The Smart City is coming

By September 10, 2016 August 13th, 2018 Data, Town Centres

There has been a fair amount of press recently, both about the Internet of Things and Smart Cities. Both offer exciting opportunities for change and growth, so let’s take a look at what they mean in our urban places.

First, some explanations: The Internet of Things (IoT) broadly covers the idea that ‘things’ in your home, workplace or city are hooked up to a network of some kind and communicate with each other. This covers everything from smart meters to thermostats, parking barriers to street lighting.

Smart Cities are essentially urban environments where various systems work together to share data and improve communications between departments and utilities. IoT is deeply ingrained, as everything from traffic lights to air quality meters share data about their status and environment.

This might draw questions of “why” – most city centre ‘things’ already work perfectly adequately without being connected. What’s the additional benefit?

For one, it’s a way of squeezing a little more from our capital investments. Improving the operating conditions of a piece of infrastructure – even just a little bit – and saving some money or increasing revenue in the process.

It might not seem like much, but a small saving in many places can have a big effect. Dim the street lights after midnight when streets are quieter and few will likely notice – across a city, that could account for huge savings.

Another benefit of the Smart City is the gradual improvement of services for visitors and residents. By responding more quickly to maintenance issues or predicting demand, we can provide a better service and give a more positive experience.

Guildford is using a combination of sensors and forecasting to predict demand for its parking spaces – both on- and off-street. This is being made available online and for route planning. Not only will sat-navs take us to our destinations, but they will find a free space to park as well.

This serves a dual purpose. It improves the experience for the visitor, and it increases the utilisation of a fairly precious resource. For councils with paid on-street parking, if these spaces are better used, ticket sales may well increase as well.

Cost and communications are key to driving Smart Cities, and there has been a lot of progress recently. It is becoming cheaper both to build and incorporate ‘smart’ devices into our streets, and new technologies allow them to communicate more easily.

The latest generation of street lights, information screens, traffic lights, footfall counters, car parks – even public toilets – are all likely to be connected through the Smart City concept: constantly feeding back information and adapting as needed to respond to current and forecast events.

If you are in charge of on-street assets such as parking machines, it might be useful to instantly know if a machine stops working, or runs out of tickets. Highways engineers could see the impact of a road incident, and adjust traffic light timings in response (or automatically).

Some of these systems are already with us, but work in isolation. As more and more devices are connected, we can start to think of and deal with our places more holistically – and this is where the idea of a Smart City really shines.

A local event might cause increased footfall, affecting the local road network and car park usage. Bus and train ticket sales will likely increase, and queues for these services could need consideration. Local convenience retailers may see more demand and will need to staff accordingly. Particularly large events might bring some trouble, and the real-time feedback from police officers could be combined with crowd data to anticipate and calm potential trouble spots. The increased demand on facilities will require extra maintenance, and with toilet sensors checking conditions and usage we can ensure staff are on-hand in the most cost-efficient way.

By combining information from various places, and with robust forecasting methods, city centre managers can work together to respond more quickly to a variety of situations, with effective resource management and utilisation. Crucially, they may be able to use finite resources more effectively and efficiently.

For the cash-strapped local authority this could well be a good way to keep the costs down and improve services. As visitors, consumers and residents, the services and facilities we use should become better and more reliable.

We’re still in relatively early days for Smart Cities, but things are moving quickly. A pilot programme in Amsterdam served to demonstrate just how inexpensive it can be to connect up a city, paving the way for all kinds of interesting new advances and cost-saving measures. This is already being extended nation-wide and adopted elsewhere.

From a place perspective, the concept of a Smart City is likely to emerge quickly, as suppliers and stakeholders all begin to embrace the idea of collecting, sharing and using data in new & interesting ways.

If nothing else, the combined effect of tightened budgets, increased consumer demand and lower capital costs are likely to make the next few years an interesting period for our cities indeed.

If you’d like a chat about how you can get more out of data, just let us know…


This article first appeared in The Place in July 2016