Cities get smart

Half the world’s population lives in cities, the World Health Organization says. The proportion is expected to reach 70 percent by 2050.

To make these ever-expanding human hives livable as well as affordable, the efficient flow of services and resources in the city has to be perfected. That level of intelligence has eluded people.

But it hasn’t stumped the Internet of Things.

This blend of intelligent sensors, the information Cloud, mobile communication and data analysis is transforming chaotic urban centers into smart cities.

The result: Cities that work better, both for administrators and residents.

Pittsburgh has created a GPS app that tracks snowplows and sends a message to residents’ smartphones to let them know their street has been cleared.

Chicago uses predictive software to forecast which trash dumpsters are most likely to fill quickly. By emptying them more often, the city has become 20 percent better at controlling its rat population.

San Leandro, California, uses software from the company Lotadata to track use, and users’ demographics, at city parks. Analyzing patterns in the data lets the city target resources and design programs more effectively.

Perhaps no mid-size city has done more with data than Louisville, Kentucky. Through its “Louiestat” data-collection system, city managers identify problem areas, gather data, share it across departments to determine the cause of the problem, then implement solutions.

For example, the city noticed that many fires occurred in neighborhoods where community-service caseworkers visited clients. The city trained caseworkers to audit clients’ homes for fire safety concerns and to educate clients about things like smoke alarms and fire hazards. The number of fire calls shrank.

As an example of how smart cities can be, consider the streetlight: It’s not just a streetlight any more.

Los Angeles is investing more than $60 million to swap old sodium-vapor streetlight bulbs for LEDs. It will save about $10 million a year in electricity costs. The brighter LED lights also deter crime in some areas, reducing the city’s cost of police and emergency-medical services.

That’s smart-city management. But the poles themselves are valuable real estate that become key hubs of communication, data collection, traffic management and revenue for smart-city governments.

For example, cities are installing electric-vehicle chargers on streetlight poles. By plugging in and swiping a credit card, people can fuel up while they shop, dine or keep business appointments downtown. Cities can lease space on the pole to an electric company or earn a percentage of the price drivers pay for the curbside charge.

Some cities are trading in old “dumb” poles for poles that have space for mobile phone cells. The new poles are slightly thicker at the top than the old ones; cell-phone carriers can put mini-stations inside. That sharpens and speeds phone signals, especially for increasingly data-heavy apps. Downtown denizens are happier with their services. Carriers gain a competitive edge. And the city makes money when carriers lease pole space.


Telensa, based in Cambridge, England, makes smart streetlights that can be controlled remotely, emitting the right amount of light for the time of day or depending on the number of people in the region. The light’s sensors also can report to maintenance departments when the bulb burns out or the light develops other problems.

An added benefit: Little solar-electric panels can be mounted atop the smart-pole arm, generating electricity the city can sell to stores, apartment dwellers or back to the electric grid.

The space remaining on the poles can be fitted with various sensors to measure carbon-dioxide levels and other pollutants. Palm-size boxes from companies such as DasBox can monitor up to 36 environmental factors and send data to a central station. This gives managers real-time data enabling them to decide whether to declare an air quality alert or to open shelters in certain districts in a heat emergency. AT&T’s “Current CityIQ” sensors can even detect gunshots.

And there’s always room for tiny cameras to record – and thereby perhaps deter – street crime or document traffic accidents.

Singapore, with notoriously strict standards of public behavior, uses cameras to spot litterers. The watchful eyes keep streets tidier and cut the cost of clean-up crews.


In fact, smart streetlights are only one component of a smart city’s ability to monitor and manage traffic flows.
Technology from companies such as Clearview Intelligence can use those mounted sensors and other tools to analyze traffic speeds and congestion, and alert police and commuters to hotspots where tie-ups might be about to occur. The traffic system’s artificial intelligence – or human traffic managers at a central hub – can then send alerts to smart cars, which could communicate with traffic-monitoring software to determine the most trouble-free route to the driver’s destination.

Instead of letting drivers wander in search of a parking space, software from ParkWhiz and other developers lets public or private garages advertise open parking spots. Drivers can reserve them over their smartphones with a credit card. Spaceek’s technology deploys a network of sensors across a city and uploads information to the Cloud about which parking slots are open.

Sensors also can be mounted on traffic lights and linked to transmitters in emergency vehicles. When an ambulance is driving hot to an accident scene, for example, its transmitter could switch all traffic lights in its path to green.

Other sensors mounted on streetlight poles and traffic signals can monitor the number of vehicles, or degree of back-up, and continuously adjust the times that a light stays green or red. Those sensors could communicate with others in the area through the Cloud, managing the flow of cars and trucks in a single, integrated flow that would maximize efficient movement and banish fender-benders. Barcelona, in Spain, has used data from cameras and sensors to repattern the city’s traffic flow. Municipal managers say it will be 21 percent smoother.


Because an estimated 75 percent of energy used, and 80 percent of carbon dioxide emitted, happens in cities, reducing vehicles’ energy use and boosting efficiency mean saving tax dollars and health care costs. And that occurs while making urban cores nicer places to be.

But saving time on the road isn’t the only way a smart city cuts and manages energy use.

The smart electric grid is gradually making its entrance.

Our century-old system of generating and distributing electricity isn’t designed to welcome renewable power from decentralized sources like rooftops or to confront post-9/11 security challenges. Replacing a mindless electric grid with a smart system would eliminate enough waste to reduce annual United States national electricity use 9 percent a year by 2030, according to the nonprofit Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative.

That saves 400 billion kilowatt-hours and more than $40 billion annually in the US alone.

On a large scale, smart-grid sensors monitor usage and energy flow to instantly spot breakdowns or abnormalities. Intelligent software from companies such as Enbala Power Networks can deftly juggle generation and distribution even as demand fluctuates and solar or wind energy comes and goes in the grid.

Smart-grid efficiencies also are possible at the smallest scale.

For example, Utilidata’s AdaptiVolt software allows electrical machinery to operate in the lowest acceptable voltage ranges that still ensure processes are carried out properly. Industries use less electricity, demand eases, less electricity is wasted as heat, and parts and machines last longer. That saves businesses money. By upgrading switches, seals and other parts of environmental controls in a Washington, D.C., office building, the owner cut energy use 35 percent and is saving almost $800,000 a year.


When it comes to water, most cities leak. Smart cities are learning to plug the holes.

Some metropolises lose 20 percent or more of their water through cracks and holes in old pipes, wasting millions of dollars each year and jacking up residents’ water bills. Now, sensors dotted throughout a water-distribution system and on buildings’ water meters can monitor volumes and pressures. They sort through toilets flushing and washing machines filling to spot leaks and alert electronic-monitoring systems.

Incremental efficiencies also can add up, even in something as mundane as turning water sprinklers on and off.

Instead of leaving that to people, companies such as Rachio and HydroPoint Data Systems use intelligent systems. For instance, HydroPoint’s WeatherTRAK software gauges temperature, humidity, soil moisture and other factors to determine when a patch needs watering. It turns on watering equipment and shuts it off instantly when certain moisture targets are reached. The connected approach saves water, energy and money.


A city in which everything is digitally linked to everything else is, to hackers, what the Himalayas are to mountain climbers: a series of challenges to be conquered.

Late on a Friday night in 2013, hackers set off Dallas’ citywide network of hurricane-warning sirens. They let them blast for more than 90 minutes. Also in 2013, seven people were arrested for plotting – at the behest of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards – to disrupt computerized operations at a flood-control dam just north of New York City.

Speaking at a hackers’ conference, a security expert explained how he built a device small enough to fit into a backpack that allowed him unauthorized access to automated traffic-control systems in Washington, D.C., and New York City. He only had to stand within 500 feet of a control sensor and have a line of sight to the sensor. A drone could be equipped with the same ability.

The weakness is multiplied through what’s known as “the cascade effect.” For example, disrupting a city’s GPS software could easily disrupt traffic control and emergency-response systems.

With the number of smart devices connected through the Internet increasing by more than 40 percent a year, the security challenge becomes almost inconceivable – especially when digital security needs to be integrated across myriad kinds of devices and specialized systems.

The history of electronic security will be repeated in the smart city: Capacity will outstrip safety. Events, whether hacks or breakdowns, will plunge cities here and there into chaos and reveal vulnerabilities. Engineers will scramble to fix them. Insights will be hard-won and systems improved. The process will be evolutionary, pitting hackers against cybercops.   TJ  


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