Sensor technology and data analytics becoming foundation for urban planning.
Cities are growing and fast. Already more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas, and by 2030 McKinsey projects that in China alone 350 million people will move to cities — that’s more than the current U.S. population. Such aggressive growth projections beg the question: How will cities change to accommodate the expected influx?
One approach to understanding and planning for the growing cities of the future is to harness information and communications technologies. These could help make cities safer, healthier and more economically prosperous, all of which boost a city’s ability to serve a growing population.
“Can we predict how the pace and livability of cities will change as certain parameters change?” asked Intel engineer and innovation strategist Herman D’Hooge.
To answer that question, in part, D’Hooge has spent a lot of time exploring how urban environments and information technology might intersect. The Belgian-born engineer joined Intel in 1981 and has spent much of his career focused on user-centered design. He recently returned to Intel from a sabbatical spent teaching a course at the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts focused on smart cities. He explored with students how architects, urban planners, artists and designers can use data and information technology to make cities more livable, sustainable and energy efficient.
Sensor Data Fuels Predictive Models
Today, urban planners can draw on a decade or more of data to understand how a city might grow. Those predictive models reveal some universal trends, according to D’Hooge.
“If you double the size of a city, you only need to increase infrastructure by 85 percent [because] you can do more with less,” he said. “At the same time, socio-economic variables increase 15 percent as social interaction between people accelerates. But given that cities are systems of systems, the [socio-economic] positives and negatives are a package deal. You get a 15 percent increase in patent filings and wages, but also a 15 percent increase in crime and flu cases.”
New data that urban planners use to form these models increasingly come from sensors, which are becoming more widely deployed as costs decline. Many cities now teem with sensors that measure temperature, occupancy, air quality and motion. That’s giving planners, architects and engineers much richer and more current data. Without proper organization, interpretation and analysis, however, all that data remains useless.
“The analytics behind them have become more sophisticated so you can make sense out of sensor data,” he said. “If we start mixing data from the transportation system with data from the building system and the schools system and start meshing that data together, we may start seeing efficiencies and opportunity that weren’t visible within each of those silos.”
D’Hooge cautions that so-called smart cities aren’t merely defined by optimized energy or transportation systems. “It’s not just about efficiency,” he said. “Knowing about what’s going on in your system allows you to make better-informed decisions.”
Informed decision making — demand pricing made possible by smart energy meters, for instance — could encourage people to use services at a lower cost at off-peak times. This enables them to schedule such activities as running a washer or dryer when it will cost them less because of more capacity.
The Future for Smart Cities
The market for smart city technology is expanding quickly. In 2010, it was $8.1 billion and ABI Research predicts that will reach $39.5 billion by 2016. Pike Research forecasts investment in smart city technology to total $108 billion between 2010 and 2020. Those investments are playing out right now in projects around the globe; according to ABI 121 smart city projects exist worldwide.
One of those, Songdo South Korea, is a ground-up project that is slated to house 65,000 people by the scheduled 2018 completion. Cisco Systems is making a $47 million network technology investment in the project. Another project that focuses on energy grids in an existing community is Pecan Street in Austin, Texas, where Intel Labs has deployed smart power sensors.
Projects such as Songdo, Pecan Street and the Living PlanIT project in northern Portugal are real-time laboratories that provide valuable data to assess the viability of smart technologies, according to D’Hooge.
“These pilots are living tests bed on how these new ideas actually work out in the context of real environments,” he said. “It really tells you what works, what’s baloney and what can really deliver results.”
Technology might help cities handle growing populations, but D’Hooge contends it’s no panacea.
“Livability has to do with things like green spaces, parks, fresh air and fresh food,” he said. “It’s easy to feel like technology can save anything, but I’m not going to come to Portland or another city because it has smart parking or smart meters. I come because I’m attracted by the culture, climate, the creatives that live there and so on. You always need to go back to what attracts people to a city.”