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Where technology meets sustainability

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated investment in smart-city infrastructure

The term "smart city" entered the lexicon back in 2005 when the Clinton Foundation asked Cisco to put technology to work to make cities more sustainable. It will mean different things in different parts of the world, of course, but McKinsey's definition is as good as any: "Smart cities put data and digital technology to work to make better decisions and improve the quality of life."

That definition comes from the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) report Smart cities: digital solutions for a more liveable future. It found that cities can use smart technologies to improve some key quality-of-life indicators by 10 to 30 per cent – indicators which represent lives saved, fewer crime incidents, shorter commutes, a reduced health burden and carbon emissions averted.

"Covid-19 has accelerated smart-city transformation," says KPMG Sustainable Futures partner Russell Smyth. "The pandemic has underscored that effective recovery requires building strong and connected communities, empowered by data and digital infrastructure to collaboratively contribute to the creation of a resilient future. It catalysed urgent investment in smart-city features such as IoT projects, as cities across the world seek to manage, monitor and automate operations remotely."

This requires a supporting infrastructure. “Our smart-city strategies are built on three pillars that come up time and again,” says Tom Tipple, managing director for EMEA with networking technology specialist Trilliant. “These are decarbonisation, lifestyle improvement, and cost-efficient use of data. Every city has different smart needs, and they keep changing but they all require a flexible and scalable infrastructure to deliver them. They have to make sure they are not tied to vendor and have an open and vendor-agnostic networking infrastructure. They are investing in something that’s got to last 20 to 25 years and it has to be scalable and be open to running different applications and able to mix different communications technologies. No one size fits all.”

Smart lighting

Peter O’Donoghue is an industrial internet of things (IIoT) solutions architect with Trilliant. He points to smart lighting as a basic smart-city technology. “The first part of the evolution was to move from high pressure sodium to LED energy saving lights,” he notes. “Smart lighting enables a further 10 per cent saving because of better controls and the ability to dim the lights at certain times and so on. It also cuts down on maintenance costs as you can monitor performance on a central management system. Large volume deployment enables significant savings and once the network is in place it can be used to deploy other smart-city services which can be paid for out of the savings made on lighting.”

And the connected light poles can be put to other uses, says Tipple. “You can add sensors for air pollution monitoring, for example. You can also use them for parking management. At present you have signs to direct people to car parks with spaces. With smart technologies you could alert people to vacant on-street parking spaces, allow them book and pay for them, and link in with their satnav to guide them to them. That can improve traffic management and drive up revenue for the council. On the waste side can have sensors deployed on bins to alert when they are full.”

Aggregating data from different sources can add value. “By measuring particulates, gases, nitrates and sulphates in the air and combining that with traffic-management data you can inform responses such as diverting traffic from city centres or providing additional public transport services.”

Prof Siobhán Clarke is the director of Enable, which is hosted in the Connect Centre in Trinity College Dublin. Enable is a national research programme funded by Science Foundation Ireland which focuses on connecting communities to smart urban environments.

“I am really excited about the advances in data analytics and IoT and other technologies,” she says. “When you bring them together with advances in communications technologies you can create lots of opportunities for sustainable solutions for cities.”

Traffic patterns

She points to a project with Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) as an example of what's achievable in this regard. "TII's ultimate goal is to enable better more sustainable transport models and reduce emissions in the long term. We are taking anonymised data from tools, analysing traffic patterns, looking at the different classes of vehicles, and the volumes of traffic at different times. This will enable TII to plan for more sustainable movement of vehicles. They could adopt variable tolls and so on to incentivise people to use roads at different times."

Another project sees the Enable team working with Routematch on the ‘first last mile’ challenge. “Routematch is a ride-sharing planning company,” Clarke explains. “The public transport system is good at getting you to a railway station or another stop but how do you get home from there. A really interesting study carried out by Prof Ken Brown in UCC found that if people are a little bit flexible on time and be willing to share a ride they can reduce distances travelled by cars in cities by between 40 per cent and 60 per cent. That will reduce congestion and emissions by using AI to optimise people’s route planning.”

Another Irish smart-city project is taking place in Limerick, which is one of two EU ‘lighthouse’ cities that have been selected for a major climate-change pilot programme that will give a lead on how to dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of urban areas.

“A key pillar of the programme is data harvesting, which KPMG Future Analytics leads,” says Smyth. “This enables the visualisation of energy-saving measures and captures citizen feedback on initiatives ranging from air pollution sensors to electric cars. A range of new solutions based on digital technologies and digital platforms will be put in place to enable a cluster of buildings to become a net energy producer and not just a consumer. This will include retrofitting older buildings, introducing technologies such as heat pumps, solar panels, energy storage solutions and electric cars.”

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times