Concrete jungles, overcrowded streets, and littered pavements – cities as we know it are unpleasant places to live, and they also pose a serious threat to the environment.

55% of the population live in cities (World Bank)

70% of global energy use is in cities (Deloitte)

The stress of city life can get to anyone, and it’s harder than ever to make a home. There is little escape from the constant rush and high density of people that surround you. The air is thick and muggy, and the heat when the sun comes out is almost unbearable. Is this what modern living looks like?

What’s the Damage?

In May 2019, London became the first city to declare a climate emergency. This action was later followed by New York and Sydney. Governments have realised the severity of climate change due to unrelenting heat waves and increased smog. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, cities are responsible for up to 75 percent of global CO2 emissions, with buildings and transport the highest contributors.

Cities aren’t just making the air hard for us to breathe; they are impacting environmental threats to the world. The greenhouse gasses produced in cities have an exacerbating effect on rising sea levels. The heat caused by greenhouse gasses contributes to the melting of the ice sheets that surround Antarctica. This causes rising sea levels, which could result in the flooding of coastal regions. Rising sea levels even contribute to the predicted submergence of New York, one of the world’s most famous cities.

There is an increasing pressure on the population to take action when it comes to helping the environment. Many community clean-ups have been held in attempt to improve the state of cities. Yes – these are wonderful initiatives, but the reality is that in order to make an impact, cities themselves have to change. There needs to be an ongoing process, rather than a static solution. To make this possible, cities are turning to technology and data.

How Do We Define “Smart”?

“The effective integration of physical, digital and human systems in the built environment to deliver a sustainable, prosperous and inclusive future for its citizens”

This definition provided by the British Standards Institute conveys the main traits of smart cities. However, the debate on the definition of a smart city is still ongoing, as no given definition has covered the full complexity of their potential.

A smart city is a framework that requires a vision. The vision usually consists of improved citizen engagement, increased sustainability and an efficient process to allow the city to function smoothly. To achieve this, smart cities use technology to their advantage.

To create a system that is carbon neutral, there must be a change in energy source. Renewable energy is an eco-friendly way to run cities as it makes use of natural energy as opposed to the burning of fuels that contribute to the increase of greenhouse gasses. Cities that use this process are called ‘Smart Renewable Cities’ (SRCs) and they rely on solar and wind energy. SRCs don’t just promote sustainability; they also cater to residents by creating a better quality of life.

What Can Smart Cities Change?

  • Congestion and transport
  • Wind flow
  • Quantity of greenery
  • Air quality
  • Rubbish disposal
  • Energy waste

Smart cities have the potential to change many everyday problems that cities face. It does take time to implement, but using sensor technology, data can quickly be analysed to find the best solutions to cities’ problems. The sensors detect factors like movement, heat, and wind. Location and time play a large part in this process as there needs to be a solid understanding of where problems lie, and when they occur most during the day, ensuring efficient solutions.

With this technology, smart cities can even foster economic growth by reducing crime rates. A study conducted by FHSU found that sensor systems are extremely effective in detecting crime that would otherwise go unnoticed. For example, gun detection sensors can identify potential threats to the community. In addition, FHSU also found that 3% of most countries’ gross domestic product is in traffic accidents. Smart traffic camera technology can accurately pinpoint dangerous drivers. This means that these drivers are punished appropriately and consistently, therefore deterring them from continuing their unsafe behaviour.

How will driverless cars affect the insurance industry?

Smart Cities are Upon Us

Some of the world’s major metropolises have already taken the lead in proving the smart city concept. Singapore has used tech to tackle its traffic congestion. The atmosphere on the road has improved due to data collection showing peak times and areas that cause the most traffic. The city found that the main cause of congestion was drivers struggling to find a parking space. With this knowledge, metal sensors were installed in all parking spaces. Now, these sensors upload live data to a cloud system stating that the parking space is taken. Technology has been developed so that cars can receive real-time updates on the closest parking space nearby. This solution, therefore, prevented carbon emissions from increasing and solved a common issue within the community.

Singapore has gone as far as to restructuring the layouts of their buildings and cutting holes in them to increase wind flow. This stops the city from becoming too hot in the summer, which in turn prevents the use of air conditioning. Streetlights now have an inbuilt dimming mechanism. When motion sensors don’t pick up activity, the lights dim significantly, reducing light pollution and avoiding energy waste. Every change has a purpose, and data is constantly analysed to make the city a better place to live.

Smart Beyond Tech

However, it’s not all about gadgets and gizmos. Becoming a smart city also includes supplying fresh ideas; thinking outside the box; doing anything to tackle the challenges that cities face. A modern outlook is the key to a smart city’s success. This doesn’t have to rely purely on technological solutions.

A significant issue that city-dwellers face is the poor air quality caused by congestion. Research presented by NBCI proved that air pollution causes major health issues such as heart disease, asthma and lung cancer. To prevent this, solutions can be put in place, such as increasing the amount of green areas and building vertical gardens to boost oxygen levels. With these changes, physical damage to the body can be prevented, meaning that cities can become healthier places to live. This is all part of what a smart city can and should be.

As we speak, New York plans to build a solar farm on over 250 acres of closed landfill and London may soon see underground bin systems that reduce sound pollution and bad odours.  With a global spend of 34.35 billion dollars for 2020, cities around the globe have begun the process of becoming smart cities by investing in advanced technology and taking a broader view on quality of life.