Smart Cities: The Future of Urban Living

Rhian Lewis is a software developer at Unboxed, a London digital agency creating products and services that solve complex problems and have a positive impact on people’s lives. This blog post examines how COVID-19 pandemic is intensifying the movement towards smart cities, where data and technology are used to optimise the quality of life for urban residents.

One notable feature of this year’s unprecedented pandemic has been its ability to condense potential decades of social change into the space of a few months. The role of cities as centres for commuting and commerce has been questioned and we were presented with the idea that the daily commute into overcrowded and expensive city centres may be a thing of the past. Smart cities, on the other hand, may be becoming a thing of the future.

The UK newspaper headlines during the lockdown may have suggested that those disenchanted by the lack of space are seeking to divorce from the city living and move to the greener pastures. Yet, the move away from the positives that urban living can bring is far from happening.

While the pandemic has brought tragedy and disruption to millions of lives, it would be a mistake to imagine that it has disrupted the global trend towards city living to any great extent. Today, 54% of people worldwide live in cities, a proportion that’s expected to reach 66% by 2050.

The truth is that cities can be great places to live. Their concentrated populations offer access to healthcare, social facilities and varied food sources on a scale that is simply not possible for rural areas or smaller communities. However, in order for cities to be great places to live, their infrastructure has to work properly. For Cities that have simply sprung up and then ‘sprawled out’ over centuries, such as London, don’t often work as well as they could. Congested roads and public transport systems, oversubscribed schools and healthcare centres and infrequent rubbish collections can damage health and life prospects as well as degrading daily life experiences.

The smart city movement

Over the last decades, technology has given us the chance to revolutionise urban environments and turn our cities into pleasant places to live. Adding city-wide layers of infrastructure that can monitor the flow of people, vehicles and energy, in addition to planning cityscapes, can mean we benefit from the dynamism, creativity and energy of cities without the negatives. As well as this, transport networks become smarter, water supply and waste disposal are upgraded and city administrations have the information they need to meet the changing needs of the population.

This is known as the “smart city” movement. Governments and enterprises worldwide are pouring billions into such initiatives, with smart city technology spending expected to grow to $135 billion by 2021. Smart cities with projects that are seen as world-leading include Boston, Seoul, Calgary, Singapore, Florence and Amsterdam.

Other estimates go even further. Navigant Research has tracked at least 443 smart city projects in 286 cities worldwide, and has calculated that the cumulative global smart city technology market will reach $1.7 trillion.

Citizens can engage with smart city ecosystems in a variety of ways using smartphones and mobile devices, as well as via connected cars and homes. As an  example of the integrated benefits that can improve the lives of smart citizens, think about sensor-aided parking, where your car can be guided to the nearest available parking spot before you set off to your doctor’s appointment.

For drivers who are less confident parking in tiny spaces, auto-valet parking using robots and sensors can help maximise the use of space in multi-storey car parks, meaning less land has to be given up to automotive parking. As a side note, it is worth mentioning that China’s global positioning satellite alternative to GPS, named Beidou, is even more accurate  with a fault tolerance of only 10cm or so, it allows for excellent precision evaluation of  available spaces.

Of course, reducing demand for parking spaces is one thing, but reducing the number of journeys and speeding up those journeys is another.  Amsterdam and Utrecht have sophisticated systems of smart traffic lights, which use road-mounted sensors that detect patterns of approaching cars and bicycles, and can optimise traffic flow by prioritising one set of road users over another. Unobtrusively separating cycle traffic from car traffic by using ‘nudge’ behavioural psychology is another way smart cities can keep cyclists safe and traffic flowing.

The COVID effect

While COVID-19 has not slowed the overall ambition to make cities smarter, it has heavily impacted local projects.

The heavily publicised Quayside project in Toronto promised “a low-carbon, resilient neighbourhood with a significant number of environmental innovations, including sustainable building materials and designs, an advanced power grid for electricity, a clean thermal grid for heating and cooling, a smart disposal chain designed to increase recycling, and active storm water management”, complete with maker spaces, houses, shops, public squares and schools, all connected by a superfast fibre optic network.

This year, Toronto’s Sidewalk Labs, who had partnered with city authorities to develop the project, pulled out, citing economic uncertainties triggered by the pandemic. And in neighbouring USA, research by Kagan shows that investment in smart city projects is set to fall by at least 7% in 2021.

The slowing of investment does not mean that there is any less intent to push forward with the idea of connected cities, and various initiatives have shown how crucial forward-facing digital infrastructure can be in tracking the spread of disease and finding public health solutions. For example, as cited here , there are examples of “high-density cities, including Hong Kong, Seoul and Taipei, where robust and widespread interventions (such as social distancing, mask wearing and contact tracing) successfully limited COVID-19 cases and deaths”.

Data is crucial

As we have seen throughout the pandemic, ready access to data is crucial for controlling the spread of the virus, and smart cities have proved their worth here. For example, an epidemiological investigation into an outbreak of COVID-19 in Seoul, that would have normally taken a day to complete, was achieved in less than 10 minutes.

Seoul residents are able to access a dashboard of highly localised information that can alert them to positive cases, right down to the restaurant table or cinema seat number of the person with the positive test. The goal is to provide citizens with the information needed to take precautionary measures, self-monitor and report if they start showing symptoms after visiting one of the “infection points.” This dashboard can also direct them to the nearest testing centre or can reassure them that the restaurant or cinema has disinfected its premises and is safe to visit.

In a less obtrusive way, the Italian city of Florence was able to analyse the changing flow of traffic in the city to see how quickly the population responded to new guidelines, or to their relaxation, thus enabling local government to intervene when needed.

Alessandra Barbieri, Replicate Project Manager and Chiara Lorenzini, Replicate Mobility and KPI Data Analyst, both for the City of Florence, were in charge of talking about how Florence measured the “temperature” of the city with traffic flows in the time of COVID-19.

“The cameras are able to count the vehicles and measure the speed of them and we want to expand this by adding 200 camera sensors and 300 Bluetooth sensors for travel time estimation. Thanks to this technology, during the lockdown days, traffic flow reduction has been observed day by day to monitor citizen and city users activity,” explained Lorenzini.

The more real-time data that can be captured about a city and how people, vehicles, energy, water and waste flow around it, the more this can be used for modelling purposes, to ensure that changes to infrastructure genuinely produce the expected result. City planners talk of these models as ‘digital twins’ of cities’ physical manifestations, and as cities become even smarter, this allows for much more accurate predictions. –

Smart Cities vs Captured Cities

Having talked about the many positives, however, it is also important to think about the negative consequences of humans living in these highly connected places, with the inevitable surveillance and lack of data privacy. Critics refer to ‘captured cities’ rather than ‘smart cities’, arguing that this trade-off is too high, and suggesting that better solutions for data privacy should be in place. We also have to consider that a smart city that depends heavily on technology is also a vulnerable city, for instance, to a cyber-attack or hack into a critical system.

It therefore may be that while smart cities are a powerful tool in our battle to adapt to the abrupt economic change brought by the pandemic, we need to heed those who warn of the negative consequences, too.

Unboxed and Connected Places Catapult have been working together on a project to explore the potential for a tool to support planning for net zero growth and achieving decarbonisation commitments.