In South Korea, about 65km from the capital, Seoul, lies a city of the future. Songdo is a purpose-built smart city. With environmentally-friendly buildings and sensor-controlled environments, even Songdo’s waste management system is smart. Rubbish is sucked into underground pipes and automatically sorted, recycled or burned for fuel. There are no rubbish bins. The whole system is operated by seven people.
In addition to the technology, Songdo has almost 40km of bicycle paths and many hectares of green space. Apparently you can hear the birds sing, unlike in the neighbouring capital. Nature is a key element of a smart city it seems.
Parking systems While most cities have a long way to go before catching up with Songdo, there is an effort across the globe to make cities smarter. Sensor technologies are creeping into traffic-management structures and parking systems.
Toll bridges, travel cards and ticketing systems are collecting data, which is used to make systems more responsive to the needs of citizens. In short, the smart cities movement uses technology and other means to make cities more efficient, more responsive and more sustainable.
By 2050, 70 per cent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas, according to Prof Siobhán Clarke, director of the Future Cities Research Centre at Trinity College Dublin.
“Ultimately, as a society, if we don’t change our behaviour and how we manage natural resources, we will have serious challenges relating to access to basic human needs. Really basic needs – like energy and water,” she says.
Dr Marcus Collier, co-ordinator of the UCD-led EU project Turas (Transitioning towards Urban Resilience and Sustainability) says, “Building smart, resilient, sustainable cities is the greatest social experiment in history.
“We want to build massive artificial structures, housing three-quarters of the world’s population, making sure that they have a minimal impact on their surrounding environments.”
Technology will play a vital role. It is estimated that sensors controlling energy use, for example, could cut global emissions by 15 per cent by 2020.
A recent report from the environmental research agency, the New Climate Economy, found that if cities were to invest in climate-smart technologies the world could save $17 trillion (€15 trillion) by 2050.
Dr Martin Serrano of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at NUI Galway researches these technologies. He says that one smart city can be very different from another. "Smart cities are different depending on the city's needs," he says.
“Galway has priorities in tourism and transport, whereas Cork needs solutions in flood prevention and health. Smart technologies are all about improving quality of life for citizens, but that means different things in different places.”
Ireland lags behind when it comes to implementing smart technologies, but Serrano believes we are flexible enough to leapfrog ahead.
The initiatives are there. Prof Rob Kitchin, who leads Maynooth University’s Programmable City project, points to about 30 smart city projects in Dublin. The Big Belly bins you see around the city are an example of smart technology.
Traffic-control systems may not be perfect, but we would notice if they weren’t there. Real-time bus schedules and Leap cards are smart.
The recently launched website smartdublin.ie gives an excellent overview of Dublin’s smart ecosystem. Dublin was one of just 16 cities worldwide to be awarded an IBM grant worth €500,000 last year, aimed at solving problems in the city. Environmental data Also last year, Intel announced its intention to make Dublin world’s first Internet of Things city, by means of a very dense network of sensors to monitor environmental data such as air and noise pollution.
As Irish cities become smarter, Serrano wants to see connections and smart regions. “If cities communicate with each other and share information, we can anticipate and resolve problems before they happen,” he says.
“If there’s a concert on in Galway, and we know a large number of people in Dublin have bought tickets, we know that roads will be congested. So we provide a discount for the trains and the buses, and advertise widely.”
Researchers warn against seeing technology as a cure-all. “When we started, people held ICT up as a solution for everything,” says Kitchin. But some problems need a different approach. ICT helps, but the solution to traffic congestion isn’t just better traffic management systems, it’s also about getting people to stop driving.”
Clarke agrees. “The ‘smart’ in smart cities needs innovative smart technologies, but also smart governance, new business models, and new ways for engaging citizens and other stakeholders,” she says.
While technology grabs the attention in smart city discourse, the smartest solutions for cities are those that instigate behaviour change, the one element that will make cities sustainable as well as smart.
Collier says, “Years ago, it used to be normal to smoke on an aeroplane. It was acceptable not to wear a seatbelt in a car. Now those behaviours are unthinkable. A true smart city is one where behaviour has changed for the better.”
Making the connection: What drives smart cities
Sensors: A sensor is a piece of technology that detects changes in its environment. A wearable sensor gathers information about changes in a person's body. Sensors used in smart city initiatives detect changes in pollution levels, traffic flow or energy use. This data is very valuable in city planning and management.
Internet of Things: The Internet of Things is a field of research that enables machines and devices to communicate with one another. This allows a smart city to make the most of the data it collects. Sensors gather information, but they need to be able to connect and communicate with other devices so that information can be understood and used.
On film: Smart cities in Defining Futures Festival
In conjunction with Science Week, UCD Science Expression is running a science and film festival (Defining Futures) from November 10th to 15th. Dr Marcus Collier will speak at the first event, Smart Cities, in Dublin City Council in Woodquay. The Human Scale is a film that looks at the challenge of building resilient and sustainable cities given the huge pressures on resources. See ucdscienceexpression.ie