Access to data and digital technology for data analysis is transforming the relationship between human beings and their surroundings. In cities, which are the primary environment for human development, this real-time access enables the analysis of urban activity patterns in order to respond to population issues with faster and more effective solutions. These are the principles upon which a “smart city” is based. Smart cities are urban centres that leverage data and technology to improve both the lives of its inhabitants, and the activities that take place in this space.
In practice, this type of city boasts a sophisticated technological platform capable of collecting information provided via citizens’ mobile phones and other devices. Residents’ continuous digital interaction makes it possible to measure the pulse of urban activity in real time. In this way, it’s easier to determine the availability of public transport or parking, or the state of traffic or street cleaning, among other details. Provided that the public authorities have the necessary technology to process it, the analysis of the data provided by the digital participation of community members can improve road and resident safety, transport, infrastructure and environmental impact. The combination of these factors give rise to the smart city, something that is far from simply being a utopian ideal as there are already several examples in operation around the world. What’s more, for the smart city to be possible, it only requires tools that are already accepted and used by its citizens.
The Internet of Things (IoT)
At the technological core of a smart city is something called the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT is the connection of all digital and physical devices via wireless communication on an expansive scale. Device sensors allow data to be continuously collected and stored in analytics platforms. These platforms provide information from which city planners can make decisions to help improve the activity of the city and its residents. IoT interaction in a smart city is made possible by the modern connections citizens are already familiar with, based on 4G and 5G networks.
In order for a smart city to develop, and for citizens to benefit from their continuous digital interaction, data must be quickly and effectively collected and analysed. Therefore, agencies managing a smart city must transform their departments and systems in order to efficiently use the information obtained. In this sense, the analytics system that supports device activity connected by the IoT is as relevant as the devices themselves. It is based on the combination of real-time streamed data together with machine learning techniques and artificial intelligence, as well as the already stored historical dataset. These elements, when brought together, enable the system to plan predictive and prescriptive actions.
Some IoT applications for smart cities are already in use in urban spaces. For example, traffic sensors and cameras with intelligent management can prevent traffic jams. Intelligent parking systems with availability registration and online payment services are also available. The same system is used to control waste containers. Applied sensors monitor the level of waste to optimise collection schedules and routes. Smart meters for water, electricity and gas consumption keep users and companies informed, allowing them to monitor and pay for usage. There are also initiatives that use sensors in medical examinations to improve diagnostics in primary care services. Commercial building sensors, such as those of The Predictive Company’s initiative, save up to 30% on energy and reduce C02 emissions by the same percentage with their intelligent system.
Currently, the best example of a smart city is Singapore. Its status as a city-state simplifies its administration, allowing it to accelerate its digital transformation. Back in 2014, the smart city initiative was launched and they used a 3D model of the city to test implementation. Since then, public transport and street cleanliness has significantly improved. This success has led Singapore to be ranked first in the Smart City Index in mobility, safety, health and productivity.
Yet, it is not necessary to go that far to evaluate the success of the IoT in a smart city. Barcelona saves billions of euros annually thanks to the smart energy system implemented in its streets. Streetlights not only control traffic, noise and air quality, but also adjust the brightness of the light depending on traffic, and are part of the city’s WiFi network. As for Amsterdam, it used the IoT to improve tourism by combining data shared by visitors and residents on social media with surveillance cameras and GPS navigation. Meanwhile in the United States, San Diego has managed to reduce road traffic by 25% thanks to the installation of intelligent traffic lights that share data in real time.
These innovations bring improvements for the city and its residents, ranging from sustainable urban development to commercial and tourism growth, as well as increased road and citizen safety. Just as businesses need a solid strategy before undertaking digital transformation, cities need to begin with an assessment of infrastructures, subsequent investment and continuous coordination of their technology use. These measures have proven successful, as shown by some examples of cities that – to varying extents – embrace IoT to build smart cities.