Urenio Watch Watch: Intelligent Cities / Smart Cities

How information management is helping to build the city of tomorrow

Despite what certain TV property shows might suggest, we aren’ t all escaping to the country. In fact, globally the tendency is towards an increasingly urbanised world population. By 2050, when it is calculated around 9 billion souls will share this planet of ours, up to 70% of people are expected to have made their home in a city.

This trend has got all manner of urban planners, futurologists and technophiles thinking about the cities of the future and how they will evolve sustainably to meet the economic, social and environmental challenges of the next century.

The idea of the ‘˜smart city’ seems to be everybody’ s favourite vision of a metropolitan future and is a hot topic in the tech industry at the moment. Much discussed over the years, the concept was back in the news again this month with reports that an operating system designed to power the smart cities of the future is to be tested on the Greenwich Peninsula in London.

Urban OS, developed by a firm called Living Plan IT, is a platform intended to connect services and citizens across the breadth of a city. Sensors that monitor conditions in office blocks to create smart lighting and heating systems, intelligent lamp posts that keep tabs on traffic congestion and up lighting levels when cars are nearby and smart vests that have micro-sensors embedded in them to check heart rates are no longer the preserve of science-fiction but services predicted to be commonplace over the next decade or so.

The idea is that cities become huge networks where everything is connected to everything else and where data is constantly fed back to improve efficiencies in areas like energy consumption, transport, health and urban management. The metropolitan areas of tomorrow will in effect become large batches of information that must be managed like any other data farm.

While this undoubtedly means big business for the tech industry ‘“ Cisco reckons on a $400bn opportunity over the next 10 years ‘“ it will also change the way we live and see urban conurbations vie to outdo each other in the smart stakes.

London is well up there among the top smart cities in the world and recently demonstrated its ambition, when mobile operator O2 announced it will create what it claims is Europe’ s largest free Wi-Fi network across a number of boroughs in time for the Olympics later this year. Other exemplars include Amsterdam, New York and Vienna.

We can also expect to see a proliferation of brand new smart towns appear. Living PlanIT, for instance is involved in developing a model city of the future out of the ground in northern Portugal. Called PlanIT Valley, the hope is the town will become a living laboratory where smart technologies can be tested and refined.

At least people will be living there, unlike the $1bn technology ‘˜ghost-city’ being built in New Mexico. Without residents, the idea is that innovative smart technologies, such as intelligent traffic systems and self-flushing toilets, can be put through their paces without endangering any nearby humans.

Infrastructure-wise, IDC believes that for a smart city to thrive it will require a combination of increased computational power through high-performance hardware and networks, advanced business intelligence and analytics solutions and robust new delivery models like cloud computing. Indeed, the EU-funded European Platform for Intelligent Cities (EPIC) has been established with the aim of wedding state-of-the-art cloud computing technologies with e-Government services.

If all of this starts to sound a bit overly-techy, some visions on how smart cities might improve things in the future are nothing short of inspirational. A big noise in the world of smart cities is social critic Jeremy Riftkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends who believes smart cities are the key to the Third Industrial Revolution and a move away from fossil-fuel dependency.

Riftkin’ s vision, which has been endorsed by the EU, sees ubiquitous Internet communication technology and renewable energy technology coming together to enable the intelligent distribution of energy produced in every home over smart grids that electric cars and bikes can plug into at multiple points throughout the city. It’ s a brave and encouraging idea for a world that needs solutions and one that the uber-geeks at MIT seem to concur with, if their latest prototypes for the next generation of urban vehicles are anything to go by.

Even that last bastion of old-fashioned values, the football stadium, is getting the smart makeover. While it is unclear whether goal-line technology will ever be introduced (to the likely chagrin of Liverpool FC supporters), technology developments off the field gather pace and plans are afoot to put chip transmitters in tickets to help fans find the quietest turnstile, shortest beer queue and nearest toilet.

Critics of the smart city ideal will point out that what makes a city special is its character and that to impose identical technologies across them all risks creating metropolitan clones.   But there are signs that some fears are dissipating. Concerns that citywide wireless internet services would create lifeless places as everyone surfed in isolation have disappeared, in New York at least, as people have come out into public spaces to be online together.

Indeed, just as technologies are changing how cities are being used, the data on people’ s behaviour is being analysed and used to in proposals on how to develop urban spaces, heralding new ways of thinking about city design altogether.

Information management on the grandest stage of them all? Now that truly is smart.

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