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Smart Cities: Intelligent Approaches to Sustainable Urban Development

9 mins
Updated by Ana Alexandre

In Brief

  • Smart cities are rising up and are setting the stage for an intelligent future.
  • Security and public safety components are a concern for any city.
  • The goal is to bridge the dividing relationship between citizens and the city officials and departments.
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Nowadays, you can hardly find anyone who hasn’t heard about smart light bulbs, smart security cameras, smart kitchen appliances, smart thermostats and self-parking vehicles. Now think bigger. If interconnected smart devices in the home is any indication of where this technology is leading, then imagine smart cities. They actually exist. Studies show that the majority of households in the United States own at least one smart home product. As the residential grid expands with more smart technology, smart cities are rising. Smart technologies allow consumers to save time, money, and other expenditures, while providing optimization options geared to help conserve resources. It helps individuals limit the amount of time they spend across multiple devices, and is essentially aimed for more efficient living. Across the globe, cities are experiencing an era of evolution through integrated smart technology. The estimated goals of smart cities are to provide the technological ability to focus on a broad spectrum of things — from energy distribution, public transportation systems, transport systems, traffic management, and also garbage collection. As data streams and technological trends converge in order to make lives simpler for a fast paced data driven society — such as by lowering carbon emissions by reducing traffic congestion and helping individuals locate parking spaces — people will be able to maximize the potential this technology has to offer.

Improving efficiency and quality of life

Cities face myriads of diverse issues on a daily basis due to the inherent complex mechanics of a social and political infrastructure consisting of a vast system of moving parts.  Since cities fundamentally are socio-political bodies, resolving social problems are invariably a strong focal point for the individuals and authorities who oversee them. The right conditions are essential. Therefore, it is critical to strive to build the necessary conditions in order to develop a blossoming economy that can not only create a more prosperous job market, but also encourage social equality in an undisputed era of digital transcendence. Additionally, cities are burdened with the responsibility of providing a functional infrastructure at prices that are affordable to everyday consumers. Other important necessities include urban safety and emergency relief, acceptable education and healthcare options, as well as housing that’s affordable. Basically, everything that’s necessary in order to make a city an appealing place for people to desire to live in.  These days, citizens have a lot of expectations from their cities. Consequently, they want to be provided with user-friendly services in a digital format for convenience. We see these on a smaller scale whenever we visit a restaurant equipped with waiter-less kiosks which allow individuals to place orders and pay without being dependent upon waiters, which in turn reduces waiting and liberates time. Access to government data such as performance dashboards, meetings from city hall streaming live, and an active social media presence has the ability to aid smart cities in advocating a healthy citizen-government relation, which in turn will promote accountability, transparency, and also will encourage a more provocative involvement of the public. The creation of electronic groups will provide the right communication platforms for people to vocalize their opinions and also receive feedback. Subsequently, this kind of reciprocation will help build trust between citizens and the city and strengthen communities.

The smart techs cities around the world already utilize

One of the cities that has notable achievements in the progression towards utilizing smart technology is Dubai, the United Arab Emirates. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum launched the Dubai Smart City Project. The goal of this initiative is to digitize Dubai government’s traditional services and operations by December 2021 and eliminate over 1 billion pieces of paper used for government transactions every year.  Currently, in Dubai, there is a 46 hectare property development known as the Sustainable City, which is reportedly the first zero-energy structure in the Emirate of Dubai. The marvel includes almost 500 villas, 89 apartment buildings, 11 dome greenhouses, 32,300 square feet of outdoor urban farm land, as well as a whopping 1.16 million square feet of office structures and retail areas. This was the first phase of the development, which launched in 2015. The second phase is set to include a hotel, school, and also an innovation center — all seamlessly connected to a self-sustaining grid. BeInCrypto contacted Jonathan Reichental, CEO of business and technology education, advisory, and investment firm Human Future and the former chief information officer for the City of Palo Alto, to learn more about smart cities. Reichental said that “Dubai, just a few decades ago was just a few buildings and tents — sort of a coastal village in the desert, and today it’s this remarkable city of towering skyscrapers and beautiful hotels, and very efficient services,” and continued:
“What distinguishes Dubai is a real commitment and solid leadership from the top down in terms of making government function better, [and] being very responsive and really focused on this idea of creating a happy city. That’s so important in the smart city space because we’re talking about quality of life, and happiness and health are characteristics of a smarter and more sustainable city.”
Barcelona, Spain, was one of the first cities in Europe to begin benefiting from digital technologies. “Barcelona has done a lot to use technology for optimizing its public transportation, so people know when the train is coming and about delays. They just have very good analysis over their public transport. They’ve been very good in terms of their waste management,” Reichental commented and added:
“They’re one of the first to use smart trash cans or smart rubbish bins, and that helps make sure that there’s no overflowing trash, and the paths that the waste collectors can take are optimized. They really focused heavily on their tourism industry, making it very accessible to tourists and providing a lot of digital information.”
Additionally, by installing a vast network of fiber optic lines throughout Barcelona, the city was able to save 75 million euros ($88.9 million) of city funds, which then expanded the job market by creating 47,000 new jobs in the sector of smart technology. By implementing the fiber optics, Barcelona was able to provide free high-speed WiFi that is compatible with the Internet of Things (IoT) as well as broaden the scope of integrating smart water, lighting, including smart parking. Globally, 11% of public parking spaces are now fitted with smart technology, which enables parking operators to manage remotely and autonomously monitor parking availability in real-time. Parking operators can access vehicle detection sensors, camera systems equipped with automated vehicle licence plate recognition, smart parking meters, smart payment systems for public parking, digital signatures as well as smartphone applications designed to assist with public parking navigation.  Cities are also retrofitting antique mercury vapor based street lights with LED lights, which are obviously more energy-efficient. They are also able to repurpose the housing for the LED lights by packing them with sensors, as well as cameras. When cities begin linking smart street lights together into a network, they have the fundamental elements of a smart city. Newark, a city in New Jersey, installed this smart tech at the Liberty International Airport, which is used to monitor baggage and pedestrian traffic in one of their terminals. On the other side of the U.S., in Las Vegas, intelligent street lights were also installed to monitor air pollution, foot traffic, and also for surveillance reasons. Since 2008, the New York City (NYC) Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has been conducting air quality analysis. Their monitoring initiative is accomplished with 75 transitory monitoring stations that are installed for a two week period, in addition to eight permanent air monitors designed to report air quality analysis reports at 15-minute intervals. Due to this smart city program, it became for the city to determine that low-cost heating oil, used in just 1% of NYC buildings, was the primary cause of most of the air pollution than all the vehicles in the city combined. For this reason, number four and number six fuel oils have been banned from usage, and banning number two fuel oil could be on its way. On account of NYC’s air monitoring and analysis program, sulfur dioxide emissions have been drastically reduced by more than 70% in NYC since 2008.

Putting government services on blockchain

Cities and governmental infrastructure in all its diverse capacities all rely heavily on vast quantities of data — whether it is collected, stored, created or processed. The overall management and protection of information remains dependent upon competent end-users, which means that only one weak leak in the proverbial chain of digital security could spell disaster if those systems become compromised by an intruder. This is where blockchain technology comes into play. Blockchain invariably possesses the ability to exponentially boost security and integrity of the information it processes and stores. According to Reichental, blockchain is the most commonly used in City Halls that utilize the technology.  There are over a dozen smart cities around the world, and less than a quarter of them have installed blockchain technology on a large scale or are utilizing some other distributed ledger system. For example, the city of Dubai has already decided to become a blockchain-powered smart city by the year 2021. “Dubai’s adoption of blockchain technology at a city-wide scale is a testament to its commitment to positively transform government from service provider to service enabler,” said Aisha Bin Bishr, director general at Smart Dubai Office. Estonia has been using variant forms of blockchain and distributed ledger technology in an initiative to keep track of their citizenry. In 2014, Estonia launched its e-residency program, which allowed participating members to receive an e-resident smart card. The program allows e-residents access to services such as company information, banking, transaction processing information, as well as taxation, and sign documents electronically.

Concerns over privacy and mass surveillance

Security and public safety components are naturally a concern for any city. When you look at the data, it becomes apparent that the cities which implement smart city technology enjoy many benefits from it. However, the benefits obtained from smart city technology are built upon constant robust data streams captured and aggregated by a host of sensors, as well as cameras and tracking applications — various technologies which are necessary in providing fast and efficient optimization. Without dependent technologies, smart cities could hardly provide something new and innovative designed to make lives simpler and safer. For example, Amazon’s Alexa, a smart home virtual assistant speaker, became instrumental during a murder investigation in Hallandale Beach, Florida, in late 2019. Police used a search warrant to obtain Alexa recordings from two Echo Dot’s. With a device like this to be set in a continuous listening mode with recording capabilities that can be accessed by third-parties on a much grander scale, smart cities will be faced with the responsibility to determine whether public safety ends and privacy violations begin. On the streets of Moscow earlier this year, live facial recognition cameras were introduced “on a massive scale.” The report went public after London already released news that it is integrating live facial recognition technology into the daily activities of the police, along with the Metropolitan Police department setting up camera systems in busy tourist and shopping locations to spot people who are “wanted for serious and violent offences.” Last year, the use of facial recognition technology used by city agencies and police departments was banned in Oakland, making it the third city in the U.S. to issue such a prohibition, behind such cities like San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts. The more IoT connected devices grow on the smart city grid, the greater the risk will likely be to privacy. People everywhere have a liberty interest concern that their data being shared to access services across the digital grid could potentially be compromised and stolen in the event of a network attack by threat actors. But this isn’t the only concern. Surveillance capitalism is also a threat to individual privacy. People are already battling with meta data and intelligence companies along with the government entities over broad reaching domestic surveillance. Reichental admitted that it is fair to be concerned about privacy and surveillance issues, especially given that in recent years, there have been plenty of examples when governments took advantage of people’s personal data, without their consent. Since we live in the digital era, with a lot of personal information gathered by third parties, governments apparently should develop relevant laws and rules to provide city leaders and service providers with an understanding of what is permissible and what is not. This would ensure that personal data is managed in an ethical way. Elaborating further on the issue, Reichental said:
“Smart cities are not about surveillance. There is unfortunately a believe by some people and sadly it’s been validated in some places, that smart cities are about cameras monitoring people, about systems that intrude on people’s privacy, and so we’ve got to be really on top of this problem. And not only the potential problem, but also the perception that smart cities are about control and intrusion of privacy. In reality, smart cities are about quality of life, they’re focused on not only technologies, but things like green spaces, and doing things that are good for the environment and making sure people have access to education and health and clean water.  99% of smart city efforts are really focused on doing good things and helping people.”
Apparently, the time table for cities to undertake this initiative is going to be multiple decades in the making before anyone can actually see real results from this endeavor. However, enlarging the scope of digital services in society can drastically transform a city into a more attractive environment for the people who live there.


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