Living, breathing, working . . .

Thu, Apr 12, 2012, 01:00

IT IS ESTIMATED that by 2050, 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities. Urban centres such as Dublin – which emerged centuries ago – weren’t designed with such radical demographic shifts in mind.

But increasing reliance on scientific and technological approaches to traffic flow, waste and water management, planning and design can help to uphold the standard of living we have come to expect within the framework of ever-increasing demands on public services.

Much of the work carried out by Dublin City Council (DCC) is done through a combination of human and computerised interaction. “Our traffic lights are computerised and react automatically to traffic flow,” says DCC city engineer Michael Phillips.

“Traffic light computers count the cars that go through the lights and control the vehicle flow depending on what’s happening on the streets. But all lights are wired back to a control room where they can be manually changed.”

That control room has more than 40 screens connected to 250 cameras across Dublin. Water and waste water are controlled by DCC in a similar way in that flow metres at various points are wired to control rooms where the volume can be managed manually if problems occur.

While there will never be a substitute for human intuition, future cities will increasingly rely on wireless sensor-based communication networks where divisions such as water, traffic and weather can all be joined up at one central hub.

At IBM Technology Campus in north Dublin, the “Smarter Cities” division works with a new type of technology client. Anyone from the Lord Mayor of Copenhagen to the Rio De Janeiro city engineer could be looking for advice on how to improve their city’s approach to pollution, riot control or public transport.

“Cities are beginning to view themselves as businesses,” explains Noel Crawford, manager of the IBM Innovation Centre. “Skilled workers are in very mobile positions to live and work anywhere in the world. So cities have to make themselves as desirable as possible to attract the brightest and best.”

Urban infrastructure, accommodation, social scene and so on can all be rated by the global citizen now empowered by online social and communication networks. So competition is rife, and IBM even has its own Smarter Cities scale where client cities can enter data and compare with their counterparts.

When adopting modern approaches to urban living – from waste management to crowd control – the overriding discipline used to improve functionality is mathematics. “It’s about being able to predict and respond to the dynamics of a city,” explains Lisa Amini, lab director at the IBM Smarter Cities Technology Centre. “We use a variety of mathematical approaches including data mining, optimisation algorithms and probability distribution.

“People can look at data coming in from a city’s water supply and then draw conclusions as to how, say, water should flow into one particular area. But how do you do that when you have hundreds of thousands of data points coming at you from every direction, every second? You have to make predictions about how to best manage things. It’s not just about designing algorithms but how you put those algorithms together,” she says.

“Some problems are solvable by human intuition. The question of where to invest in a new pump in a water network is one thing. But if you need to replace a whole network of pumps that then need to be controlled in real time, you need a mathematical programme to predict demand.”

Reacting to ever-changing demand has led experts to delve deeper into the world of artificial intelligence (AI). “Knowledge representation and reasoning is an area of science where we try to embody knowledge on a computer system so that it can evolve and adapt based on the numerical data coming in,” explains Amini. “It allows algorithms to be more flexible in terms of how a problem is solved.”

In Rio de Janeiro, where an IBM Intelligent Operating Centre is being used by the city council to consolidate information, weather prediction and appropriate responses are now more streamlined. Flash flooding is a major problem in Brazil’s most populous urban centre which frequently leads to destructive and sometimes fatal mud slides.

Here in Ireland, measuring weather patterns is more about assessing how consistent light precipitation affects the city and IBM has worked on the effect of “convection rain” here. While patterns can be found for how it might affect traffic and flooding, no mathematical models have been developed to measure how such weather might affect a city’s mood.

“It’s important that we try and take people into account in terms of how they interact with these systems,” says Amini. “It’s really the whole point of this area of science, despite some discounting it as being within the cultural realm. But the fact is we still can’t model human behaviour very well.”

THE CITY OF THE FUTURE

Modern architectural and design principles mean new buildings can think for themselves. Many people will already be working or living in “smart buildings” where lights, temperature and water pressure are controlled by a central computer system.

The question now is how can designers build more intelligence into the structure, so that areas such as energy consumption can improved by the building itself.

New research into carbon nano-tubes means glazing manufacturers can put energy-harnessing tubes into a building’s windows.

“The windows can then make electricity from the sun shining through,” explains Jamie Goggins of NUI Galway School of Engineering.

“They can also change the properties of the glaze to make your window more or less opaque depending on the solar gain. In the future, nanotechnology will allow us to be more energy efficient in a variety of ways.”

The line between nature and design blurs as architects design structures that behave like a plant, ie informed by the nearby locality’s characteristics, in a position to generate its own energy and operate more efficiently.

An example is the NUI Galway Engineering Building. Designed as a “living” construct, the engineering building is a teaching tool in itself, with live data gathered from sensors which measure the behaviour of the structure and its energy consumption.

It uses rainwater harvesting, a biomass boiler, low-embodied energy materials such as zinc, a grass roof for water attenuation and heat exchangers. It is being used as a teaching tool for structural engineering and building performance students, but represents the future for all modern architecture.

The big problem with intelligent architectural design is that one-off buildings are of no real use to society at large. Bigger thinking is needed.

“We can now model whole urban environments with powerful computing methods,” says Goggins. The district of Mödling in Austria is living proof of this. Despite originally being a medieval town, cooperation between town council, power suppliers and residents means the town works in energy harmony.

“They have district heating systems,” says Goggins. “Some buildings give off excess heat which they don’t require, and that heat is harnessed and either put in places where it’s needed or it’s stored.”