The Cities of the Future Are Smart

Let’s take a deeper look into what a smart city is and how networking and communication technologies are becoming the driving force enabling this new urban reality.

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Ever wonder what life would be like if you lived in one of those futuristic cities that we often see in science fiction movies? What about Washington DC of 2054 in Minority Report or, for our younger readers, Neo Seoul of 2144 in Cloud Atlas?

The truth is that today, we can have cities that are almost as futuristic as these by simply applying intelligent technologies that are already available today, or that will be available in the very near future.

OK, OK, I’m exaggerating a little. But flying cars aside (which are coming soon by the way), a city today can actively and automatically monitor, evaluate, and respond to its ever-changing urban ecosystems to serve its population better. Such a city is known as a smart city. Well before the end of this decade, the smart city, as a concept and as an application, is poised to change the way people live in urban environments. 

Let’s take a deeper look into what a smart city is and how networking and communication technologies are becoming the driving force enabling this new urban reality.

Urban living trends

A 2018 report by the United Nations stated that the urban population of the world had already surpassed 4.2 billion. That accounted for 54% of the world’s population.

By 2030, this number is expected to approach 5 billion. As urbanization increases throughout the world, cities are becoming all the more difficult to manage, and the challenges introduced by larger urban populations are expected to increase as well. The smart city seeks to alleviate these problems, to help resolve them, and to optimize civil processes and procedures in order to improve the quality of life of urban citizens.

What is a smart city?

The concept of a smart city is truly difficult to grasp at first. There are so many different moving parts involved that one can get lost in the definition itself. To be put as plainly as possible, a smart city uses information and communication technologies to collect data about various urban ecosystems.

That data is analyzed, visualized, and evaluated by specialized servers and software either in real-time or historically, to make decisions. These decisions can be dynamically applied by automated systems instantaneously and can also be presented to human administrators, politicians, and other decision-makers to responsibly make the best choices for urban policies and strategies affecting the future of the city.

By accumulating and analyzing data from seemingly disparate systems, it is possible to gain an understanding of the interworkings of a city and acquire insight that would otherwise not be obtained, that can be used to manage assets, resources, and services more efficiently, improving operations across the city.

Now all of that was a mouthful, and for many, the definition may still seem hazy. Let’s unpack this further and also look at some specific examples.

Urban ecosystems involved

What urban ecosystems participate in a smart city? Here are some of the areas that are particularly useful and how they can be leveraged by a smart city approach:

Human and vehicular traffic

Data indicating traffic patterns of public transport, vehicles on public roads, as well as pedestrian traffic can be collected and stored. This information can be used to:

  • Inform commuters on their mobile phones in real time of where busses and trains are, what their expected ETAs are, and what route will be the fastest to get to the desired destination.
  • Enable smart vehicular traffic management using a unified system that controls traffic signals, digital traffic signage, and parking information. Traffic lights can be coordinated based on current traffic, to ensure that vehicles will encounter sequential green lights to keep them moving. Traffic can also be reduced by using digital signage to direct drivers to free parking spots, avoiding having cars drive around searching for a spot, thus adding to congestion. 
  • Collect information about pedestrian traffic, informing city officials of the behavior and trends of pedestrians in the city to plan more efficient and adequate pathways and routes for those that walk in the city.

Utilities and waste management

Collected data can be employed to develop the following:

  • Smart power grids can be used within a city to monitor and manage municipal lighting, municipal building power consumption, and even general power usage, resulting in more efficient consumption and management.
  • Water management can also be monitored, and leaks detected. Appropriate repair crews can be automatically notified and directed to the specific problematic locations.
  • Waste collection management, where smart bins can send a signal indicating that they are full and should be emptied. Half-full bins need not be emptied, thus saving on the number of trips a waste collection vehicle needs to take. The route necessary to reach all full bins can also be calculated dynamically to be the most efficient route based on the bins that need emptying. All of this alleviates congestion that waste collection vehicles often contribute to and reduces fuel consumption and pollution emissions.

 Human interaction

  • Citizens can digitally report problems with infrastructure, potholes, lighting maintenance, specialized waste pickups, and others, where all the information can be sent automatically to the appropriate municipal department to be dealt with.
  • Using data collected by citizens’ devices, their behaviors, how the population moves within the city, can be enlightening to improve city infrastructure and processes.

Ultra-local monitoring

Ultra-local environmental monitoring using sensors can help in collecting data on:

  • Weather, including temperature, air pressure, humidity, wind speed and direction.
  • Sound pollution and air quality detection can enable officials to identify the specific locations of sources of potential environmental violations that may be taking place.

Safety, security, and resilience

Public safety can be safeguarded and ensured using:

  • Seismic, flood, and extreme weather sensors can identify areas that have been hardest hit by natural disasters.
  • Emergency services intervention in natural disasters or terrorist attacks can be dispatched with higher accuracy and shorter response times.

Technologies used to realize the smart city

A successful smart city relies heavily on telecommunications technologies. Some of the most prominent technologies for smart cities include:

The Internet of Things (IoT)

IoT is a concept that aims to interconnect a multitude of network-aware “things” or objects, that can collect, exchange, and act upon data over the network or with each other. IoT sensors of all types are very useful for smart city applications, for example:

  • Environmental sensors that measure temperature, air pressure, humidity, sound, light, wind, movement, and other such phenomena.
  • Traffic sensors that can sense the presence of a car in a parking spot or can count the number of vehicles that traverse a particular road or the number of pedestrians that take a specific path.
  • Utilities’ meters that measure water and power usage or waste bin levels.

Wireless communication technologies

Sensors, meters, and detectors used for smart cities are wirelessly connected to a network so that they can send collected data and, in some cases, receive commands to be executed. Such technologies must have a long range, to cover vast areas of a city, but do not require high throughput, as such data or commands typically consist of several bits of data sent periodically. Various wireless technologies have been developed that are well suited for such applications. These are called Low Power Wide Area Networks. Some examples of such technologies include:

  • Zigbee
  • LoRaWAN
  • 6LoWPAN
  • Sigfox
  • 5G Narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT)

Such systems typically require very low power, thus the “Low Power” in the title. So much so that they can be powered by a single battery that may last for up to a decade, or by a mini solar panel, or by a combination of both. Thus, these devices are completely autonomous and wireless, for their full lifespan of operation.

Centralized control system

Accumulated data and real-time information are collected at a centralized control system, which is typically a set of servers on the cloud. These servers use specialized software, often operating within the realm of Big Data, to collect, store, analyze, and even visualize the collected data. This centralized control system may do one or more of the following:

  • Immediately update related systems, such as waste collection routes, emergency services information, traffic light timing adjustments, and digital traffic signage.
  • Inform repair crews of a failed transformer in a particular area of the city.
  • Identify water wastage in certain areas and send an alert to the responsible departments.
  • Visualize data in the form of periodic reports that can be viewed, understood, and examined by decision-makers.

Benefits for the city, its citizens, and the environment

The keener reader will already have thought of various ways in which such smart city applications are beneficial for both citizens of a city as well as for the environment. These include:

  • Efficiency – power and water usage.
  • Environment – reduce pollution and noise.
  • Proactivity – resolve problems in their infancy, and even before they occur.
  • Information – decision-makers can make more responsible decisions and policies based on solid, unbiased, and reliable information.

What does this mean for us network engineers?

Now if you’re anything like me, (and you probably are, since we network engineers often think alike), all of this should spark within you some excitement. This is a whole new realm of implementation of networks, with the potential for maximum impact within a huge market.  

This opens vast new opportunities, with the deployment of cutting edge new technologies, to be applied within hundreds of thousands of cities worldwide, that will affect billions of people. Keeping abreast of these technologies, especially wireless and IoT advancements, is an important part of maintaining the relevance of your skillset for smart city applications.  

Even though the idea of smart cities has been around for over a decade, it is still growing rapidly today and is expected to continue for many years to come. So if all this talk of smart cities has awoken a warm fuzzy feeling inside you, now is the time to take action and move into this area of expertise.

Conclusion

Now, remember that urban living has a lot of challenges that involve the environment, traffic, safety, and the delivery of municipal services equally and accessibly to all citizens of a city. As city populations grow, so do these challenges. However, they can be offset and improved drastically with the development of smart city initiatives and by creating the necessary ecosystem that will enable these smart city applications.

Governments around the world and thousands upon thousands of cities have already invested in creating a more livable urban environment. It is truly profound how all of this infrastructure is fundamentally based on networks delivering near-ubiquitous connectivity.

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Lazaros Agapidis

Lazaros Agapidis

Lazaros Agapidis is a telecommunications and networking specialist with over twenty years of experience in network design, architecture, deployment, and management. He’s worked with multiple wired and wireless technologies including IP networks, fiber optics, Wi-Fi, as well as mobile communication networks. He has developed training content and courses for multiple vendors, and has been directly involved with teaching telecommunications for more than a decade. Over the years, he’s gained valuable first-hand experience from working on various large-scale telecom projects from both the enterprise as well as the telecom provider point of view.

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