Our cities are growing at unprecedented rates, with 180,000 people moving into cities each day and 70 percent of the world’s population expected to be living in megacities by 2050. As urban populations continue to grow, cities struggle to manage infrastructure, and to efficiently gather information to act on key issues.
Fortunately, urban planners and city governments are beginning to take steps toward “smart cities” by implementing machine-to-machine (M2M) technologies, connecting city services and infrastructures, and easing the burden of managing everything from water and energy consumption to transportation. The smart city has been a dream for decades but M2M is now making it achievable by capturing and communicating actionable real-time data, and helping cities to create efficiencies in everything from public transportation, utilities, road congestion and pollution. As M2M continues to be deployed in cities worldwide, we’ll soon see the true potential of the smart city take shape.
Smart City: Fantasy to Reality
We’re all familiar with the futurist vision of cities: gleaming sidewalks, people-friendly buildings, and clean and punctual public transportation. The smart city of today is less defined by this fantasy, and rather is defined by data; it is a city that improves the lives of its citizens by maximizing the use of key resources through data insights from technology, real-time analytics and ubiquitous communications.
Today, the building blocks of the smart city are being put in place with M2M-connected sensors that allow devices to communicate with each other. Placed on public transportation, trash bins, billboards and streets – the sensors capture data from their environment and send it to central systems, which transmit back instructions and information. The residents of this M2M-connected smart city can look forward to less congested roads, because traffic flows are routed intelligently around bottlenecks. They can expect lighter, cleaner streets – as sensor-equipped street lamps can automatically report a failure and schedule their own repairs, and city trash bins can report when they need emptying, avoiding the health hazard of waste overspill that is all too common in densely populated areas.
M2M Setting the Foundation for Smart Cities
Earlier this year, Chicago announced that it would become the first major city in the U.S. to implement smart city technology. In an attempt to make improvements in traffic control, maintenance management, smart grids, criminal activity trends, and public works, the windy city will install about 500 M2M sensors over a period of three years. The sensors will measure temperature, humidity, light, sound, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, motion, low-resolution infrared, cell phone signals, and foot traffic to better understand the city and the interactions of its residents. And, because a smart city cannot thrive without the support and input of its citizens, the whole project is open source, inviting developers to contribute their innovations.
While Chicago’s ambitious project represents a full smart city approach, there are also incremental steps cities can take on the path to becoming “smarter.” For example, 25 municipal councils in the Netherlands now use “smart bins” to optimize waste collection across 6,000 collection points. Within just one year, this solution, provided by Dutch technology company Mic-O-Data in cooperation with Vodafone, has saved the councils €92,000 in capital expenditure and operational costs, and has also reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 18 percent.
Urban planners of course need more than pilot projects as they deal with the pressing challenges of how to keep cities liveable and appealing in the face of budget constraints. M2M technology is already in cities – and it works. While the full-scale smart city is still years away, there are areas where M2M is making cities smart today.
M2M keeps traffic moving
Cities have struggled with traffic congestion for decades, and according to a study by Roland Berger, it costs the world’s biggest cities more than $266 billion every year. A smart city can reduce these costs. Digital billboards, for instance, can provide real-time updates on which city areas are particularly busy, giving drivers the opportunity to pick an alternate route. In addition, traffic signals can be adjusted to optimize the flow of vehicles at busy periods. Cloud-based M2M parking systems can also reduce congestion by allowing drivers to use a smartphone app to find a spot and reduce time searching on the street.
Smartening the municipal services
Municipal services are an area where smart M2M technology can deliver quick wins, particularly in waste collection and street lighting. As mentioned in the Mic-O-Data example, M2M-connected smart bins can help cities to optimize waste collection, providing cost savings as well as reducing carbon dioxide emissions. By reporting when they are full, the bins lead to fewer journeys, less fuel, and fewer trucks out on the road. A smart city also knows how to control its street lighting. Using an M2M system, smart cities can remotely manage street lighting via a computer, tablet or smartphone, ensuring lighting is only on when it needs to be. This gives cities a clearer view of the energy cost of public lighting, provides costs savings and reduces carbon dioxide emissions.
M2M technology is providing real value to cities today, from energy consumption to traffic reduction. And, as more expansive programs in cities around the world yield their key learnings, a clearer model for the smart city will emerge. While there are many aspects of the smart city yet to be determined, one thing is certain: the smart city presents an unprecedented opportunity for cities to improve the quality of life of citizens – and for citizens to help shape the future of their cities.