Can Smart Cities Save the World?
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Smart Cities could save the world. But today, cities are killing it—at least the way we currently live in them.  They consume two-thirds of global energy and produce 70% of the carbon emissions. And it’s a problem growing in size: the United Nations predicts at least 68% of the global population of nearly 10 billion people will live in cities by 2050. 

Through intelligent investments in sensors, data, resilient adaptive infrastructure and operations, we can turn what are now the planet’s largest producers of greenhouse gasses into urban oases, not only saving our environment, but also improving quality of life.  A useful guiding principle for us as we continue together on this smart green path is that of “Hedonistic Sustainability,” a phrase coined by innovative architect Bjarke Ingels.   That is to say that increased sustainability is one of improved quality of life and lived experience, not of deprivation and regression.  

Improvements in the efficiency of existing buildings and their lighting, heating, and cooling systems could reduce urban emissions by more than 30% according to a recent Seizing the Urban Opportunity report from the Coalition for Urban Transitions. By optimizing transportation, cities could reduce their emissions another 20%.

These optimizations require data. Data is the ‘oxygen’ for Smart Cities.  It’s essential to identify inefficiencies, pinpoint their source, determine the most impactful solutions, and then provide the feedback for necessary adjustment.  Connected sensors can help us collect and correlate data on building energy use, occupancy, interior and exterior temperature, humidity, windows, security, and lighting.  The sensors can be retrofitted into HVAC and power systems to optimize internal atmosphere, air quality, and energy usage. For the sensors to work in concert, however, they must be connected by a local network. 

Zigbee and Z-Wave technologies are emerging as leading smart building network technologies due to their low-power usage, undemanding bandwidth, and short range.  Zigbee is a purpose-built full stack Internet of Things (IoT) technology that has found favor in applications from Amazon Echo® to large commercial buildings.  As a complete solution, Zigbee can increase the cost effectiveness of Smart building applications through efficiencies in installation; retrofitting and maintenance; and monitoring and interoperability.  The Zigbee Alliance is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the Zigbee community through developer resources, certification, product evaluation, and standards. 

Johnson Controls, who makes its home in the Great Lakes, along with other industry leaders like Honeywell and Schneider Electric have seized the opportunities, establishing building automation products and services–from controllers and hardware to software and management platforms.  Such urgent opportunity—the $100 billion market is expected to more than double by 2027–has also spurred a surge of startups in the smart building space with notable examples such as the Great Lakes company 75F joining companies like Danfoss’ Leanheat® and Stem, Inc, using IoT to make buildings more comfortable, healthier, energy efficient, and more economical.

As the model for Smart Buildings evolves from building automation to building IoT ecosystems, an expanded definition and set of tools is required.  No longer is a facilities manager only looking at utilities monitoring on a desktop but rather at disparate systems, devices, and data streams within and without the building itself including weather, real time movement of people and traffic as well as 3rd party commercial and municipal service such as car sharing, water, and even events.  Only a cloud-based platform can accommodate the larger, faster, and more varied data sets, which require expanded computing, storage, and analytics capabilities.    Such platforms enable cities and facilities managers to use the broad and deep ongoing insights into their buildings, the people who use them, and the surrounding environment to optimize operations, reduce waste and pollution, improve profitability–all while improving the day-to day-experience of the citizens.  

Such systems should be scalable to accommodate the exploding volume of sensors and data, and importantly, they should have robust security and safety measures to keep people and their data safe as well as providing world-class user experiences. 

Paying for such intelligence is an investment in infrastructure, and there are multiple funding options. Investment funds and outcomes-as-a-service firms help cities build smart infrastructure despite tight budgets. One such example was recently featured in a Tech Republic article outlining new innovative infrastructure financing options. The City of Erie, Pennsylvania used this approach, partnering with Digital Alpha, to install cameras to monitor public safety, modernize lighting, and expand free public Wi-Fi around the city, creatively tying the services to digital advertising, so that the city can repay the loan over time, enabling upgrades to infrastructure even when tax revenues are down.  More traditional approaches like tax incentives, grants, and property taxes can also help, however, the high costs of infrastructure implementations are driving more interest in public-private partnerships between cities and technology vendors to foot the bill, because smart infrastructure is also smart business.

There are many cities around the world putting all the pieces together to reduce their environmental impact, improving both their bottom lines and the daily experiences of their citizens through smart infrastructure.  According to IMD 2020 Smart City Index, Singapore is leading the smart city revolution with Helsinki and Zurich in 2nd and 3rd place. Closer to home in the Great Lakes region, Toronto is ranked 30th and Chicago is 41st.  Smaller cities like Erie and Ann Arbor, Michigan are also making great strides towards a brighter, greener, safer, and more enjoyable future. 

The most important thing in any case is to start–now. To thrive in the coming decades is well worth our investments, time, energy, and ingenuity. The technologies that make smart cities are available, affordable, and accessible—we would be smart to use them accordingly.

About the Author

Ken Faris is a Digital Transformation and Innovation consultant for Tata Consultancy Services (TCS).

A life-long resident of the state of Michigan, he enjoys cycling, fishing, soaring, and paddlesports. He and his family are restoring a Victorian home in Battle Creek, Michigan and are active in local civics and economic development.

About Tata Consultancy Services (TCS)

Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) is a global leader in IT services, consulting & business solutions whose mission is to help customers achieve their business objectives by providing customer centric, innovative, best-in-class consulting, IT solutions and services. They function as a full stakeholder to business, offering a consulting-led approach with an integrated portfolio of technology-led solutions that encompass the entire Enterprise value chain.

Photo by Sandro Schuh on Unsplash–Toronto is #30 on the IMD ‘Smart City’ Index.

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