• Yasir Aheer

Smart cities are more liveable cities

by Yasir Aheer, Varun Rao and Rahul Rao


Summary:

  • While city planners have several tools at their disposal to improve a city’s liveability, smart technology is one of the most powerful and cost-effective additions to their toolkit.

  • A study by McKinsey Global Institute reports that smart technology can improve some quality-of-life indicators by 10-30%.

  • Effective end-to-end smart solutions need to perform four key functions, what we call the SMARt framework: Sense environment, Manipulate objects, Analyse data and Report meaningfully.

  • Technology has the potential to breathe life into otherwise passive infrastructure, objects and spaces.

Australian cities have occupied top spots in European Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) annual global liveability rankings for many years. The most recent ranking has three Australian cities in the top ten with Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide ranked second, third and tenth respectively. Melbourne has been ranked as the most liveable city for seven consecutive years in the past decade. 


Occupying the top ranks has been a source of national pride and some friendly rivalry between cities. However, global competition is getting fierce with several cities vying for the top spots. Melbourne handed over the crown to Vienna in 2018, which has now been ranked number 1 for two years running, Adelaide has dropped from fifth place in 2017 down to tenth, and Perth, ranked seventh in 2017, lost its top ten status in 2018. It is clear that greater focus and investment are needed if Australia wishes to maintain its status as one of the most liveable countries in the world.


While planners have several tools at their disposal to improve a city’s liveability, smart technology is one of the most powerful and cost-effective additions to their toolkit in recent years. McKinsey Global Institute reports that smart technology can significantly improve some quality-of-life indicators in the following ways:

  • Reduce fatalities by 8 - 10%

  • Accelerate emergency response time by 20 - 35%

  • Reduce average commute by 15 - 20%

  • Lower disease burden by 8 - 15%

  • Cut greenhouse gas emissions by 10 - 15%

Smart technology

Smart technology allows cities to do more with less. Simply put, technology can turn otherwise passive and fragmented city infrastructures into an interconnected and responsive ecosystem. The data collected through sensors across the city can help planners optimize maintenance schedules or upgrades. Smart technology is already being applied across several application areas, such as:

  • Traffic Management: To improve traffic flow and reduce congestion through real-time traffic management systems.

  • Waste Management: For efficient waste management across the city from optimized collection through to disposal.

  • Law & Order: To improve law & order efficiency and outcomes through smart technology, such as gunshot detection.   

  • Public transport: To reduce commute time and cost for passengers through real-time vehicle tracking, digital payments and other solutions. 

  • Energy Consumption: To achieve energy and cost savings through smart lighting, building and meter solutions.

  • Tourism: To enhance visitors’ experience through accessible digital applications, usually across many languages.


Taking traffic management as an example - the conventional approach to managing congestion at intersections would be to extend lanes or modify the physical road network. Smart traffic lights can address the problem without having to build out physical infrastructure. 


Rapid Flow Technology, a US based company, has developed an intelligent traffic signal control system called Surtrac. The system uses cameras, radars and other sensors together with sophisticated scheduling software to optimise the flow of traffic through the intersection as efficiently as possible. The company claims that their system cuts travel times by 25%, reduces idle time at the intersection by 40%, results in 30 to 40% fewer stops - decreasing wear on the tires and road - and reduces emissions by 20%.


Another area of angst for residents is the urban parking nightmare. Motorists in major US cities waste on average 17 hours a year just looking for parking, with those in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco wasting 107, 85 and 83 hours per year respectively. Apart from driver inconvenience and wasted fuel, this unnecessary driving contributes to preventable greenhouse emissions warming our planet. German company Cleverciti has developed pole mounted sensors that detect car spot occupancy and can make it available to motorists in real-time. According to the company’s COO, David Parker, a park + ride in Germany experienced 55% reduction in parking search time as a result of deploying Cleverciti sensors and guidance technology.


The team at Stanley Robotics have approached parking slightly differently. They have developed a robot valet that picks-up the car, stores it efficiently in the parking lot and brings it back when required. The company claims that their “car storage” solution optimises space and creates up to 50% extra spots.



Waste management is another important area that can be improved through smart solutions. Big Belly, a waste and recycling system, has a built-in compaction mechanism giving it five times the capacity of regular waste bins. Big Belly has the ability to sense when it is close to capacity, and notifies the collection centre for pick-up. Its software collects valuable usage information from its network of bins across the city, and insights from the data can be used by city planners for future improvement programs. Big Belly saves human effort & fuel through fewer pickups and reduces the number of bags that are sent to landfills. 


Smart technology can also keep us safe. Solutions are being deployed allowing law enforcement agencies to respond effectively and timely to incidents around the city. For example, the company Shotspotter uses acoustic systems of sensors, algorithms and artificial intelligence to detect, locate and alert police to gunfire. The creators claim that their system can detect at least 90% of gunfire incidents with a precise location in less than 60 seconds and can significantly improve response times and service levels.

Smart city

Smart technology makes a city more responsive, automatically adjusting objects based on evolving needs. Smart technology can also deliver real-time intelligence on urban infrastructure enhancing the quality and effectiveness of decisions. 


McKinsey Global Institute conceptualises a smart city as having three layers on top of the existing urban infrastructure (Figure 1). First is the technology layer, which includes smartphones, sensors and data portals connected together through high-speed communication networks. Second is the ecosystem of specific applications that convert raw data into insights, actions and alerts. And finally the third is public usage, as applications only realise value through adoption by the wider public.

The “three layer of smartness” (Figure 1) is an intuitive and useful model when conceptualising smart cities at a macro scale. However, the actual “smartness” happens on the street and across individual use cases. It requires deploying solutions that perform key functions harmoniously, what we call the SMARt framework (Figure 2). Not all components need to be deployed together to realise benefits, however an aspiring smart city would gain maximum value by employing all four. 


To better understand the framework let's take the example of smart traffic lights, like the one discussed earlier. Traffic lights deployed with smart technology sense the demand in various directions through cameras, radars or other sensors. Using information from these sensors the system dynamically manipulates the traffic signal to optimise the traffic flow instead of a generic timer. Data is then analysed to identify patterns and the findings or recommendations reported to the planning teams for future upgrades. 

Figure 2: SMARt framework for digital city use cases

Final thoughts

Although cities around the world have been experimenting with smart technology for over a decade, the smart city revolution may be poised to enter a new era. COVID-19 has reshaped our society and upended our expectations of public spaces at lightning speed. Things that may have been considered a gimmick or a luxury just over three months ago, such as touchless interfaces, are now essential to fight the spread. The pandemic might act as a catalyst, heightening the sense of urgency and accelerating the digital or smart technology programs across cities.


Technology has the potential to breathe life into otherwise passive infrastructure, objects and spaces. However, using smart technology is a means rather than an end. Smart cities employ technology and data to improve the quality of life for their residents. The objective is to respond more effectively to the needs of residents and improve the place they call home.

Co-Authors:













Disclaimer: This article is based on our personal opinion and does not reflect or represent any organisation that we might be associated with.