With increasing access to data and sensors being embedded throughout cities, the way we live in the urban environment is set to change forever
For a long time, science fiction has been telling us that, rather than being concrete jungles, the cities of the future will be data-driven marvels. Whilst this may have seemed far fetched just a few decades ago, changes in technology have meant that this utopian vision is now becoming a reality.
Quite simply, it is hard to overestimate the potential of smart cities.
There isn’t one single definition of what makes a city smart. However, most smart-cities innovations are driving toward the same aim. “A smart city is one in which technology is used to improve life for its inhabitants,” says Laurence Kemball-Cook, the founder and CEO of Pavegen, the producer of flooring that generates energy from footsteps.
From giving city-dwellers access to data on pollution levels to optimising public transport, embedding innovative tech into the infrastructure of a city allows for all manner of incremental improvements to the urban environment.
“A smart city offers seamless mobility, easy navigation and utilises wireless sensor networks to increase citizens’ quality of life,” he says.
And this is something that is becoming increasingly important in modern times.
“Many urban centres around the world are growing in leaps and bounds,” says Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates, the organisation that promotes and champions London’s tech industry.
“Many of these cities are only going to get larger as we continue to see people moving from more rural areas.
” Over the next 15 to 20 years, the population of London is set to grow from 8.5 million to ten million. And this is already dwarfed by many cities in east and south-east Asia: Shanghai is currently home to 24.3 million people and there are many major cities in the region that aren’t far behind. “That puts a lot of pressure on many aspects of living there,” adds Shaw.
Because of this, being smarter about the way we structure our cities isn’t just desirable: it’s a necessity.One factor that has certainly helped smart cities become more of a reality is the ubiquity of cost-effective sensor technology.
“You now have very cheap, throwaway sensors,” says Yodit Stanton, founder and CEO of OpenSensors.io, the real-time data exchange for the internet of things (IoT).
When one considers the scale of the issues you are trying to solve, even a fairly modest rollout could require a network of 10,000 sensors; back when these costed £100 a piece, any smart cities technology would have been out of the reach of all but the largest corporates. “But once you’ve got them down to a pound each, the potential is endless,” she adds.
Another factor driving the boom in smart cities technology is the meteoric rise of big data and an increasing interest in open-data ecosystems. “For example, TfL opening up its data has made it much easier to create applications that improve the way people move in cities,” Kemball-Cook says. Coupled with the information gleaned from sensors and the enormous amount of social data that Londoners are creating on a daily basis, this means those developing smart-cities solutions have an incredibly rich data palette to work with. “Using big data will allow us to be much more efficient in how we construct and develop our cities,” Kemball-Cook adds.