The number of people living in cities and urban areas worldwide rose from 746 million in 1950 to 3.9 billion in 2014, according to best estimates from the United Nations' World Health Organization (WHO). More than half – 54 percent – of the global population now lives in urban areas, and WHO expects that will continue rising to reach 66 percent by 2050.
Reducing pollution, waste and the intensity of natural resource use in cities and urban areas, as well as reconnecting them with the natural environment, has become a priority -- locally, nationally and globally. A shift away from consumer-driven mindsets that have come to define society over the past 60-odd years is clearly in order. So are new tools and technologies. Rapid development and adoption of so-called “smart city” technologies are helping chart the course to sustainable cities and lifestyles.
Development of a low-power wireless sensor network platform by researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) looks like a breakthrough smart city technology. Dubbed 'Waggle,' ANL's wireless network sensor platform provides researchers “a really fantastic picture of whatever physical processes the researcher wants,” ANL explains in a press release, “whether it's city or climate data or even hyperspectral data from plants.”
Cities place tremendous strains and have tremendous impacts on natural resources and ecosystems, while mindless consumption and needless waste degrade quality of life and the ecosystems on which urban residents depend. And cities just keep getting bigger, as well as more numerous: The number of cities with populations exceeding 10 million is forecast to rise from 28 in 2014 to 41 by 2030.
It's clear that new ways of thinking about how to make cities more self-sufficient and sustainable are urgently needed. As Arizona State University's Dr. Michael Fragkias stated upon the conference's opening:
“Today’s ongoing pattern of urban sprawl puts humanity at severe risk due to environmental problems. Dense cities designed for efficiency offer one of the most promising paths to sustainability, and urbanization specialists will share a wealth of knowledge available to drive solutions.”
ANL's Waggle platform enables researchers to collect data from wireless sensor networks monitoring myriad processes and parameters occurring throughout cities in real-time. This includes anything that impacts city residents, such as air pressure, temperature, greenhouse gas emissions and the microbial content of wastewater streams. Equipped with “the same type of circuit board and real-time processing speeds found inside your smartphone, 'Wagglers' can add their own mix of sensors, specific to what they're researching, install programs onto a single low-power 'system-on-a-chip' computer board, complete with a Linux-based operating system to control them,” ANL explains.
“This is the equivalent of a microscope looking at a cell, except we’re using sensors, turning them towards the environment and getting the most comprehensive picture yet of what is actually happening,” Argonne senior computer scientist and project leader, Pete Beckman, was quoted as saying.
“Very few people are experts in embedded computer systems, so we’ve provided a framework for writing Waggle code that can run in-situ and have worked to take the guesswork out of the data-collection process, providing researchers with a way to automatically plug, play and retrieve safe and secure data from the cloud.”
Argonne computational climate scientist Rob Jacob is part of a research group investigating the urban “heat island” and urbanization. Paved in concrete, cities and urban areas soak up heat, making them much warmer than the surrounding countryside. “The heat island effect,” Argonne points out, “contributed to the death toll of the 1995 Chicago heat wave.”
Jacob believes that Waggle will eventually enable researchers, planners and decision-makers “where the types of sensor networks Waggle allows can be used to predict urban heat waves, flooding and other weather hazards.
“There’s a lot of temperature and meteorological variability within a city—basically because the buildings, parks and other materials store heat differently and it’s difficult to measure all the variability,” Jacob noted. “But Waggle’s low price point and scalability make it possible to get very dense coverage throughout different areas, and ultimately a better understanding of where and how these heat islands will occur.”
“From climate studies to understanding the dynamics of particular types of air pollution to identifying trends in noise or increases in pedestrian traffic — the Waggle system can effectively move the city towards data-driven policy,” Argonne states.
*Image credits: 1) China Mike; 2) WHO; 3) Argonne National Laboratory
An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.