THEY look like trees from another planet. Tall, steel super-structures topped with wiry canopies, acting as frames for climbing plants and creepers. Sat against the backdrop of Singapore’s central business district these ‘supertrees’, which can reach 150 feet tall. They are attractions in their own right, but they also serve a purpose: some have photovoltaic cells in their canopies to generate solar energy that is used to light up the trees. Others are integrated with nearby conservatories and serve as air-exhaust receptacles.
The trees are part of the city’s energy-efficient Gardens by the Bay project, designed to help Singapore achieve its ambition of becoming the world’s premier tropical garden city. It will not revolutionise life for Singapore’s citizens in itself but it is a prime example of a city’s use of smart technology to make itself a more pleasant place to live.
The concept of smart cities, using technology to improve the infrastructure, resources and quality of life of their citizens, has over recent years evolved from mayors trying to burnish their green credentials to using a city’s assets more imaginatively. It is no longer just about putting in cycle lanes or installing power-points to re-charge electric vehicles: it now means deploying smart technology that enables local authorities to measure and analyse data in real time. In Singapore, for example, sensors, cameras and GPS devices fitted to the city’s cabs already measure road congestion and provide projections of traffic flows to other drivers in order to help reduce jams.
The issue has become more important as cities have grown. Today’s wave of mass urbanisation is unprecedented in terms of its speed and scale, according to a 2012 report by the McKinsey consultancy. Urban growth remains highly concentrated in a few hundred cities. McKinsey’s analysis suggests that just the top 600 cities, measured by their contribution to global GDP growth to 2025, will generate nearly 65 per cent of world economic growth in this period. Today, the group of 600 cities is home to just over a fifth of the world’s population but accounts for nearly $34,000bn, or more than half of global GDP. Between 2010 and 2025, McKinsey expects the group’s combined GDP to nearly double to $65,000bn.
Emerging markets will play an increasingly important role; within the group of 600, emerging market cities will account for close to half of expected global GDP growth between 2010 and 2025. Cities in this category include 20 megacities such as Shanghai in China, Sao Paolo in Brazil, Istanbul in Turkey and Lagos in Nigeria.
More people in urban areas means there will be more demand for many goods and services – putting a greater strain on cities’ infrastructure and resources. The continued rise of the global city makes it even more important that they ensure they are sustainable places to live. More accurate information on where and how resources such as water and heat are consumed can help cities make more informed decisions about their consumption.
It is a potentially huge market for businesses. According to Volker Buscher, IT and communications leader and smart-cities expert at the Arup engineering and consulting firm, the global market for smart-city solutions and the services required to deploy them will be $408bn by 2020. Arup is part of a project in Christchurch, New Zealand, helping to fit new sensors and hardware around the city as it is rebuilt after the devastating 2011 earthquake. Data will be collected on a number of things, including pedestrian and vehicle traffic flow and air pollution.
Other companies - including such global IT companies as Cisco, IBM and Intel - are already leading the charge to provide some of the data infrastructure. An integrated focus is important, says Buscher. Copenhagen, for example, has heavily promoted cycling as part of its ambition to have 50 per cent of people cycling to their place of work or education by 2015, compared with 35 per cent in 2010. More cycling has not only reduced the number of cars on the roads but also helped cut down on GDP spent on transport. The city has also established a clean tech cluster to promote new technologies.
Most cities, whether old or new, share common challenges such as how to reduce traffic, obtain enough energy for their citizens, and how to provide clean water. IBM, for example, has developed software that can give local governments a more complete view of how their operations are running. It aggregates data from several different government IT systems, such as those that handle water systems and public transportation.
The company’s virtual operations platform is being used in Rio de Janeiro, for example. It uses more than 500 cameras around the city and another 300-plus from other sources, including public-security authorities. The centre uses analytic models developed by IBM to predict emergencies. The systems can predict heavy rain 48 hours in advance, the areas likely to be worst-hit using radar, and data gathered from river basins and historical rainfall logs.
IBM software is also being used in Cambridge, Ontario. The city is using the software to collect data about anything from the state of its roads to that of its water pipes. Algorithms process the information and predict which parts are likely to fail and when, while a financial tool helps to plan funding for each project. In Northern Portugal, for example, national and local governments are working with corporations including Cisco, to develop a smart city called PlantIT Valley. Hundreds of sensors will be embedded into the city’s infrastructure and are designed to increase the efficiency of traffic flows and electricity consumption and storage.
In the UK, Bristol has made a commitment to create a green-digital economy. ‘Connecting Bristol’ – the city’s digital partnership - was established in 2006 and leads the city’s work on things like next-generation broadband infrastructure. The city council owns and manages a £9m city-fibre network. Smart City Bristol is a collaborative programme between the public sector, business and community that builds upon the digital infrastructure. The aim is to use smart technologies to meet a target to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 40 per cent by 2020.
Yet there are challenges. While cities’ ambitions may be clear, putting things into action can be difficult – especially if it means working across different city authorities and stakeholders. A common issue, say smart-city experts, is that of ‘jurisdiction’ – where each utility or city authority has its own ideas as to what needs to be done. The key is to set the strategy from the outset and then get the necessary stakeholders aligned.
Citizens too, have a role to play and cities will need to interact differently with their residents. Whether a city wants to reduce its water usage or its traffic - it needs its citizens to care.
Sylvia Pfeifer is the Financial Times’ Special Correspondent focusing on energy issues. She was previously the paper’s Energy Editor and Deputy City Editor of the Sunday Telegraph