Smart City and Sustainability: what will be the next challenges?

6 min

Life in the city offers undeniable advantages over the suburbs: the ability to move quickly by public transport; services at your fingertips; but above all, more job opportunities. Today, as reported by the United Nations, half of humanity lives in cities, and it is predicted that, by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas. How can today’s city centers accommodate such an increase without collapsing? Let’s take a look at how smart technologies and smart city projects will provide support for urban infrastructure and the sustainability of metropolises.

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What are Smart Cities?

Smart Cities are not necessarily sustainable cities. Although the efficiency they often generate indirectly impacts the environment, society, and the economy, its goal is another. To optimize resources and make processes efficient to improve the lives of residents. Here is a definition of a Smart City:

“A Smart City is a place where traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital solutions for the benefit of its residents and businesses. Its goal goes beyond using digital technologies to improve resource use and reduce emissions. It means smarter urban transportation networks, updated water supply, waste disposal facilities, and more efficient ways to light and heat buildings. It also means more interactive and responsive city government, safer public spaces, and meeting the needs of an aging population.”
Source: European Commission

As is clear from the European Commission‘s definition, there are many players involved in a Smart City project: first and foremost, the institutions and government that provide funding and assess the impact of such a transformation; then factories and the entire productive fabric, both public and private, are involved; and finally, urban residents who are increasingly becoming prosumers, i.e., acting in the dual role of consumers and producers of products and services.

Smart City and Sustainability

What are the goals of Smart Cities?

The objectives underlying a Smart City project are to make metropolises inclusive, improve the quality of life of residents and increase the social-economic performance of cities. All of this, through intelligent resource management and participatory governance.

The encounter between the theoretical goals expressed in Smart City projects and the problems that characterize today’s urban realities have been condensed into the eleventh United Nations Sustainable Development Goal:

“Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.”

Traffic and pollution in metropolises, pressure on freshwater supplies, efficiency gains useful for reducing building consumption are just some of the problems on which smart technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, IoT, and Cloud Computing, could act. Not to mention urban security.

However, Smart City development is complex, especially in distressed contexts such as developing countries. The challenges require investment, political agreements oriented towards participation and sustainability, social and territorial collaboration. For this reason, despite the availability of technological innovations, there are still very few cities in the world that have implemented Smart City projects. We will soon see which are the most virtuous examples.

Are Smart Cities necessarily sustainable? No, but the impact of efficiency and process optimization could be. Click To Tweet

Smart City and sustainability: the green impact of efficient processes

The government’s choice to finance Smart City projects, or companies that decide to invest independently in Smart Building usually have as their primary objective the efficiency of processes. The benefits of these processes indirectly impact, first of all, on public and private economic savings and immediately after on sustainability.

Here’s how the lower consumption of resources, energy efficiency, and optimization of production times have effects on the environment, society, and economy of a country:

  • Energy: Artificial Intelligence and IoT and Smart Contracts applied to energy infrastructure enable greater efficiency in energy production, transmission, and distribution. In this way, consumption is optimized. Examples are Smart Grids or Energy Communities. Smart Energy is sustainable because it has the effect of reducing carbon emissions.
  • Mobility: a major problem in overcrowded metropolises is the complex internal and external mobility and parking management. The goal of smart mobility projects is to ensure a balance between the need to move people and goods and the sustainability of public and private transport. Car sharing and bike sharing or on-demand solutions like Uber are the first steps of green mobility. The idea is to reduce the use of polluting vehicles in favor of clean technologies such as bicycles or scooters.
  • Buildings: a piece of the puzzle needed to define a smart urban area is definitely the degree of efficiency of buildings. A Smart Building is designed using systems that work autonomously and with technologies that optimize consumption through monitoring and controlling infrastructures. The green side is the reduction of energy waste and harmful air emissions.
  • Water: obsolete infrastructures and inefficient management of water tanks often generate excessive consumption of such a precious good as water. Having the ability, through IoT, to collect data on water flow, pressure and temperature allow for distribution efficiency. In addition, monitoring information quickly highlights leaks before they become serious. The sustainability of this intervention, in fact, is precisely the reduction of waste.
  • Safety and society: safety in cities is fundamental to improving citizens’ quality of life. Making a place safe means creating new opportunities for economic and social growth. Thanks to Edge Computing and Artificial Intelligence in the field of video surveillance, great strides are being made.
  • Waste: waste management has always been a thorny topic. IoT technologies enable smart waste management by collecting data in real-time. This improves efficiency and reduces theft or loss of collection bins. Also equipping bins with fill sensors allows waste management companies to optimize the passage of collection trucks.

All this is possible thanks to ICT technologies, namely Big Data, IoT, and Artificial Intelligence. The beating heart of a Smart City project is, in fact, the collection, monitoring, and analysis of the main information of an urban area. This is the only way to act on processes to improve them.

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3 examples of green Smart Cities around the world

The Digital Government of Singapore

Smart Nation, that’s the name of the project that is transforming the city of Singapore into a smart city. The challenge they have set themselves is to create a digital society that implements technologies in healthcare, transportation, and urban life. This change will involve government services and businesses. Here are some milestones achieved to date: 95% of services provide electronic payment options; 20,000 officials have been trained in data analytics and data science; all 20 ministries have submitted plans to use artificial intelligence, achieving the goal of expanding digitization within government.

Copenaghen’s Environmental Challenge

The Danish capital has set up a true experimental center, the Copenaghen Solutions Lab, whose goal is to make the city sustainable and improve its citizens’ lives. How? Through communication infrastructures and digital services that provide citizens or potential tourists with basic information and accessibility to services; or by collecting data on workflows so as to collaborate with administrations in order to offer targeted services and reduce city traffic; or again, by using data generated by the IoT to improve air quality and reduce air pollution.

Boston’s Safe Streets

Boston is a city that has always focused on innovation and the integration of technology into the urban fabric. The objective, also, in this case, is to improve the quality of life but also to increase productivity. Current projects range from the Innovation District of 2010, a place created to bring together brilliant entrepreneurial minds, to Vision Zero, a project that aims to reduce road accidents. Through sensors and cameras, the latter allows for road monitoring and data collection to understand the behavior of motorists and pedestrians. The government will implement design and structural changes to roads in response to the information received.

What will be the next challenges for smart cities?

Certainly, in the coming years, more and more cities will rely on technologies to improve roads, safety or reduce energy consumption and harmful emissions.

“Cities occupy only 3% of the land area, but are responsible for 60-80% of energy consumption and 75% of carbon emissions.”

According to the Sustainable Development Goals expressed in the Digital Agenda 2030, the next challenges for cities of the future will be related to reducing inequality and urban energy consumption levels.

Technology will play an increasingly important role in the upcoming Smart City projects. One example has already started in Shenzhen from the collaboration between the government and the multinational company Huawei. The Shenzhen Intelligent Twins is the generation of a digital twin of the city made possible by smart upgrades from governments and businesses. Emerging technologies such as 5G, Cloud Computing, IoT, Big Data, AI, and Blockchain will be employed in the project, all aimed at creating a system that includes a network of services, applications, hubs, data interaction systems, and infrastructure equipped with Artificial Intelligence.

Designing smart infrastructure and processes is an important step to maintain high levels of competitiveness in the future, both as companies and as cities.

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