Is There a Right Way to Build a Smart City?

March 8, 2018 - 7 minutes read

Smart cities are the natural next step in evolution for densely populated areas. In fact, it could be argued that they’re absolutely necessary to support our growing populations. Initiatives around the world are racing to test proof of concepts and to equip existing metropolises with the foundations they’ll need to survive into the future.

But is there a correct way to build these “cities of the future?” And if so, does that mean the other strategies being implemented are wrong?

Building Momentum

54 percent of the global population currently lives in cities. The United Nations projects that this percentage will surpass 66 percent by 2050. This means that smart cities will have to handle populations greater than the cities of today currently support. According to market intelligence firm International Data Corporation, (IDC), smart city tech spending is forecasted to reach $80 billion this year and spike up to $135 billion by 2021.

“Smart Cities have recently evolved from a collection of discrete flagship projects to a sizeable market opportunity that will drive significant technology investments in 2018 and beyond,” explains Serena Da Rold, a program manager for IDC’s Customer Insights & Analysis Group. At an estimated $22 billion, the United States makes up the bulk of projected smart city spending for this year. China trails right behind at approximately $21 billion.

Generally speaking, the main idea behind a smart city is to employ artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) development in tandem with massive amounts of data to drive efficient optimization of city operations. But when current initiatives are spread out across drastically different terrains and deal with completely unique scenarios, accommodations must be made to tailor this broad methodology to each situation.

Different Problems, Different Solutions

Different cities require different approaches to be brought into the future. Adelaide, Australia, recently piloted a smart trash bin program to great success. Garbage receptacles were fitted with solar-powered compactors which crushed the rubbish to increase capacity.

While this solution is working to solve some problems for Adelaide, it may not produce the same results in Hong Kong, according to Dr. Albert Wong, a director at PwC Hong Kong. Dr. Wong is also currently the lead consultant for the Smart City Hong Kong Blueprint, an initiative to help Hong Kong prepare for long-term smart city development.

“We’re a small place with a lot of people and our rubbish bins fill up very quickly. A smarter placement of bins and an optimized route for cleaning and collecting them would be more helpful for Hong Kong,” says Wong. A problem that is plaguing Hong Kong’s smart city future is its aging buildings. A great number of them are over 40 years old. To add to the complexity, many of them are also very tall. Current maintenance is already an issue, so how could these buildings be part of a smart city?

Another great example of the diverse problems that cities around the world are facing is Amsterdam. In order to combat canal overcrowding and pollution, the Netherlands capital began employing robot boats, or Roboats, to simultaneously deliver parcels to customers and collect data about water quality. Citizens get their mail, the canals are clearer, and the city has better insight into how to keep the canals cleaner.

No Pressure

While cities around the world face different scenarios, the pressure on smart city planners to get it right the first time is both universal and immense. The livability of future cities largely depends on the solutions in the works today. And considering each category — energy, healthcare, waste management, housing, transportation, etc. — isn’t enough. All of them are interconnected and affect each other on an intimate level.

This year, IDC believes that smart city initiatives will mainly focus on infrastructure, energy, public safety, and intelligent transportation. Globally, the order of priority is transportation, visual surveillance, smart lighting, and environment monitoring. Of course, this changes from country to country, and even more so from city to city. For instance, transportation will be the main focus for the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan, while China’s main emphasis will be on visual surveillance.

No matter what the planned areas of focus and the solutions are, the common theme to carrying out these initiatives correctly harken back to the reason humanity has survived as long as it has: adaptability. Coupling this with our newfound abilities to acquire, analyze, and derive insights from immense amounts of data will be the key to making a resilient smart city.

Listen to the Data

Regardless of whether it’s a smart city development in London or Toronto, it’s prudent to focus on the right mindset, not the “right” solution when it comes to building a smart city. Rather than setting one solution in stone, cities must remain open to pivoting ideas and implementations according to feedback from the data. Adaptability is crucial.

By 2020, IDC estimates that 30 billion embedded sensors around the world will monitor our daily lives. Having the tools necessary to sift through all of the noise and make good use of this data will be the bedrock of smart cities. And the cities that do this exceptionally well will eventually earn their place in the future where today’s term of “smart city” simply refers to a normal city.

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