How will the smart city of the future look?

Phil Beecher looks at some of the smart city technologies we can expect in a post-pandemic world
Phil Beecher, President and CEO of Wi-SUN Alliance, looks at some of the smart city technologies we can expect in a post-pandemic world.

The 2020 World Population Data Sheet indicates that the world population is projected to increase from 7.8 billion in 2020 to 9.9 billion by 2050. According to the UN, just over half live in urban areas, but this is expected to increase to around 68% by 2050. This means in real terms, adding another 2.5 billion people to urban areas in the next 30 years.

This shift from rural to urban areas and the overall global population growth will put huge pressure on cities, especially authorities, municipalities, and city planners, to tackle major urban issues. These include rising traffic levels, an adequate transport infrastructure, cycle lanes and pedestrian areas, and environmental issues like air quality and growing social issues associated with increased urbanisation like crime. 

Make cities ‘fit for purpose’

The challenge right is that we are still recovering from the fall-out of the global health crisis, which has changed the way we live, work and socialise, and is set to change it further, especially in cities where very large numbers of people – over a billion – live and work. If anything, the pandemic has shown just how important it is to speed up technological innovation and the value of integrating smart technologies and applications to help tackle the pandemic and other societal issues. 

Technologies like telehealth, helping to alleviate the pressure from frontline healthcare workers, and contact tracing apps and platforms are already familiar to us. Other innovations have come into their own in the last year or so, such as drone technology and robotics for the sorting and delivery of medical supplies and shopping and infection screening technologies. Let’s not forget the headlines around robotic ‘dogs’ used in parks to enforce social distancing rules in Singapore.

The pandemic is likely to accelerate other new initiatives over the next few years. In fact, industry analysts Frost & Sullivan, have forecast spending on smart city technology will reach US$327bn by 2025, up from $96bn in 2019.

We already see important developments in smart grid technology as city populations increase. Smart grids provide more than just remote meter reading, which many of us are familiar with. They can help control loads on the electricity supply, which can then help reduce peak demand and enable optimum use of newer forms of energy, like renewables. With pressure on world leaders to reduce carbon emissions – including the UK, which has committed to cutting emissions faster than other developed nations – this type of innovation will become integral (and essential) to our lives.

Street lighting – an enabler for a smart city

In the next few years, energy consumption in cities will come under greater scrutiny with pressure to replace old and inefficient systems. Street lighting is a great example, with more local authorities and service providers implementing smart lighting initiatives. Often based on outdated (and expensive in terms of maintenance and energy consumption costs) technology, street lighting is fast becoming the enabler for more ambitious smart city development. 

A smart or connected lighting canopy can provide the network infrastructure to deploy other applications, such as electric vehicle charging points or IoT sensors for air quality and environmental monitoring. 

A wireless communications network that supports smart devices in one area of our lives could just as easily be used for other smart applications that are essential for a post-pandemic world, such as automatic temperature screening to reduce risks at transport hubs like train stations and airports or in offices as employees return to the workplace. 

We may also see the need for air purification or environmental systems for public spaces and transport systems to ensure good airflow and to help with post-COVID transmission of other diseases like flu.

The role of urban green spaces

The value of green spaces in our urban centres is more important than ever as people discover the benefits of the outdoors to help with physical and mental wellbeing. Smart technology can and will play a vital role in creating and managing smart spaces. 

We already see new initiatives to encourage citizens to make better use of green spaces. For example, the joint venture between UCLA and California State Parks has created a mobile website that encourages residents to explore the hidden history of the city’s parks and trails. In contrast, Sheffield has installed digital systems into its park-based exercise facilities in the UK to encourage participation.

But for these developments to succeed, the network infrastructure in place must be able to scale to support millions of devices, potentially from multiple vendors, and meet the needs of future smart city development. Thus, scalability is critical when designing a communications hub for smart cities. It must scale quickly and be highly resilient, capable of providing coverage even in very demanding conditions (high rise buildings made of glass and steel or urban canyons where cellular or other communications technologies struggle to provide coverage).

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True interoperability between devices will also be crucial, especially where interoperability is key for developing smart infrastructures to manage essential city services like water and electricity. The network must be reliable and fast as more devices are added, and the network topology is important when planning a highly scalable smart grid solution. As populations increase and we come to terms with a new world post-pandemic, the role of smart devices and applications will be greater role than ever. 

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Amber Donovan-Stevens

Amber is a Content Editor at Top Business Tech

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