Are Smart Cities Really ‘Smart?’

By Katie McBeth

We are on the brink of a new age. With the ever advancing temperatures and the increasing access to technology, our world is steadily creating a new era of intermixing tech and nature. The evolution of cities are a product of this change. From the age of ports, to industrial hubs, to tech giants. Now, a new generation of cities are being born — the smart city. But are they living up to their expectations?

Smart cities were created initially to bring in the brightest minds to change and innovate the technology industry. As global warming continued to bode ill on the horizon, technology shifted its direction slightly. The new trend was “green,” and inventions were aimed at creating a difference for both the consumer and our world.

Yet smart cities are still struggling in many ways to make a positive impact on the environment. These hubs are generally known for their high and toxic emissions, massive amounts of waste, and slow adjustment to rapid population growth. Even despite some of their best efforts, they are lagging behind the international standard and expectations.

The United Nations released its 2030 Sustainable Development Goals last year. The 17 goals were aimed at both rural and urban populations, with a special interest in sustainable economies and infrastructures. So far, many urban areas have fallen short of their projected growth and are continuing to harm the air we breathe.

However, much of the problems presented by smart cities can be mitigated through the integration of technology, specifically the Internet of Things (IOT).

Creating a smarter network

A few researchers have touched on the pitfalls of smart cities, but the general consensus seems to be a lack of infrastructure and governance.

Unfortunately for the U.N. (and the world), many of the world’s largest cities conduct production and infrastructure under their own unique set of country-wide, state-wide or city-wide laws, with varying levels of funding for each. What may be a standard for Beijing is definitely not the same for New York City; and the costs are astronomically different. Thus, smart cities are often constructed with a top-down approach that leaves massive gaps between citizens, businesses and government.

David Thorpe, an energy consultant, notes this in his article on a report focused on smart grid cities in the U.K.:

“The problem [the report] identifies is that cities are constrained in their efforts to meet environmental challenges by a range of factors: not simply ‘lack of money’ but lack of control over how that money is spent in their area. Also a lack of any long-term certainty over levels of funding from central government, and an overcomplicated system of local government, where key powers and responsibilities are shared across different levels and by different institutions often varying from city to city.’”

Luckily, IOT has the ability to mitigate some of these greater bureaucratic hurdles. Through an interconnected web of data analysis, the city can monitor and administer to needs on an individual level. Small businesses that need a fraction of the energy as their corporate neighbors can be excluded from the larger equation of emissions. Corporations that actively work to cut back on energy or waste will be noticed for their efforts, and the city can make adjustments for those that need the help. On a consumer level, the possibilities are endless: from traffic control, to waste management, to safety monitoring.

IOT connected devices are also giving many cities the opportunity to re-vamp; even bringing some cities out of their decades-long recession. For Pittsburgh in the United States, this opportunity began with the introduction of the driverless car by Uber, providing the “rust-belt” city with an opportunity for massive innovation and a potentially greener future; despite the fact that the vehicle of choice, the Volvo XC90, is gas powered.

Although many consumers don’t see an immediate end to the driven car, innovators within the tech industry are determined to bring on this next evolution of car manufacturing. They see a potential for technology to bring on easier commutes, less pollution and a more cohesive flow to traditional city life. It’s through this next development in independence and cohesion through IOT that many cities will be able to break their dependence on oil and carbon emissions, and innovators in tech are ready and willing to step up to make it happen.

Rerouting the economy

Another major pitfall in the smart-city landscape is the type of economy many of these cities function under. Unlike the U.N.’s plan to create a sustainable infrastructure in major cities, most of the urban areas around the world function on a “take, make and destroy” linear framework. This leads to massive amounts of waste, much of which can be easily recycled or repurposed.

The circular economy is a model that can help change that framework. As Rutgers University explains, the circular economy model is aimed to create a “closed loop” on production, with incentives for business to create greener, reusable products and an increase in overall recycling. In the European Union, it has been especially promising. The EU’s current plan has allowed for over 65 percent of municipal waste and 75 percent of packaging waste to be recycled since instigating the change in December 2014.

Of course, forging a new economy is easier said than done. Corporations on an international level will need to cooperate with each other, and governments will need to step up to enforce a fluid transition. For the major producers of waste — primarily the United States — this may be an extremely difficult endeavor. However, international examples such as the EU set a high bar that is extremely successful.

In this way, IOT can help as well. IOT can help monitor the cycle from production, to use, to waste, and through to repurposing. As Techcrunch illustrates: “[Circular economies] combine the principles of a regenerative and restorative economy, where the utilization and useful life of assets is extended, with IoT technologies, which provide information about the condition, location and availability of those assets, and there may be an even greater opportunity to scale new models more effectively, while providing new direction to the digital revolution.”

For smart cities to continue on and create an active difference on our environment, they will need to embrace the innovative future of IOT and look into cultivating a circular economy. Through repurposing waste, managing energy output, and controlling emissions from both cars and manufacturing, they may be able to slowly reverse their negative effects on the planet. Luckily, the tech world is more than willing to help once they’re given the go-ahead. The trick, of course, is convincing the world governments that it’s worth giving a try.

Image credit: Pexels

Katie McBeth is a freelance writer out of Boise, ID, with experience in marketing for small businesses and management. She spends her free time being the mother of three cats and a dog named Toby. You can follow her animal and writing adventures on Instagram or Twitter: @ktmcbeth.

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