Through trial and error, 'smart cities' are slowly getting smarter
The 'smart city' concept has existed for several years, but only now, with some trial and error, are we seeing the real fruits of these efforts coming to light. While the ambitions of Masdar City have been scaled back somewhat, Amsterdam is forging ahead, piloting a number of schemes to introduce smart technology to the way energy and other resources are managed within the city.
Under increasing pressure to provide an efficient and reliable network of infrastructure and services, cities are increasing their focus on the use of new technologies when planning for future development, spurring a new paradigm, the 'smart city'. This concept involves creating a seamless network between authorities, citizens and businesses to facilitate knowledge exchange and collaboration between them.
This can lead to the development of improved infrastructure and service operations of the city through new information and communication technology, which can range from city-wide schemes like data grid networks to individual housing units such as smart energy meters. These technologies create more efficient urban systems by enabling us to monitor our city environments (for example energy consumption or traffic levels) so we can test and model solutions to arising issues and challenges. Over time this will enable the city to act as an efficient and intelligent entity.
Various intelligent sensor technology systems demonstrate this. On the road network, sensors can monitor vehicle traffic, congestion or pollution hot spots, the availability of car parking space, and relay this information to authorities and motorists, helping both to act to reduce their impacts. While these changes are normally incremental, the smart city will eventually incorporate this approach across the whole spectrum of its services to create a 'holistic' city network management system. This would promote the sharing of data and link all public services (such as health, education, infrastructure, government services) so that day-to-day needs of residents can be met in a more sustainable way.
... the implementation of these systems is not so straightforward, and can only be achieved through 'smarter governance' that facilitates their coordination, integration and delivery at a city-wide level.
However the implementation of these systems is not so straightforward, and can only be achieved through 'smarter governance' that facilitates their coordination, integration and delivery at a city-wide level. Authorities are responsible for capturing and analysing data, raising awareness, developing policies and incentivising the use of smart systems by residents and businesses, and introduce initiatives that address identified issues. Yet within the current economic climate it may be harder for authorities to achieve all of this.
Rethinking smart systems in Masdar
In a new city, the opportunities are considerable. Masdar City in Abu Dhabi is advertised as one of the world's most sustainable urban developments, built as a large-scale testing ground for green technologies and systems that facilitate the delivery of public services. The mixed-use project is planned to support 40,000 residents and 50,000 commuters in a car-free environment that relies on public mass transit and personal rapid transit systems — all-electric, driverless pod cars for individual use. This will be supported by features that include wind turbines and solar power to provide a green energy source for the development, along with intelligent networked infrastructure (sensor-fitted water pipelines, air quality monitors) that will respond to the challenging climate and sustainably cool users' environments.
However some of these far-reaching intiatives are being scaled back as the weak economy creates difficulties in sourcing tenants to occupy the project. The completion date has been pushed back to at least 2025. The personal rapid transit system is being limited to the first stage, and electric buses are explored as an alternative during the later phases. The energy strategy is being revised so that the development will need to gain additional power from renewable energy sources outside its boundary, as opposed to being fully self-sufficient on its exclusive grid network.
Retrofitting existing cities
Nevertheless the real challenge is how to upgrade and retrofit existing cities to make them smarter as well. As well as the practical issues associated with upgrading existing infrastructure, political willingness for the considerable investment it involves is required; particularly tough in challenging economic circumstances.
In Amsterdam promising steps have been made towards incorporating smart technology as well as encouraging behavioural change in existing residents to embrace more sustainable living. Since 2009 the city-wide joint public-private sector programme led by Liander, the regional grid operator, in conjunction with Amsterdam Innovation Motor (AIM) has been responsible for launching a numbe of projects introducing 'smarter' concepts to the city.
Though Amsterdam's initiatives are thus far small-scale and in the pilot stages, they have successfully demonstrated that collaboration on the delivery of sustainable smart initiatives can achieved.
Pilot projects were developed through collaborative partnerships between authorities, organisations and businesses, including the internationally renowned 'Climate Street', which successfully trialled sustainable energy management principles in a major retail area. This entailed the introduction of a sustainable waste collection system and smart energy meters and grid network that allowed the authority and some 120 small and medium-sized businesses to closely manage, monitor and reduce their energy usage. Elsewhere 195 electric charging points for boats have been established in the port, providing a sustainable alternative to the traditional diesel generators with less carbon dioxide emissions and noise pollution.
Though Amsterdam's initiatives are thus far small-scale and in the pilot stages, they have successfully demonstrated that collaboration on the delivery of sustainable smart initiatives can achieved. It nonetheless remains to be seen if we can ever integrate all the systems of an existing city into a responsive intelligent network that can evolve and adapt.
The transformation of our cities into 'smarter' and more organised places is not an overnight process, requiring a step-change not only in their management but also in the way people engage with them. It will involve the development and use of sustainable technology, the creation of intelligent networks, but also the support of residents, public authorities and private business. This will require strong public-sector leadership and incentives for collaboration during these groups, which may be financially unrealistic in the economic climate. It is however promising to observe that some global cities such as Amsterdam are taking the opportunity to make 'smarter' steps towards their future.