Smarter ways to live

Catherine Early finds out whether ‘big data’ can help cities solve environmental problems

Over the past couple of years, the number of organisations, councils and technology firms proclaiming expertise, innovations and pilots in smart cities has increased dramatically. According to the hype, smart city concepts can solve environmental issues including air pollution, traffic congestion, flooding, flytipping and energy consumption. The question is whether the smart cities bandwagon is heading in the right direction to solve environmental issues.

Technological fix

The phrase ‘smart cities’ was coined several years ago by technology firms that wanted to collate data and use it to address problems. These so-called smart technologies and systems offer new ways to generate ‘big data’, which can be analysed in real time to help policymakers better understand problems and devise more targeted and sophisticated methods of dealing with them.

The main technologies are remote sensors, which electronically send data to central databases, and smart meters, which record and transmit usage data from utility connections. Sensors can be remote, such as attached to a lamppost, or mobile on public buses or local authority vehicles.

Business body the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) has taken a keen interest in the concept of smart cities and formed a taskforce in 2014 with consultancies, including AECOM, Landmark Information Group, Temple Group and WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff, and firms such as utility provider Veolia and energy management specialist Schneider Electric. It has produced two reports on progress.

In the first of these, produced in 2014, the taskforce identifies significant potential for smart city applications to help solve environmental problems. For example, smart systems can identify when a particular activity, such as driving, pumping water, heating and lighting buildings, is unnecessary and can involve citizens and encourage behaviour change (see panel p20). It believes the technology has two advantages: it could overcome resistance to new policies caused when the nature of different systems in a city are deemed too complex or politically unappealing for conventional approaches; and it could meet the funding gap for cities that lack resources for initiatives that are not required for immediate legal compliance.

Several consultancies and law firms have recognised the potential and have developed services to help clients understand this emerging market. WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff has brought its existing digital technology experts together with those from its environment and engineering teams to boost its capability to take advantage of the opportunities offered by smart technology.

Rupert Green, associate in its smart consulting team, says sensors to measure air quality and noise used to be costly because they would have to be visited individually to download data. However, sensors that send data automatically back to operators are now ‘several orders of magnitude’ cheaper than before, opening up a wealth of new possibilities. ‘Back in the office we can develop platforms looking at a list of sensors and create a report in a few clicks,’ says Green. ‘It completely changes the way we work – we can become data scientists as well as engineers and environment scientists.’ Simon Hobday, partner at law firm Osborne Clark, compares the potential for smart technology to the revolution in the telecommunications market brought about by mobile phones.

However, the EIC’s taskforce found that, despite their potential, smart initiatives have had limited impact on environmental problems so far, adding that there is ‘certainly no sign’ of a smart silver bullet. Its first report states: ‘Too many ideas stalled at the research and development phase. As a result, case studies of successful implementation (particularly at a city-wide level) are limited and disparate.’ It is hoping to plug this hole with the launch this year of a website pulling together all smart city projects with regular updates on their progress. It will also produce an annual smart cities trends report.

Money, money, money

Lack of finance remains a challenge, however. Lean Doody, associate director of digital at consultancy Arup, says one reason for this is that the benefits can accrue in different places and it is hard to tie that back to individual budgets in cities. Green agrees, pointing to the example of technology to tackle air quality: ‘The investor is regional government implementing measures such as controlled traffic zones. The benefits are primarily health-based, with lower numbers of deaths and sick days. Costs will be passed to the consumer.’

Hobday agrees that there is an issue with obtaining enough finance to prove a concept, but adds that people are often going about the business case the wrong way round: ‘People are trying to create a business plan out of a great idea, but if it’s a real problem and solving it creates value for people the business case writes itself.’

Green is optimistic that there is a business case for using data gathering technology, as long as the information is valuable. Smart technology could cut wholelife operational costs at a new development by creating the opportunity for very targeted measures. He cites, as an example, monitoring buildings whose energy management is poor in order to give a management company the chance to fix a problem early on.

Providing leadership

There are also issues around governance. Responsibility for infrastructure in cities is often split between organisations as diverse as the local council, utility companies and transport service providers. Ensuring everyone works together and aligns systems to enable smart technology will be challenging, and strong leadership is needed to bring together the right people.

Doody says there has been a capacity gap in terms of people available to lead within cities: ‘You have transport chiefs and environment chiefs and various people in a city council, but you also need someone who understands the technology because it sits across all those things. Having a chief digital or technology officer is very important, otherwise you just have the supply chain pushing things at you and you don’t have the capacity to understand it.’

Matthew Evans, who is leading trade body Tech UK’s work on smart technology, points to New York’s work on smart cities, where mayor Bill de Blasio has pushed issues forward: ‘It was the power of the mayor who cut through some of the bureaucracy around how some of the data was gathered.’

Technology company GE is working on uses for sensors attached to streetlamps. The company believes these are ideal for collecting data on noise, traffic and air pollution since they are located at regular intervals throughout all cities. There is also a great opportunity in the UK, where many towns and cities are upgrading streetlamps to LED technology. But Armin Mayer, marketing officer in GE’s intelligent cities division, warns that the opportunity could pass cities by if different parts of the local authority are not communicating. ‘Are the people in the council who are rolling out the smart city infrastructure talking to the people who are rolling out the streetlights?’ he asks.

To try to overcome institutional barriers, standards body BSi has created a smart cities framework (PAS 181:2014). This establishes a good practice for city leaders to develop, agree and deliver smart city strategies. The International Organization for Standardization has created ISO/TS 37151 for similar purposes.

A privacy issue?

Another issue that could stymie the potential of smart cities is concern about privacy. Many environment professionals will recall the media backlash against the Labour government’s ‘pay as you throw’ plans, which would have involved councils putting sensor technology in residents’ bins to monitor how much they recycled. This data could have been used to give rebates to residents or fine them, but a Defra trial flopped when no councils showed interest. Privacy has not yet had much of an impact on smart city projects, but experts believe that could just be a matter of time.

Doody says people already hand over plenty of data, but they have mostly accepted this when they obtain a direct benefit, such as when using apps like Citymapper for directions and public transport times. However, people do not necessarily realise that these apps are collecting data, nor what the suppliers are using it for, she believes.

Green says that, although data privacy is a significant issue, the tools are there to solve it. ‘There’s a social shift that needs to take place before people are comfortable with data, but there are clear ways of dictating how data is managed. People just need to adhere to best practice.’

The University of Bristol and the city council are involved in a joint venture, Bristol is Open, to use digital technologies to provide citizens with more ways to participate in and contribute to the way the city works. The project’s managing director, Paul Wilson, says focus group sessions have shown that most people would share data as long as there was a clear benefit to them. He believes that data privacy legislation needs to be updated but, given the speed of development of smart cities concepts compared with the slow nature of legislation development, anything worked on now could soon become out of date.

Winning the public’s trust could just depend on who owns the data since people might be less likely to be happy about sharing it if it is sent to a private corporation. Mayer says: ‘GE’s policy is that the city owns the data and decides what to do with it. Maybe residents could play with it and develop apps.’

Optimism abounds

Clearly, the potential for smart cities to solve environmental issues is some way from being realised. In any case, having good technology and strong data are not motivation in themselves to change behaviour, so imaginative communications are necessary. Ideas such as restricting the most polluting cars from air pollution hotspots are great, but ultimately the amount of pollution remains the same and is merely dispersed over a greater area.

Still, optimism abounds that issues will be overcome. Hobday says: ‘It’s still very early days, there’s a lot of talk. It will be incredibly disruptive for some business. There will be things that exist in five years that we won’t be able to imagine weren’t there and yet I’ve got no idea today what they will be. These are going to be some fundamental shifts in how things are done. It’s being talked of as the fourth industrial revolution and I don’t think that’s understated.’

UK cities with smart ambitions

Bristol

Bristol is Open, a joint venture between the University of Bristol and the council, is tapping into the expertise of the 800 information communication technology companies in the city to develop interconnected software, hardware and telecom networks.

The plan is to use data sensors to respond in real time to everyday events including traffic congestion, waste management and energy supply. The project is in its early stages, with the focus on improving connectivity such as wifi.

One of the city’s priorities is to reduce congestion and improve air quality. The project’s managing director, Paul Wilson, envisages a future in which cars can be rerouted to avoid air pollution hotspots or public transport subsidised when levels are high.

London

Smart city work in the capital is focused mainly on how to maintain residents’ quality of life in a city whose population is expected to grow by 100,000 a year. ‘The scale of demographic growth means that there are lots of pressures so we need to get more efficiency out of what we have, for example by shaving off peaks in demand on transport and energy,’ says Matthew Pencharz, deputy mayor for environment and energy.

The Smarter London Board, comprising technology experts, academics and businesses, was created in 2013 to advise the Greater London Authority on the best way to use technology to solve the city’s problems.

Environmental projects include smart parking bays. These can reduce congestion and air pollution by alerting motorists to an empty space by phone rather than have them driving around looking for one. Congestion can also be tackled by displaying traffic information on digital advertising boards attached to the roofs.

In January, the Royal Borough of Greenwich was chosen to take part in a £25m pan-European trial of smart technology. Initiatives in Greenwich as part of the project include using the River Thames to heat homes by installing a heat pump to increase the water temperature before it is piped to houses through a local network; testing electric bikes and trialling; and smart parking bays. Similar initiatives will be tested in Milan, Lisbon, Warsaw, Bordeaux and Burgas.

Milton Keynes

MK:Smart is a collaboration led by the Open University and partly funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Central to the project is the creation of a hub to manage data relevant to city systems, including transport and consumption of energy and water.

A coalition of technology companies is using satellites to record which communities are the most thermally inefficient, and high-resolution aerial photography to identify sites with the greatest potential for generating solar energy. This data will be mapped against other sources, such as energy performance certificates, to work out which services are best for different communities. An online platform will then bring together providers and buyers of energy efficiency and renewable energy technology. MK:Smart is also developing data-driven approaches to enable people and communities to manage their energy consumption during peak demand. Another initiative involves collecting data about driving behaviour of electric vehicles to better understand the real-world energy demand.

There are also projects to reduce water use given Milton Keynes is in one of the driest parts of the country. These include an app using data from garden sensors, local weather stations and weather forecasts to predict soil moisture and when gardens need watering.

 

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