How Smart Cities Enable Urban Sustainability

big city

By Anum Yoon

Everything is becoming ‘smart’ these days, from smartphones to smart watches and more. There’s a reason for it.

For the most part, converting something into what we call “smart” means performance enhancements and better optimization. For example, smartphones allow us to do a whole slew of things on the go that we used to need a computer for. You can shop, browse the Web, answer and send emails, and much more.

It makes sense that the world around us would eventually evolve to incorporate modern technology, just like with our mobile phones. What better place to start than a fast-paced city? There is such a thing as a smart city, and more own cities across the country are making the conversion to this model.

What is a smart city?

A smart city, or connected city, uses modern digital technologies to improve the overall quality of life and performance. In addition, this allows for reduced operation costs and better communication and engagement with citizens.

Key sectors, or areas that can be improved through technology, include transportation, energy, health care, water and waste.

The idea is to leverage modern and useful tech to create a sustainable and self-aware city. This would allow it to do many things like direct traffic, notify residents about available parking and reduce gas emissions.

Climate change has been a significant factor in the push for smart cities, in the hopes that enhancing our highly populated urban areas will allow reduced environmental hazards like gas emissions and waste production.

What does a smart city look like?

Smart cities are relatively new in terms of the human timeline. Modern cities — devoid of ‘smart’ technology — represent a large majority of the world’s GDP, as well as its waste production and resource consumption. For all intents and purposes, they are a large drain.

That’s why these large population centers need to be reinvented to become more efficient and sustainable over time, lest they burst at the seams. The idea behind a smart city is to reduce this drain on society, eliminating a city’s consumption footprint or mitigating it entirely.

A proper smart city should be able to do the following:

  • Recognize and identify its context and local impact
  • Offer an abundance of raw materials, a sustainable agricultural ecosystem, free crop pollination and genetic diversity
  • Be resilient to long-term changes and adapt to conceptualized data
  • Employ high-tech ‘smart’ devices, sensors and low-tech biomimetic designs to improve operation and life within
  • Have zero footprint when it comes to water consumption, by recharging water supplies through modern recycling systems or rainwater collection (such systems should be implemented even as part of basic plumbing standards)
  • Minimize citizen consumption by allowing them to optimize the emission of greenhouse gases, cutting back their reliance on destructive living
  • A general shift that favors efficient building design, decentralized generation, green transportation and modes of travel, sustainable energy systems, and green living

How can smart cities enable sustainability?

The concept behind a smart city is simple, the application not so much. Think about it: The more information we know about something, the better off we are. We can make informed decisions — more accurate decisions —and enact change to improve performance and operation.

When applied to a city, the more self-aware, or ‘smart,’ a city is, the more we can engage with it. It relates directly to big data and modern tech. One of the more recent trends is leveraging big data to solve problems.

For instance, let’s say a city was outfitted with the technology to streamline traffic. By knowing where all of its citizens are at a given time, and where traffic is the heaviest, it can direct others appropriately (think: a GPS system that actually connects directly to an urban network to update accident locations, congestion info and more).

From the outside, this may not seem like it does anything more than improve commute times, but in the grand scheme it improves nearly everything about that city. It cuts down on emission ratings, as vehicles spend less time on the roads. It cuts down on commute times, yes, but that also reduces the risk for accidents. It also reduces fuel consumption and saves money.

Really, the list could go on and on. So, you see, even just a simple system such as that can help improve the quality of life for a city’s residents along with performance.

Yes, but what about sustainability?

The concept of smart cities might be difficult to understand, so I’ll break it down further. By leveraging modern tech, a smart city can do much more than just help you find a closer parking space or hail a taxi.

Technology implemented in a smart city can improve sustainability in many ways — for instance, with public transportation. All Aboard Florida is a great example of modern tech improving sustainability. It is an environmentally-friendly railway in the state of Florida that will improve transportation for all areas it covers. While building, it leveraged big data, or ‘smart’ data, to reduce vibrations and noise, monitor cultural effects and resource consumption, reduce fuel costs and consumption, and discern the impact on air and water quality in nearby areas. The state will also be able to accurately monitor how the railway affects transportation and commute times

A smart city could also do things such as measure water levels, average consumption and weather patterns — like a drought — to help us better manage our supply. It could even track waste patterns to help us optimize recycling and cut back on the amount of waste we use as a society. Both of these scenarios would require the smart city to constantly monitor activities and collect data. All of that data is what we refer to as ‘big data,’ and it’s what would allow the city to be sustainable and react.

Hitachi is working on a project called Social Innovation that will utilize IT and infrastructure technologies to drive business and make smart cities safer. Through the use of big data, the system will be able to react to an event happening around the city in a more fluid manner. Think: The system will alert law enforcement when subway platforms are too overcrowded — thanks to unique sensors — and the police can react by sending additional transportation to alleviate the crowds. This would not only improve commute times, but also keep a large majority of people safe, avoiding unnecessary accidents.

As for the matter of privacy, when it comes to collecting that big data, that’s another story entirely.

For now, I’ll just close out with this: As our cities become ‘smart,’ our lives will improve significantly, because a more sustainable, more aware city means better living conditions and experiences for all.

So, how do we get there?

To be perfectly honest, as promising as this all sounds, our cities are not going to become smarter overnight. It takes time to adapt the technology needed for smart cities and put it into place. Furthermore, it will take just as long to conceptualize collected data and understand how it can be used in the grand scheme. Once active, this technology will constantly be recording and measuring data, and it’s going to take a lot of manpower to analyze it and filter it properly.

It’s also going to require reform in terms of development. Citizens of these cities will need to be willing to support large-scale projects, particularly when it comes to transforming the area so that it’s smarter and more efficient. Older, run-down buildings will need to be replaced with ones that implement modern technologies. It’s not just about buildings though — other city utilities and services count, too. It could include anything from storm-water drains, to dams or public structures.

Bland, open rooftops could be transformed into energy-producing and sustainable areas with solar energy. City streets could become aware of foot and vehicle traffic and alert the proper authorities when issues arise. Plumbing systems could be designed to collect rainwater and filter it for public consumption. The possibilities are truly endless.

The trick of it all is updating existing technologies, structures and strategies to incorporate new, smarter and more efficient ones. That is simply going to take time. If you support such a thing, be sure to vote with your wallet and time when you can.

But just as long-term solutions and big pictures are important, so are the daily habits and life choices of individuals. Rather than people disengaging from sustainability because they cannot provide the whole solution, individuals should realize the value of engaging through small steps. Changing a habit, like how you wash dishes, or making long-term sustainable choices, like investing in a greener kitchen, are individual efforts that add up.

Image credits: Port via Life of Pix

Anum Yoon is a writer who is passionate about personal finance and sustainability. She often looks for ways she can incorporate money management with environmental awareness. You can read her updates on Current on Currency.

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