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The Rise of the Sensor-Based Smart City

Jessica Mulholland
Government Technology
June 2, 2014
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Rio de Janeiro's “Centro de Operacoes"

Foreword: The world’s urban centers have taken on increasing importance and power as economic engines of growth and places to live, with more than half the world’s population now in cities. With this growth expected to continue in the decades ahead, city leaders face numerous challenges as far as infrastructure and service delivery is concerned. One of the most promising solutions to this increasingly complex urban problem is making cities smarter through the use of sensor technology: tiny electronic devices that can measure and track just about anything that goes on in a city. But does the technology really work and do they generate the kind of benefits that proponents claim?  This special report looks at the growing number of sensor-based smart cities, the ways in which the technology can be used, how citizens and research organizations play a growing role and, most importantly, the potential downsides of relying on a sensor-based approach to making a city smarter. 

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s second largest city, is about to be flooded. Not by storms, which have proved devastating in the past, but by tens of thousands of soccer fans coming to watch World Cup matches in the city and at other venues around South America’s largest country. And it’s just a prelude for what will happen in 2016 when Rio hosts the Olympics and millions of visitors will swarm the city to attend hundreds of sporting events.

The logistics of moving so many people around in a few short weeks, while still running the daily operations of a city of such size, would be daunting for any government. But public officials in Rio have a secret weapon. Located in a building that looks like a glass cube, the Centro de Operacoes is a high-tech control room for the entire city, packed with computers, giant screens and hundreds of workers who can monitor everything from water levels in streets after a rainstorm to developing traffic jams. Centro is much more than a large-scale monitoring system. In some ways, it’s a vision of the city of the future that captures data streams from thousands of sensors, as well as other sources, then aggregates and analyzes the constant flow of information.

The goal is to make decisions in real time as events or emergencies occur, mitigating their impact on the daily lives of Rio’s residents while making sure the city’s budget is used as effectively and efficiently as possible. Rio’s Centro de Operacoes represents one way that cities can break down silos and use data intelligently so that government operates as a true enterprise, rather than as a series of loosely linked departments and agencies.

Other cities around the globe have different approaches, but with the same goal in mind: link networks of miniaturized electronic sensors with big data analytics and algorithms so that cities are better connected, integrated and able to analyze information more cohesively in order to enhance their efficiency. A smart city is a dynamic city that makes living in a dense urban environment more civil and more rewarding. A smart city is not only attractive to people who want to live there, but also to companies that want to do business there.

So far, a cluster of cities around the world have become leaders in sensor technology and are beginning to show promising results. Besides Rio, there’s Santander, Spain; Singapore; London; Seoul; Montreal; and Chicago. Dozens of smaller cities have launched more limited solutions, hoping to capture direct and indirect benefits from the technology.

Some have called the smart city trend the most transformative thing to happen to cities since the urban renewal movement of the 1960s. It’s happening in large part because of demographic, economic and fiscal changes affecting cities in America and around the globe.In 2012, new census estimates showed the population increasing in large cities faster than the nation as a whole, and the growth is accelerating. From New York City and Washington, D.C., in the east to San Antonio and Houston in the southwest, urban population growth has accelerated. 

Cities also have gained a cachet among millennials, young families and empty-nest baby boomers as a fun place to live and work. For anybody who remembers just how gritty and risky city life was back in the 1970s and ’80s, today’s urban experience is far more positive. At the same time, economic activity in urban metro areas has grown in importance. The 388 metro areas in the United States make up 84 percent of the nation’s population and 91 percent of gross domestic product (GDP); the 100 biggest metro areas generate 75 percent of the GDP, according to the Brookings Institution. 

The upswing in urban population growth is playing out globally. In 2010, just more than half of all people in the world lived in an urban area. By 2030, six out of every 10 people will live in a city; by 2050 the proportion will rise to seven out of 10, according to the World Health Organization. Likewise, global cities control a greater share of the world’s economic power. An estimated 40 urban metro areas produce two-thirds of the world’s economic output and are highly innovative, according to the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

But the growth and buzz has occurred while fiscal problems from the Great Recession continue to roil city budgets, forcing cutbacks in hiring and pay for city workers, according to the National League of Cities. Since 2009, cities have cut more than a half million jobs from their payrolls. At the same time, however, the cost of doing government business keeps growing, putting pressure on budgets that have seen declines in revenue for every year between 2006 and 2012. City finance officers cited rising costs for infrastructure and public safety, as well as health-care benefits and pensions, while federal and state aid to cities continues to decline, according to the National League of Cities.

With population growth and economic power rising in so many urban areas at the same time that city governments have their hands tied by weak revenue and tight budgets, the situation has created fertile ground for innovative uses of technology. The idea of installing thousands of sensors within a city’s infrastructure and linking them to computers that could intelligently process and analyze the information gained broad attention several years ago from two start-from-scratch smart cities: Masdar in Abu Dhabi and Songdo in South Korea.

Using sensor-based technology so pervasively in these cities has been called visionary, but both have run into problems, partly driven by the economy, but also by a lack of people and businesses. As a result, attention has shifted to other examples of sensor-based smart cities, where the approach is different, but the goals are similar: better services, more efficiencies and greater overall sustainability for infrastructure as well as the environment.

“Sensor technology has the power to provide data about what’s going on in a number of unprecedented ways,” said Steven Koonin, director of New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress. “It changes the way we can understand, manage and study cities. Citizens can be better engaged by having more city data available.”

The idea of having sensors on every utility pole, water line, bus, train and traffic light has been revised to a more pragmatic expectation on how the technology should be deployed and used. “Many big cities are already sitting on a lot of data,” said Katharine Frase, chief technology officer of IBM Public Sector. By working with what a city already knows and doing a better job of interpreting the existing data, cities can then deploy fewer sensors and get better results, she said.

Frase cites the example of leaky water systems. “Cities spend a lot of money to obtain the water, purify it and put it into circulation,” she said. “When they lose that water through leaks, they can’t generate revenue off of it. Adding sensors sounds like a great solution, but where do you know to put the sensors?”

The answer is by pulling data from existing infrastructure, such as pressure meters and other non-smart sources and then analyzing where the changes in pressure are occurring and when. “Using those existing tools, you can most likely figure out where the leak is, and now you are in a better position to deploy sensors,” Frase said.

Another opportunity has sprung up as cities retrofit old-fashioned mercury vapor streetlights with more energy-efficient LED lights. It turns out that the housing for LED lights is a perfect place to pack a lot of sensors — and even cameras. Link intelligent street lights in a downtown district into a network and you have the makings of a smart city. “We’re marrying the Internet with advanced Web services and low-cost miniature electronics, and delivering it as a new service to cities,” said Hugh Martin, CEO of Sensity System, a company that designs and produces intelligent street light networks. The technology has been deployed at Newark, N.J.’s Liberty International Airport to monitor baggage and foot traffic in one of the terminals. Downtown Las Vegas has also installed intelligent street lights to monitor air pollution levels, foot traffic and for surveillance purposes.

Still, when it comes to fully understanding the capabilities of sensor-based smart cities, it’s hard to ignore the showcase projects because they put so many of the capabilities at play in one location, impacting citizens, services and government at once. Rio de Janeiro partnered with IBM to create an environment that could stream data from traffic and public transport, municipal and utility services, emergency services, weather feeds and information sent in by employees via phone, the Internet and radio into a single analysis center. Data is aggregated over time to investigate aspects of city life and government operations. Predictive modeling software lets officials operate and manage the city as events unfold, from unexpected traffic jams and sudden rainstorms, all in real time. The aim of the network according to Mayor Eduardo Paes, is to eliminate the silos between departments, combine data and help the city operate efficiently at the enterprise level.

Santander, Spain, has taken a less centralized approach to using sensors. That’s partly because the city is a test-bed site, financed by an $11.1 million grant from the European Union. Santander is located on Spain’s northern coast and has a population of 180,000. Over a four-year period, the city, the University of Cantabria and several private-sector partners have installed more than 20,000 fixed and mobile sensors throughout Santander that cover several initiatives aimed at improving parking and traffic; effectively managing energy in schools, buildings and street lights; increasing the efficiency of waste collection and water management; as well as improving citizen services, such as information about public transit and shopping.

The impact of the sensor projects on the city varies, according to Mayor Inigo de la Serna, but some have shown promising results. “While we need a bigger timeframe for assessing the savings we are achieving, in the case of street lighting, we can easily achieve a cost savings between 30 and 40 percent,” he said.

Look for section two of our Digital Communities report, Scaling Up Sensor-Based Smart Cities Proves Hard, where we look at sensor-based solutions, which have the potential to impact a broad range of urban issues, from traffic and transportation to energy, public safety and the environment. 



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