The United Nations projects that some 68 per cent of the world's population will be living in urban areas by the year 2050, a huge increase of 55 per cent from today's figure. In order to cope with such an unprecedented urban population growth, city managers and businesses across the world are making significant investments in IoT and 5G technology to create greater connections that will benefit residents and organisations alike.
We hear the phrase 'smart city' thrown around when discussing IoT, AI and other cutting edge technologies being used in urban environments, but the fact is that the concept of a smart city is still pretty vaguely defined.
The British government offers one definition, stating that "The concept is not static, there is no absolute definition of a smart city, no end point, but rather a process, or series of steps, by which cities become more 'liveable' and resilient and, hence, able to respond quicker to new challenges.”
It's a fair description, one that gives the believable impression of smart cities evolving over time, but not one that actually tells us how they do so - what measures and technologies must cities have in place to be considered smart?
Breaking down smart cities
The key to understanding smart cities is not to think of it as a whole. The scale is too big and unwieldy. Instead, it makes more sense to break smart cities down into their component smart elements; the areas where smart technologies are making a difference.
With the increased speed and stability provided by 5G, local governments will be able to convert already vital infrastructure (traffic lights, street lamps, roads etc) into smart assets.
Here are four of the main focus areas for technology in burgeoning smart cities:
- Green Energy & Smart Grids – While there is still a heavy reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear power, there is a definite shift towards renewable energy taking place. Implementing advanced technologies alongside these greener energy sources is making grids more resilient, with dynamic control allowing for better load distribution and outage management.
- Transportation – Use of technology such as apps, remote payment, and fare transport for mass public transport systems including buses, trains, and others, like metro or mono rail routes. Road monitoring to advise motorists on speed limits and conditions is also a high priority area.
- Health & Safety – As well as general public safety measures like smart building management and security systems, more money is being invested into remote diagnosis and patient monitoring, allowing a closer eye to be kept on the most vulnerable, even at a greater distance.
- High Speed Communication – It's important for any smart city to be 'always-on'. That state is becoming a reality thanks to wireless, fibre, and cable networks connected to satellite communications, which in turn is allowing IoT proliferation to flourish.
The importance of 5G
IoT connectivity is made possible by cellular communication, and the roll-out of 5G is powering a great leap forward. As well as faster data transmission, 5G enables higher reliability, ultra-low latency, massive connectivity and enables the use of devices with over 10 years’ worth of battery life. Alongside narrowband – IoT (NB-IoT), LTE Machine Type Communication (LTE-M) and Long Range (LoRa), 5G will help unlock the potential of IoT in cities.
Case in point, 5G will allow IoT to make major improvements in traffic congestion, pollution, and mass transit. A somewhat distant example is autonomous vehicles, which will need to be connected with each other with minimal latency so that they can react within milliseconds to avoid collisions.
Protected data-sharing is essential
In order to drive insight and improve outcomes for residents and cities on a whole, data sharing is critical. Only by analysing data in real-time will smart cities be able to create cleaner, safer environments.
With wearables and home hubs (e.g. Alexa or Google Home units) tying in to a larger, city-wide network though, the question of privacy starts to rear its head. City operators must ensure that data is sufficiently protected, and unable to be intercepted, by putting robust data governance and cybersecurity measures in place. Continuous updating and development of these systems will also be vital to the ongoing health of any smart city.
It's fair to say then that the success of smart cities rests on whether data can be shared for collaborative use across the whole project. Only then can IoT successfully adress the urban challenges that must be overcome to truly create a smart city.
As to whether smart cities exist: It would seem that they exist in one form right now, with the means assets we have available, but evolution of the concept and technology is going to continue for a long time yet. It will be up to city managers to keep up to date in order to stay smart.