Are our cities about to get a lot smarter (and greener)?

Are our cities about to get a lot smarter (and greener)?

Tower Bridge, London
Tower Bridge, London

This article first appeared at Business Green.

The world's cities could be on the brink of an infrastructure revolution to match the development of urban power grids and the emergence of the car. That is the central conclusion of a series of reports and initiatives this week that suggest the market for so-called "smart city" technologies could be about to explode, solving a raft of environmental challenges and slashing greenhouse gas emissions in the process. Environmentalists will be hoping these optimistic predictions prove well founded, because the alternative does not bear thinking about.

The smart-city or green-city vision is almost utopian in its breadth and ambition. It envisages ultra-efficient urban centres that are optimized through the real-time analysis of billions of separate pieces of data, ensuring that buildings automatically change to deliver perfect comfort levels, public transport networks integrate to slash commuting times and road networks are automatically managed in real time to bring an end to congestion, with business deliveries completed in the early hours.

Grafted onto this IT-enabled strategy are a host of clean technologies: electric cars and buses bring an end to air pollution, microgeneration and energy storage slashes building emissions, and from public transport to office blocks energy and water efficiency is automatically optimized.

This idealized vision is as essential as it is attractive. As a new report from consultancy WSP on the potential for electrifying London notes, 4,300 Londoners die every year from breathing bad air — out of 29,000 across the UK. Numerous cities in industrialized nations are still blighted by dangerous levels of air pollution, while the situation in the industrialising superpowers of Asia, South America and Africa is worse still, with China's cities now the poster child for toxic air.

Meanwhile, rapid urbanization has resulted in 54 percent of the world's population now living in cities, and the UN expects this figure to grow to 66 per cent by 2050. As Mark Watts, chief executive of the C40 group of cities committed to climate action, observed this week at the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) Annual Conference, if we can't tackle greenhouse gas emissions from cities, we will not be able to tackle climate change. Unless we make our cities smarter and greener we will not be able to solve the environmental challenges they still face. These problems will only get worse as urban populations grow, and runaway climate change will become unavoidable.

Thankfully, there is growing evidence that emerging smart city technologies can address challenges such as air pollution and carbon emissions, while also improving quality of life for urban populations.

This week's report from WSP concludes it is possible to turn London into an "all-electric" city by 2035, switching to electric forms of transport and heating in a way that would cut the capital's carbon emissions by 80 percent, reduce air pollution by over one-third and push it up the global quality of life league table, which recently concluded London was only the 38th most liveable city in the world. "The all-electric city will reduce carbon emissions and noise pollution while improving air quality significantly," said WSP associate Barny Evans. "It will be an attractive place to live and work but we need to commit to this future now."

London

London could be an "all-electric" city by 2035, according to a recent report.

The report argues delivering an all-electric city would require the deployment of technologies that have already shown to be cost effective and notes that a number of initiatives are already under way to electrify the city's infrastructure. However, Evans warns London is moving away from electric heating in some instances and lacks "an overall vision and clarity of purpose" when it comes to electrification. "If London and other cities committed to becoming all-electric by 2035, that would provide the direction to significantly improve our quality of life," he said. "We've got 20 years to make this a reality."

The report recommends the introduction of specific policies to drive the rollout of electric clean technologies, including standards to ensure all new houses and offices are built to use electric heating from 2018, a city-wide program to replace old boilers with heat pumps, and the introduction of a London-wide electric vehicle hire scheme and a London-wide ultra-low-emission zone.

The vision put forward by WSP does not focus specifically on smart city technologies, but electric vehicles and buildings have the potential to be integrated with the apps and data management systems that characterise smart cities.

The potential for this kind of integration has been highlighted on both sides of the Atlantic in the past week, as a number of flagship smart city projects took significant steps forward.

The Ontario government in Canada announced late last month that 17 new energy projects were to share CA$24m (£13.5m) from its Smart Grid Fund, enabling projects to integrate electric vehicle charging with the grid, establish automated localized microgrids, better analyze smart meter data to help buildings optimise their performance and deploy cutting-edge energy storage technologies. The result, according to the government, is expected to be lower greenhouse gas emissions, reduced air pollution and improved building performance.

Meanwhile, the EU's GrowSmarter project announced that it expects to see 1,500 jobs created through plans to make Stockholm, Cologne and Barcelona "lighthouse cities" that will demonstrate a wide range of smart-city technologies. The five-year project will kick off next month with €25m (£20m) of EU funding and a goal of demonstrating 12 smart-city solutions, including systems to optimise transport management and integrate renewables with urban power grids.

"This is a hugely exciting project, with an immense potential to shape urban environments which citizens can enjoy, where the air quality is good and quality of life enhanced," said project co-ordinator Gustaf Landahl, of the city of Stockholm. "By introducing intelligent and integrated solutions as part of the urban fabric, we can make sure not only that Europe grows smarter in terms of energy, housing and transport, but also push the market in this area by becoming the place where smart cities can grow and innovation can thrive."

In addition, in London the Canary Wharf Group and Intel announced yesterday they were teaming up to promote the Cognicity Challenge, an initiative to work with smart-city start-ups to accelerate their development and demonstrate their technologies on the Canary Wharf estate.

Stockholm

EU's GrowSmarter project expects to see 1,500 jobs created through plans to make Stockholm, Cologne and Barcelona "lighthouse cities" for smart-city technologies.

This encouraging progress has plenty of executives from across the IT, energy, building and automotive sectors extremely excited. The integration of the so-called Internet of Things with environmental sensors, electric cars, modern public transport networks, green buildings, onsite renewable energy generation and emerging energy storage systems holds out the promise of multi-billion markets coupled with clean air and decarbonized cities. Moreover, there are signs the public would welcome smart city developments, as evidenced by the growing popularity of smart meters and mobile phone apps that act as precursors for full-blown smart city infrastructure.

So where's the catch? A new report released this week by the EIC provided a valuable counter-weight to the optimism that surrounds smart city projects, warning that while the potential benefits from smart city technologies are considerable, they remain precisely that: potential benefits. "We found real potential in environmentally focused smart technologies, but we also found an immature market and a limited amount of hard evidence of real-world impacts due to the newness of much of the innovation in this area," observed the EIC's executive director Matthew Farrow.

The report analyzed a host of encouraging smart-city case studies, which demonstrate that new data management technologies should be able to significantly improve the environmental performance of the world's cities. For example, Milton Keynes' Internet of Things initiative will see 1,000 sensors deployed across the city to create an "MK Data Hub" that will bring together data about energy use, water consumption and transport flows to help reduce environmental impacts and enhance the city's performance.

Similarly, a project in Hong Kong is using a network of air-quality sensors attached to people's wrists and bags to give the public real-time updates on air quality and encourage them to take steps to reduce pollution. On a less high-tech level, the report also noted how Keep Britain Tidy has had considerable success with a smartphone app that allows people to report fly-tipping to local authorities in real time.

However, the report notes that there are a number of significant barriers that smart-city projects face. Most notably, budget cuts for city authorities in many industrialized nations have forced them to focus on day-to-day operations and eroded the appetite for ambitious, and potentially costly, new initiatives. The manner in which effective smart city technologies cut across different departments and sectors also results in "institutional barriers" that make it difficult to effectively manage smart city projects. Related to both of these issues is the fact that city authorities often find it difficult to identify a compelling reason for deploying smart technologies, despite the myriad potential benefits they offer.

"Smart initiatives provide new ways to tackle environmental challenges, but they do not in themselves create a political or financial incentive to do so," the report states. "This in turn can make it difficult to create business models and raises questions about who has a moral, legal or regulatory obligation to pay for the solution." It offers the example of water leakage, which has "traditionally been seen almost exclusively in economic terms, with the economic level of leakage taking account of the cost of water to determine the point at which the marginal cost of additional leakage management activity to save a further unit equals the cost avoided by not producing the unit."

The report notes there is some evidence that water companies are starting to consider the social and environmental costs and benefits of leaks and are consequently exploring smart technology solutions. But the poor track record of many utilities towards leaks suggests it could be a long time before urban water management is improved.

The report argues that a number of steps could help overcome these barriers to deployment, recommending that supporters of smart cities should take steps to develop a central case study depository to demonstrate the effectiveness of pilot projects, avoid "over-selling" the benefits of smart technologies, focus more on how they can be integrated with traditional engineering solutions, pilot technologies at a sub-city level, and support the standardization of the data portals that underpin successful smart city projects.

It is a sensible list of recommendations and as growing numbers of smart city pilot projects report back their findings, it will help further fuel hopes that the smart city revolution is gaining momentum.