Smart Cities of the Future

By Tina Kremmidas

Cities are a primary driver of economic growth, innovation and opportunity. They are powerful magnets for highly skilled and educated workers and gateways for new immigrants. They are centres of business, generators and suppliers of financial capital, important trade hubs for both goods and services, and the focal points of global commerce. They house substantial infrastructure assets and major institutions that power regional prosperity and the nation’s quality of life.

Despite all their advantages, cities confront significant challenges. The scale and pace of urbanization is straining physical infrastructure, fiscal capacity and natural resources. Mass urbanization is challenging institutions and governance structures that often lack the capacity and flexibility to respond to fast-paced growth.

Many cities around the world are incorporating “smart” initiatives to ensure sustainable urban development. They are actively deploying information and communications technology to reduce energy consumption and waste, make better use of renewable energy, manage traffic and transportation systems intelligently, monitor how infrastructure performs, deliver services much more efficiently and enhance citizens’ access to government.

Smart Cities of the Future

New Songdo City near Seoul, South Korea is perhaps the most ambitious smart city project currently underway. The mostly privately financed project is being constructed on reclaimed land.

Smart homes are at its heart. Front doors, lighting, air-conditioning, heating, security systems and even blinds and curtains can be controlled by electronic devices such as smartphones, PCs, tablets and touch-screen pads. Residents have access to teleprescence units for video conferencing friends and family, businesses, government offices, hospitals, schools, shopping centres and banks.

Fibre optic broadband threaded throughout the city connects residents and sends a constant data stream to the computer processors that help operate Songdo.

Sensors in the roads measure vehicle loads, adjust traffic measures and dim the LED-lit streets when no one is around. Radio frequency identification tags on cars send location data to a central hub, identifying black spots and tweaking signals to ease congestion. Power companies monitor the use of electrical appliances to better understand how residents use energy and set the grid to adapt.

Rainwater traps and recycled grey water from sinks and dishwashers dramatically reduce the need for fresh water. Refuse is automatically collected by a network of vacuum pipes.

The best-known smart city in the world may be Masdar City, a planned development in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. While the Abu Dhabi government is organizing the project, many local and international firms are helping design and plan the city.

The entire city is being built on a platform. Below the platform sits the smart infrastructure — a Personal Rapid Transit system (driverless pod-shaped vehicles powered by solar electricity and guided by magnetic sensors), a Light Rail Transport system, utility services, waste management and recycling facilities, and a fibre optic network for communications.

One of the levels below the city’s platform will accommodate a Freight Rapid Transport system that will operate on a dedicated magnetic guideway and will make up to 5,000 trips per day delivering goods to the city’s businesses and residents.

There will be no need to dig up city streets to undertake repairs — all infrastructure hardware will be easily maintained via full height access points under the city’s platform. Electronic sensors will notify of service problems and faults.

Eighty per cent of water used in the city will be recycled, with grey water used for crop and landscaping irrigation. Storm water will be collected in pools.

Above the platform the city will showcase many kinds of green technology — in its energy-efficient buildings, its production systems, its educational and research institutions, its open spaces and recreation areas. The city will rely entirely on solar energy and other renewable energy sources (wind, geothermal and hydrogen power). It will use 75 per cent less energy than a similar sized city of typical construction.

Existing Cities are More Challenging

Grand designs are possible only when building a city from scratch. Retrofitting existing infrastructure with smart technologies can be complex, disruptive and expensive.

Some cities are undertaking smart revitalization initiatives, one step at a time.

The Amsterdam Smart City, a public-private joint venture, is held up as the example of how to retrofit a city, step-by-step, to fuel sustainable economic growth and a high quality of life. Businesses, government, research institutions and the people of Amsterdam have partnered to develop the metropolitan area into a smart city.

Thirty projects, focusing on energy transition and open connectivity, have been launched: 300 power hook-ups have been installed to recharge electric cars; solar panels have been installed on Amsterdam’s historic townhouses; infrastructure upgrades allow households to sell energy from small-scale solar panels and wind turbines back to the city’s electricity grid; data on energy consumption is sent to consumers via mobile phones; smart meters have been installed in hundreds of businesses and homes; billboards are powered by solar energy; and sea vessels can hook up to shore power stations that allow green energy to replace noisy, polluting diesel generators.

Rio de Janeiro is making use of smart technologies to achieve significant operational efficiencies. In December 2010, it inaugurated its city operations centre, a system that fully integrates data from 30 city agencies, all under a single roof. City employees work quietly in front of a giant wall of screens monitoring video that streams in from subway stations and major intersections. A map signals locations of car accidents, power failures and other problems. By leveraging real-time information, they are able to anticipate problems, coordinate available resources and respond quickly.

In addition to using all the information gathered to manage the city, the data is shared with the population on mobile devices and social networks so they can better manage their daily lives.

It may come as a surprise that Stratford, a very small city in Southwestern Ontario, tops the global charts in the smart city category. In 2012, for the second year in a row, the Intelligent Community Forum ranked Stratford as one of the top seven cities in the world for creating uniquely powerful innovation ecosystems on a foundation of information and communications technology.

With an underground fibre optic grid already in place, in 2010, Stratford completed deployment of a high-performance wireless network to meet energy conservation objectives as well as provide high-speed connectivity to the entire community to increase inclusiveness and stimulate economic growth. The city now has the digital infrastructure of a major metropolitan area.

Its smart metering initiative is helping the city and its customers reduce both electricity consumption and utility bills. Energy consumption data is collected and transmitted to end-users wirelessly in real time. Customers can adjust their schedules to take advantage of off-peak, lower rate periods during the day and night. It also helps to reduce the potential of brownouts during peak usage hours.

The network is publicly-owned and managed by the city’s data infrastructure company (Rhyzome Networks) and its electrical utility (Festival Hydro). Both are wholly owned by the City of Stratford. Rhyzome rents fiber and wireless broadband capacity on the network to local carriers and internet service providers who deliver the services to the Stratford community. This also provides the city with an additional revenue stream.

Technology companies—both domestic and international—are using Stratford’s high-speed wireless network and underlying fibre optic grid to pilot technology.

Mayor Dan Mathieson said that “these companies have discovered in Stratford a forward-thinking populace, creative business culture, and leading edge infrastructure offering manageable size, with enough critical mass to yield meaningful results, yet scalable for global markets.”

The University of Waterloo recently opened a satellite campus in Stratford with a focus on digital media. The Waterloo Stratford Campus is one of the anchor hubs in the Canadian Digital Media Network, a national Centre of Excellence for Commercialization and Research. Stratford is now the centre of a four-hospital regional partnership. Some of Canada’s largest banks have located critical data, IT and loan processing centres in the community.

Stratford’s experience highlights that cities that embrace innovation—including smart technologies that enable well-functioning and efficient environments for their citizens and businesses—can position themselves to thrive. They can attract talent, new business development and investment and significantly increase their competitiveness.

In Summary

Until the mid-twentieth century, the study of economic growth largely revolved around firms and nations. Little emphasis was placed on the importance of location. Economic thinking has progressed considerably since then. Richard Florida, one of the world’s leading urban studies theorists, wrote that cities “act as giant petri dishes, where creative types and entrepreneurs rub up against each other, combining and recombining to spark new ideas, new inventions, new businesses and new industries.”

When it comes to building the smart cities of the future, partnerships are the key to success. The private sector can be a source of funding, ideas and innovation. It can work with local governments to deploy and integrate advanced information and communications technology that will help cities achieve maximum performance and sustainable economic growth. It can also provide for real-time oversight and management of projects. Public-private partnerships are even more important in this era of tight government budget constraints.

Tina Kremmidas is the Chief Economist of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce