Smart cities promise to revolutionise modern urban living for billions of people worldwide. Richard Doughty sorts the truths from the urban myths about smart cities, and looks at the future of connected urban spaces, from the jungles of Borneo to the sands of Saudi Arabia.
Despite a slowing global population growth over the coming decades, all regions are expected to urbanise further as more and more of us settle in cities.
Africa and Asia are the most rapidly expanding regions, with the percentage of those living in cities growing respectively from 40% to 56%, and 48% to 64%, by 2050. Even the urban populations of North America, Latin America and Europe will continue to see modest growth even as population levels plateau.
This growth, at an accelerating pace, will place huge demands on existing urban infrastructure and services, threatening sustainable development; cities and their inhabitants are already responsible for more than two-thirds of global CO2 emissions.
To avoid socio-economic and environmental ruin
this century, there must be, according to research, “a sharp reduction in consumption for high-income cities; re-shaping of current development trajectories in middle-income and rapidly industrializing cities (e.g. China); and future-oriented urban design and land-use planning for African cities.”
Are smart cities – which came third in our poll of the top telecom trends for 2023
– the answer to this growing urban question?
A Tale of New Cities
The concept of a smart city is one of town or city with a high degree of digital awareness and control embedded within the infrastructure to support urban development.
In existing cities, this is mostly achieved by retrofitting existing infrastructure with connectivity, and then, often led by private firms, enabling the digitalisation of their products and services; think power companies installing smart gas and/or electricity meters, or water companies offering digital water meters.
The smarts come from the inclusion of the ability to monitor and manage how the city’s facilities are used which, of course, requires a connection to their servers to collect, transfer and analyse the mountains of data generated by all the devices and sensors.
Smart meters allow real-time monitoring of consumption and, in some instances, the ability to manage the directional flow of services such as electricity, switching from ingress to egress when a house is generating its own power via solar, and is able to offer surplus back to the grid.
To make these services beneficial for the residents and not just the suppliers, the technology, architecture, data and business models must be designed to empower, not just to surveil and control; open data management breaks down the siloes between discrete record collections and allows users to decide what services they want to access and determine how their data is used.
Incorporating new and emerging technologies such as generative AI chatbots and digital assistants will reduce the digital divide for citizens; the city of Los Angeles is one that has already launched proprietary Alexa skills
, offering details of upcoming local council sessions and information on upcoming events around the city. Barcelona, meanwhile, has Decidim
– Catalan for “we decide” – a free, open-source digital platform for citizen participation, allowing residents to submit proposals and track their status through the halls of power.
But increasingly, we are seeing hyper-scale civil engineering projects that are planning and constructing whole new conurbations with smart city capabilities built in by design. With purpose-built smart cities, the deployment of embedded devices and sensors forms part of entire residences and housing blocks, built from scratch with these devices included. Driven by needs of population expansion, climate change, and energy efficiency, a growing number of new smart cities are under construction to meet the needs of the next century.
Below the surface, road networks can be laid with embedded devices in street lighting, toll booths, car parks, bridges and tunnels; while sewage networks, irrigation control, and rainwater management run under these streets, all benefitting from real-time situational awareness to manage and direct volume, as well as manage the cost allocation to industry for use of those services.
Smart cities for a progressive future
A core benefit of smart cities is the management, measurement and efficient distribution of civil amenities and utilities, for both businesses and residents, and covering commercial and public sector services. Many – if not most – of these have a great dependence on power, with both the generation and allocation of power being an increasingly costly activity, both in terms of the monetary cost and environmental impact.
Being able to apply pricing and payment for consumption in real time, in a way that matches supply and demand, has been proven to incentivise responsible usage and to minimise waste. Surge pricing comes immediately to mind – though this idea may conjure a sense of ruthless capitalism, red in tooth and claw, making consumption intelligently linked to social service provisions with personalised consumption pricing based on tax bands, welfare entitlement, and need.
This can be seen as an extension of the subsidies and credits already allocated by governments, delivered in a far more efficient way, targeted very precisely, and shaped to manage consumption of particular resources at times of contention.
From the macro environment itself to the micro individuals within cities, smart services can be grouped into the following categories, with a few examples:
- Air / noise pollution control, improving overall city living
- Adaptive energy generation, distribution, and storage, based on demand
- Smart street lighting, adjusting illumination while saving energy
- Water monitoring, checking for pollution and public health
- Smart waste bins, transmitting data to schedule pick-up as needed
- Heating, energy and lighting use optimised by technology
- Renewable energy: solar panels / wind turbines integrated into buildings
- Reducing transmission of COVID and other respiratory illnesses with smart ventilation
- Smart roads, monitoring and managing traffic flow
- Connected traffic lights that respond to real-time traffic, reducing road congestion
- Connected cars that direct drivers to the nearest available parking spot / EV charging station
- Bidirectional charging in peak hours
- Autonomous vehicles for commercial and private use
- Free public Wi-Fi to access services and increase footfall
- Local services portal / city app with real-time updates on traffic congestion, parking spaces, and other city amenities
- Chatbots to engage citizens
- Digital identities used to simplify access to government services
A world of smart cities
There are a growing number of smart city projects around the world, including:
- Belmont, Bill Gates’s futuristic city featuring high-speed data centres, connected infrastructure and autonomous vehicles;
- Telosa, a desert city conceived by the former president of Wal-Mart, boasting aeroponic farming and solar generating rooftops;
- Nusantara, a new $34 billion smart capital city for Indonesia, a forest archipelago designed in harmony with the Borneo wilderness, featuring renewable energy generation, autonomous public transport, and an orangutan sanctuary;
- Akon City in Senegal, spearheaded by singer-songwriter Akon, a “real-life Wakanda” powered by renewables and a proprietary cryptocurrency called, yes, Akoin.
These ambitious projects exist in various states from conception to completion, some falling victim to their scopes or accusations of fraud
One smart city closer to completion is Egypt’s new Administrative Capital for Urban Development (ACUD)
. This city, covering over 700km2
of land 60km east of Cairo, is being developed with connected infrastructure to provide digital services for up to seven million citizens, uniting smart utilities, connectivity, smart buildings and sustainable energy to stimulate economic growth in the region, and creating an estimated 1.75 million new jobs.
Taking the crown for smart city ambitions though is Neom
, Saudi Arabia’s half-trillion dollar development whose centrepiece is “The Line,” a linear smart city – nay, megastructure – stretching from the shores of the Red Sea across 170 kilometres of the arid Tabuk region.
Designed with artificial intelligence at its core, with data used to manage power, water, waste, transport, healthcare and security, Neom will stack homes and offices vertically, and mine the data of its 9 million people, offering financial incentives in exchange for the use of their data – and those who don’t will not be afforded the same civic benefits.
Neom is very much a house built on sand though, mired in controversy over the displacement of the Al-Howeitat tribe
from their historic lands to build the city.
The worlds of conspiracy theories and urban planning have become increasingly intertwined as fifteen-minute cities
and climate lockdowns
catch the ire of those afraid of being confined to their street or town.
Amidst these more outrageous accusations, there’s a high degree of legitimate scepticism around smart city projects
from many across society, due to the sheer amount of invasive data that needs to be collected and managed to render these plans effective. Even something as simple as a parking app, for example, requires live occupancy data, wider traffic data, weather data, and real-time information on upcoming events (such as public holidays and civic events) to determine demand and variable pricing.
Businessman Roger McNamee has branded Toronto’s smart city project – in partnership with Google parent company Alphabet – as “the most highly evolved version to date of what Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism
” with the capacity to subvert democracy.
Smart cities – or rather, their designers and financers – must create an appealing environment to attract citizens and businesses, implementing services to address the needs of the people living there, rather than residents accommodating themselves around the technology.
For all the allure that surrounds smart cities, are they actually places where people want to live?
Songdo, dubbed “Korea’s Smartest City
,” is a purpose-built smart city, resting atop land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea, featuring smart home capabilities for all, and a network of pneumatic tubes to dispose of waste – however, only a third of the city’s 300,000 residences are occupied so far, with commercial space even emptier.
Furthermore, if not properly secured, smart cities could become a key target for hackers
to disrupt; a ransomware attack on the City of Atlanta
in 2018 shut down a number of key municipal services, from water bills and court fee payments, to council correspondence archives and public Wi-Fi at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Smart City BSS
As with all digital services, the back-office business support systems play a crucial role in enabling and future-proofing the smart cities of tomorrow. End-to-end process automation, fast time-to-market, and scalability to support millions of connected “things” are all crucial elements of a smart city digital BSS, but the complexity really comes from the breadth and convergence of services on offer.
From millions of connected devices and sensors, to managing the citizens, buildings and organisations therein, smart city BSS must be not only multi-service, but also multi-business model, able to monetise connectivity, utilities and ICT services, across consumer and business segments, and retail and wholesale operations, all in one convergent platform.
We aren’t experts in urban planning, but we are experts in smart city BSS – read the interview with Cerillion’s account management director to find out how Cerillion is powering Egypt’s new administrative capital.