier and more productive lifestyle for the people that live in it. A good example of such a symbiosis would be a city that shows drivers where are the busiest roads and what alternate routes they can use to get to their destination, or a city that can tell the proper authorities if there is a problem in the electric grid.

Also, in order for a smart city to exist, its components must be, to some extent, smart. And we’ve talked in the past about smart houses and what technologies can be applied to them. If these components communicate with each other, then the entire system has a collective intelligence that allows the smart city to exist. But is still not enough, as the whole is grater then the sum of its parts, there are other factors that need to work along with the smart city for it to exist.

So, for city planners to create a smart city, they have to factor in the economy of the city, the living conditions, the environmental impact of the city, transportation and many others. Only when all of these areas are at a certain level, can a city become a smart city.

Technologies for Smart Cities

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There are lots of technologies that can benefit a city and transform it into a smart city. At the forefront, we have sensors that transmit live information to data centers where it can be transformed into live maps and other types of information. These sensors can consist in traffic sensors, air quality sensors, road sensors, light sensors and pretty much any other type of sensor imaginable. But this is only one way to make a smart city.

The Smart City Experiment, carried out in Santander, Spain, stands witness to the ingenuity of city planners that want to reinvent the image of what a modern day city is. Here, with a budget of 9 million Euros, the town has been riddled with state of the art sensors that collect information from air quality and all the way to parking spaces or traffic and allow the people to access this information from their smartphones. But besides this, there are other examples of technologies that can be used to create a smart city.

For example, in Rio de Janeiro, there is a system that monitors the city’s beaches and roads for accidents, as well as the weather patters. All of this is done from the “Rio Operations Center” where the data is collected and analyzed permanently. Another way to make a smart city is to have clean and energy efficient transportation. In this regard, the city of San Francisco offers free charging stations for Electric Vehicles, making it more economical for citizens to use such vehicles.

Parking is one of the biggest problems in every city. And to get by this, some city planners have installed wireless sensors in parking lots which communicate with mobile apps to tell drivers where are the nearest free spaces. This system was implemented in Los Angeles with great success. And if parking is such a big problem, then we can forget the personal car and start looking towards mass transit or shared transportation. These systems are of great value and they contribute to the overall life quality of the city.

Today’s Smart City

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There are many smart city projects that are currently under development; cities like Amsterdam, Dubai, Cairo, Lyon and some others. City planners from all over the world are trying to bring their own cities into the 21-st century.

As we’ve said before, Santander is an excellent example of what some innovative thinking can achieve, residents here have a lot of information readily available to them via their smartphones. This information comes from the 10000 sensors mounted all over the city, which relay information about traffic, air pollution, street lights and even buildings. Also, thanks to the implementation of smartphone apps, residents can obtain this information on the go, as well as week in touch with the authorities.

Here are a few examples of what you can do with your smartphone in Santander: point their phones towards a bus station and receive information about all the routes that stop there, scan concert halls or other entertainment areas and receive a program with all the performances that will take place there in the following weeks or even take pictures of potholes on the street and send them to the city council, where they can analyze the the photos and with the help of the GPS coordinates from the picture, they can send a team to fix the problem.

There are of course, lots of innovations that can transform a regular noisy and polluted city into a clean, smart city. The technology is available today, but the implementation takes time, requires huge amounts of money and of course, open-minded people to bring it to completion. The latter is the hardest one of all, but with time, we think that it will become a reality and everyone will be able to live in a smart city.

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I often wonder, where is technology heading? What do all of these advances mean for us and for our future? I sometimes miss the days when I didn’t know how to use a floppy disk, or how a computer CPU works, but now, until I find an answer to my questions, I’ll keep tracking these advances and show everything I find to those who share my interests.