55% of the world’s population – 4.2 billion inhabitants – live in cities. By 2050, with the urban population more than doubling its current size, nearly 7 of 10 people in the world will live in cities.

With more than 80% of global GDP generated in cities, urbanization can increase productivity, boost the economy, and efficiency of services and security. At the same time, it brings challenges – rapid population growth has increased inequality and the exclusion of certain groups. For this reason, the international community is aware of the need to create more inclusive cities and ensure that people get the benefits of urbanization.

Bringing technology into our daily lives can improve its quality. However, pollution and climate change issues have increased the concern and urgency to implement solutions that are also more efficient and sustainable.

So, how can technology help to achieve these goals? Smart cities could be the answer.

Among the most applied technologies for data collection and utility management in urban infrastructure are consumer devices, IoT sensors, electronic devices, and networks. Driving sustainable economic growth they help in many areas of the urban life.

The first step for a smart city is to create an integrated sensor system, consisting of a number of complementary sensors that connect to the internet and collect and send data to a central unit. Cities generate a vast amount of data every day. To transmit sensors data a fast and reliable internet connection required to be in place. Therefore, the implementation of 5G to improve the speed and coverage of internet connections in critical.

Using sensors in combination with predictive analytics can help city governments gain critical insights to detect issues and respond to the needs of the community (e.g. weather insights and alerts, traffic status updates to avoid high congestion areas, etc). The most eco-friendly technologies applied in different areas of cities can help to manage better and optimize the use of resources.

City Lights
Photo by Zac Price

Energy Management

One example is the adoption of smart meters, which are equipped with an intelligent management system that can monitor and predict energy usage. Smart meters can:

  • Optimize public energy consumption;
  • Help householders track their energy use, to automatically schedule power usage when electricity is not needed;
  • Improve billing accuracy;
  • Help energy suppliers predict what capacity is required at any given time;
  • Give detailed real-time energy usage data to customers and alert authorities of any outages or failures to act quickly and ensure services are running.

Sensors can also be installed in the street lighting network to collect and analyze traffic data, trigger an alarm in case of accidents or theft, manage and save energy by using motion and noise detection to turn on or dim lights when needed.

Cities like Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Cleveland have replaced traditional street lights with LEDs, which consume less energy and can be scheduled to dim or brighten as needed. As reported by Northeast Group’s report, LED and smart streetlights are expected to reach 73% and 23% of the total streetlight market, respectively, by 2029. This will be a total of $28.1 billion in market opportunity over the next decade.

Traffic management

Another key area where many cities are investing in is transportation networks. Smart infrastructure and human movement behavior by AirSage insights help manage parking, roads, bridges, and routes where traffic congestion is high, provide a maintenance schedule, offer a new route development plan, etc.

Cardiff has installed 3000 sensors to create smart parking spaces. Sensors installed detect whether a parking space is occupied or not and, via an app, can update riders in real-time on the status of parking spaces. Being constantly updated allows commuters to choose alternative ways of transport that are also more eco-friendly.

Micro-mobility is another example of how cities can reduce traffic and pollution. Users can access a service that allows them to travel across the city in an affordable and sustainable way.

Several cities in the United States have installed bike-sharing stations. New York City has introduced the “City Bike Program” that allows commuters to choose between more than 14.500 between traditional and electric bikes. The “Divvy Program” is used in Chicago with over 600 stations and more than 6-000 bikes available. Through Lyft, Washington DC offers its users a bike-sharing service - Capital Bikeshare - with more than 4.500 bikes in over 500 stations.

Air management

Smart cities are also applying sensors that capture real-time pollution data and predict emissions. These predictions can allow cities to identify the source of the emissions problem and search for sustainable, strategic solutions to limit the level of pollution.

Waste management

As the number of people living in cities increases, city municipalities are required to deal with a larger amount of trash collection. This calls for more efficient and sustainable management. Understanding the visitation of public spaces based on human movement data provided by AirSage helps municipalities better plan and schedule their services.

IoT sensors installed on bins enable municipal agencies and companies to efficiently manage the waste collection, better addressing any environmental issues associated with inefficient waste collection. Moreover, they optimize services, reduce operational costs and monitor bin capacity: when a given level is reached, a trucker’s management platform receives a notification via smartphone.

Photo by JACQUELINE BRANDWAYN

Many governments worldwide are adopting technologies to create smart cities and improve the lives of their citizens. However, this process also presents some challenges: the technologies often need significant investments; the bureaucratic processes to develop a plan, finance it and implement smart city projects raise delays; and, lastly, smart city development requires high coverage of the internet network, and the introduction of 5G is still early in the process. With Biden's infrastructure bill being approved, the process of rebuilding America has started, but it will take collaboration between the private and public space, academics, professionals, activists, and citizens to solve the issues and achieve the goal to make them more sustainable.