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Symposium 2014

Solution for Smart Urban Planning for Megacities

The Challenge

Projections say that by 2050, the world will have undergone the largest and fastest period of urban expansion in human history. The urban population is estimated to double, while at the same time, the ...

Projections say that by 2050, the world will have undergone the largest and fastest period of urban expansion in human history. The urban population is estimated to double, while at the same time, the total urban area is projected to triple. City dwellers in emerging and developing countries, and their resource-intensive lifestyles, are increasingly going to create challenges in supporting many aspects of daily life. More urban dwellers require more resources such as water, land, food, and energy. These increases in demand put pressure on natural ecosystems in supporting cities. In addition, climate change, rising sea levels, or extreme weather events pose additional threats to cities. Infrastructure failure, such as electricity grid disruptions, flooding, diseases, and large-scale pollution, are some of the potential consequences.

Making use of high-tech sensors to support an information-led city development

Cities are complex adaptive systems, anchored at their core by extremely expensive assets, such as hospitals, public transport, water, power, and a plethora of other infrastructure types that support citizens. The planning of new assets and the maintenance of existing ones create a significant financial burden on cities. Historically the operation of such assets has been inefficient and this results in additional pressure on strained resources. For example, London loses almost 25% of its fresh water every day through cracked and leaking pipes. This loss would amount to 640 million liters per day, or enough water to supply all of the daily fresh water requirements for four million people. One of the central issues facing cities therefore becomes the gathering of information that helps in managing both financial and natural resources. After all, if one cannot measure this, how can one improve it?

Recent technology developments offer a significant part of the solution, and there are several converging pieces of the puzzle that create a compelling new way to understand cities. The first of these is the falling size and cost of sensors. Sensors are being developed to measure almost anything including location, movement, presence, motion, temperature, noise and vibration. Next is the rise of the Internet of Things, where connectivity is being built into cars, air conditioners, and even light bulbs. The world is moving to an environment where any machine will create data about its current state and transmit this via the ubiquitous communications networks that will wrap cities. Finally the rise of Big Data means that the information created by this convergence will be analyzed to uncover insights that were previously invisible to human perception. However while technology is advancing, there is a mismatch between its deployment in infrastructure. For example, the latest Samsung Galaxy smartphone costs around $1,000 and contains eleven sensors. In stark contrast, most cities have fewer sensors deployed in their billion dollar water networks.

The deployment of sensors in the manner described benefits the two most important stakeholders: the people that live in the city, and the people that manage the city. For citizens the falling price of sensing technology puts it within reach of community groups, schools, and even individuals. The cost of sensors has fallen to the point where school children can build their own air quality monitors and publish the resulting data online. This has implications for urban planners, regulators, and policy-makers as it shortens feedback loops considerably. Citizens will be able to report on what’s important to them, and expect a response from authorities. They will also expect this to be taken into consideration when planning future city developments. Planners that embrace this will benefit from creating environments that respond to citizen’s concerns. For those that manage cities, sensor technology offers the ability to manage scarce resources much more effectively. In the example mentioned earlier, the deployment of sensors in water pipes in London would lead to a significant infrastructure investment program that would target areas of greatest water loss.

This proposal can be effective, as it builds on work already undertaken by the Sensing City initiative in Christchurch, New Zealand. Christchurch is rebuilding the heart of the city following devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. Sensing City aims to utilise the $32 billion rebuild of the city to create an ecosystem of innovation focused on sensors, big data, and cities. It has been in operation for three years and is established as a not-for-profit organization. The initiative has the backing of five Government Ministers in New Zealand including the Deputy Prime Minister. Also supporting Sensing City is the Mayor of Christchurch.

The first project was a collaboration with the Little Devices Lab at MIT to enable citizens to better understand water quality in the rivers that flow through Christchurch. The second project is focused on respiratory illness and will be the first place in the world where data will be created that shows links between illness and air quality.

The main obstacle to achieving the goal of Sensing City is the education of Government and city officials in understanding the benefits that can be derived from the use of data to understand cities. This is an embryonic area that is being fast developed by the private sector, but it will be central and local Government employees that will need to comprehend the implications of a Sensing City.

Cities also need to understand how to implement data frameworks in such a way that makes the data transparent and does not create privacy issues for individuals. In line with the issue mentioned previously, they also need to understand the need to embrace citizens as providers of information that the city might otherwise not action.

With this in mind it is possible to imagine an annual event that showcases some of the best examples of cities using data for clear benefit (as opposed to technology companies showcasing demonstrations). The best format for this is an unconference that rotates through Christchurch every three years, with the second and third years anchored in relevant cities such as London and San Francisco. The unconference format is extremely effective at knowledge diffusion and has been proven by the series of “FOO” events hosted by Silicon Valley thought leader Tim O’Reilly (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foo_Camp). The idea is low cost (approx. $250k/year), would spread knowledge faster than traditional conference formats, and has been well-received by industry thought leaders.

Roger Dennis, Trustee, Sensing City, New Zealand

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