Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Andrew Burger headshot

DOE Develops Wireless 'Smart City' Platform


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.”

Growing urbanization highlights need for smart city technologies

With the global population forecast to increase from 7 billion today to more than 9 billion by 2050, humanity’s urban footprint will take up 1.5 million more square kilometers of land by 2030 at current rates -- an area comparable to that of France, Germany and Spain combined. That translates into an average 1 million more city-dwellers every week for the next 38 years, with the world’s total urban population forecast to increase from 3.5 billion today to 6.3 billion by 2050, organizers of the Planet Under Pressure 2012 conference highlighted.

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.”

Encouragingly, new ways of thinking about how to make cities more self-sufficient and sustainable, along with advances in a wide range of technologies and heightened environmental awareness, is leading to a reformulation of urban planning and development.

Wireless sensor networks and data-driven urban planning

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.

One of Waggle's key features is its ability to embed intelligence into all types of devices equipped with sensors. As Argonne computer scientist Rajesh Sankaran explains: “Waggle includes advanced management features that constantly monitor power use and can be programmed to respond to specific conditions like temperature and light intensity or a data signature from a camera or other sensor.
“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.”

From microbes in waterways to urban "heat islands" and climate change

Argonne microbial ecologist Jack Gilbert plans to use Waggle as a member of a city of Chicago research team that aims to “create a dynamic microbiome map of Chicago-area waterways.” Among Gilbert's research goals is “understanding how sewage and human activity affect the microbial quality of urban environments and waterways.”

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.”

Ultimately, these and other Argonne researchers see Waggle as enabling city planners, leaders and others to devise and implement sustainable, smart city policies based on actual data.

“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 

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

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.

Read more stories by Andrew Burger

More stories from New Activism