Smart cities around the world are developing initiatives and adopting innovative smart technologies in a bid to make themselves both more sustainable and energy efficient while, at the same time, providing ever more sophisticated technological solutions to address the multiple issues confronting modern cities.

According to figures from the United Nations upwards of 70 per cent of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050 putting upward pressure on services that society has become dependent on and expects.

We talk about the smart city concept but what is a smart city? The definition that’s most popular is that it is an urban development that uses Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and the Internet of Things (IoT) to provide information to better manage resources and assets. Smart cities take data from both citizens and mechanical devices, that are then processed and analysed to deliver services such as transport systems, power plants, water supply networks, waste disposal, and the like.

The smart city is also referred to as either the eco-city or sustainable city because it not only wants to deliver improved and more efficient services but also to improve the quality of those services and to make them more sustainable over the longer term.

The smart city aims to reconcile technological innovation with the economic, social and ecological challenges impacting modern cities. Driven by the rapid growth of the Internet of Things and the roll-out of 5G and LPWAN networks cities are set to become smarter.

Real-time tracking and reporting of traffic, for example, are making it easier for people to make smarter and more informed decisions about how they get around their urban environment as well as providing improved monitoring of urban air pollution.

Smart mobility is a key component of the smart city and leverages technology to enable people and various forms of transport to function in more efficient, resilient, and sustainable ways. These developments are being driven by improved infrastructure, mobility-as-a-service, micro-mobility, logistics solutions, and zero-emission transportation. Across the board, intelligent traffic management, advanced commuting, and autonomous vehicles are also making urban mobility more eco-friendly.

There’s a long list of cities investing in smart technology, with the likes of Singapore, Zurich and Amsterdam among those considered to be leading the way.

Singapore launched its Smart Nation initiative back in 2014 and since then has introduced a wide range of smart technologies including contactless payment technology to better manage the movement and payments for the 7.5 million passengers who use the city’s public transport; while the city is also using a digital health system to help support its ageing population with the use of video consultations as well as wearable Internet of Things devices to monitor patients.

Singapore is another good example of how smart cities are adapting to the problems posed by a growing population and the need to come up with more sustainable forms of farming to both improve food quality and reduce energy and transportation costs. Singapore has been an early adopter of vertical farming techniques and it has made the city more self-sufficient while having a positive environmental impact.

Zurich has rolled out streetlights that can adapt to traffic levels using sensors, either increasing or decreasing brightness and, in the process, enabling energy savings of up to 70%. The city is also using sensors to collect environmental data, manage the flow of traffic and deliver public Wi-Fi services.

In Amsterdam its smart city project features more than 170 different operations across the city which uses renewable energy for electric garbage trucks, as well as solar-powered bus stops, billboards and lights.

The city has encouraged businesses and households to use more energy efficient roofing insulation, smart meters, and ultra-low smart energy LED lights.

Here in London, a pioneering new scheme run by UK Power Networks, is using a building in Central London to better manage electricity demand at peak times and is doing this by adjusting the building’s temperature throughout the day.

According to UK Power Networks a typical office block needs to be kept at 21-22 degrees centigrade but by simply changing the times of the day at which the aircon is running and avoiding running at full power during the peak period, buildings can significantly reduce demand on the network.

Critically this smarter approach to using capacity on the network means that it is now possible to free up space for more low carbon technologies like electric vehicle chargers and heat pumps to connect more quickly and at lower cost.

The project which is a partnership with BankEnergi and supported by Oaktree Power, means that UK Power Networks can now call on Bracken House in Central London to provide more flexible services to the electricity network and the company has now received calls from several other companies offering similar solutions in London and beyond.

The project builds on the Greater London Authority’s pioneering Flex London project, which set out to demonstrate how buildings could help manage peaks in demand on the network. Flex London concluded that flexibility could become London’s “greatest energy decarbonisation asset” – with potential for up to 1GW of flexibility by 2050 – which would free up capacity for almost 500,000 electric vehicles.

Commenting Shirley Rodrigues, Deputy Mayor for Environment and Energy said, “Buildings are responsible for nearly 70 per cent of the capital’s carbon emissions, so it’s important we manage their energy demand intelligently to help us reach net zero by 2030. It’s great to see UK Power Networks building on the Flex London project to help bring energy bills down and deliver a more flexible, lower carbon energy system for all. It’s also a great example of how a relatively small change can help make London a greener and healthier city for all Londoners.”

Better water management

Turning from electricity to the better management of water, the distribution of water is another critical issue that smart cities are having to address.

The rising need for enhanced water management systems is dictated by global warming which causes long-term droughts. Smart tools and devices in wireless metering can provide citizens with hourly statistics on water consumption to increase awareness and reduce costs. Intelligent control systems, for example, employ cloud computing, sensors, and user-oriented approaches to reduce water wastage in both residential and commercial buildings. In addition, real-time water quality control detects potential leakage and prevents issues at early stages.

According to the UK water regulator Ofwat, around three billion litres of water are lost through water pipe leaks in the UK every day. With over 400,000 miles of pipes making up our water infrastructure, spotting cracks and finding leaks isn’t an easy task.

“With the responsibility of providing crucial water services to millions of homes and businesses up and down the country, the demand placed on water management companies is high. But the sector is currently facing a wealth of problems. Much of the current infrastructure is aging, with old pipes often made from materials that are no longer fit for purpose, such as rust-prone iron,” explains Dave Walsha of DC motor supplier EMS.

But an aging network isn’t the only issue with the growth in environmental factors, such as heavy traffic or growing tree roots applying additional pressure, causing pipes to shift or crack.

“Climate change presents additional challenges, with droughts and flash floods expected to become more frequent. In a drought, excessively dry soil can become loose and allow space for pipes and pipe joints to become displaced; on the flip side, floods can cause an overflow of water where pipes are blocked,” adds Walsha.

Speaking back in 2019 the then Environmental Agency chief executive, Sir James Bevan, warned that in less than 25 years, many water companies would reach a critical point — where there is no longer enough water to meet demand.

So how can water companies ensure a safe and secure water supply?

The scale of the water network means that overhauling the entire system at once isn’t feasible, but with a fifth of all water treated lost to leakages, preventing those leaks in the first place and addressing them more quickly are both key areas.

Hidden leaks underground can go unnoticed for long periods of time, while working in such conditions can be dangerous, and not all pipes are large enough for humans to move through safely. In these situations, the pipe must be exposed through digging for access, which often leads to disruption to pipes under roads and businesses.

Traditionally, acoustic leak detection equipment was the preferred method, but while it works well with metal-based pipes modern plastic pipes don’t transmit sounds the same way that metal does.

Consequently, water companies are turning to robotic technology to provide engineers with the ability to inspect pipes remotely. These robots can help pinpoint the exact location of potential faults, making it easier for repair teams to rectify problems with minimal disruption to users and in a shorter timeframe. Eventually, such robots could lead to the creation of new and improved bots harbouring both inspection and repair functionalities.

Most of these robots employ a visual inspection system, such as a camera, while positioning sensors help the robot to navigate the bends and changing diameters within the pipe network.

Ultrasonic sensors can be added to measure wall thicknesses and identify pipe defects. Other options include adding drives for tool functions, such as the ability to carry sealants to fix small cracks or grinders to remove corrosion.

The use of technology

As can be seen from the examples above a significant driver in the uptake of smart city technologies is the push for greater sustainability. The smart city will require a proper and effective deployment of the IoT and the use of sensors to better monitor a whole raft of different services. Data will be at the heart of the smart city alongside the IoT and the digital transformation of services.

The cost savings to utility companies are expected to be immense, for example, and a report from Insider Intelligence, suggests that they will save $157 billion by 2035 by implementing smart meters, and smart grid solutions.

While the focus in this article has been on environmental drivers the smart city will also leverage a host of technologies to digitise and improve all aspects of city life.

Technologies such as artificial intelligence, digital twins, the blockchain, augmented reality, and cloud computing services will be deployed to collect data and deliver services that will be both proactive and preventive.

A Spanish start-up, eAgora, has developed a unified digital citizenship platform for local authorities which connects citizens and keeps the public informed and, from the data that’s collected, can help to influence decisions on budgets, publish details about events and help launch new initiatives.

The smart city is about public engagement as much as anything else, but with that comes the issue of cybersecurity.

As data collection becomes more widespread, so issues such as privacy and the management of data will become more important. That will require a different culture and legislation will be necessary if the real power of data and its exchange is to be realised.

While the smart city concept offers significant improvements there are risks and those driving these ideas will need to be ‘alive’ to the consequences of their actions when it comes to managing, sharing and ensuring data is kept secure.”