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January/February, 2016: i3 It is Innovation

Smart Cities on the Rise

Many of our metropolitan areas today are in urgent need of an infrastructure upgrade. Current transportation, energy, water and waste systems were not designed for a rapidly rising population and the consequences are dire. Even though cities represent today's economic growth engine, they also account for most harmful gas emissions and sewage overlows.

For example, measurements of air pollution in London's main shopping area known as Oxford Street revealed that it only took less than five days for the British capital to exceed the legal limit for the whole of 2015. But air pollution is actually a global problem. In 2013, China had to shut down an entire city of 11 million people because of poor air quality.

Even if we ignore the dangers for citizens' well-being, there are also important fi nancial and social consequences that result from the temporary closing down of businesses in highly-polluted urban areas.

One answer to the current problems faced by many urbanites is the upcoming IoT revolution which promises to deliver the underlying technologies that city, state and federal governmental agencies can use to build the next wave of smart cities.

Generally speaking, a smart city will use two categories of devices: gateways and sensors. A smart city gateway combines a powerful microprocessor with multi-standard, high-performance connectivity (Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Bluetooth, cellular etc.) to provide local analysis of data from neighbourhood sensor hubs. Once processed, this data is then sent to the cloud for analysis and management.

Smart city sensor hubs are embedded devices used to measure anything from air quality to noise, humidity or temperature levels. Their hardware architecture consists of a microcontroller, low-power connectivity and a multitude of microelectromechanical sensors (e.g. accelerometers, gyroscopes, digital compasses, inertial modules, pressure sensors, humidity sensors, microphones and image sensors.)

Upgrading the infrastructure of metropolitan areas is a major opportunity for companies involved in IoT. Consulting fi rm Arup estimates that the global market for smart urban systems will amount to around $400 billion per year by 2020. Technology can make a real difference in improving living conditions inside metropolitan areas.

Smarter Energy Management

One category is smart grids, which involves building dedicated, energy-efficient computing centers that automatically predict and manage demand for electricity. One main advantage of a smart grid is its ability to reduce demand during peak usage intervals by informing smart devices in the home and local businesses when energy demand is high, thus preventing system overloads. Examples consist of utility companies automatically adjusting the level of street lighting based on natural brightness conditions or shifting temperature set levels for air conditioners in a city.

The Intelligent Automobile

Self-driving cars also can change the infrastructure of smart cities by ushering in fully automated public transpimgtec-010016a.jpgortation—a move that will ensure a bright future for automotive companies, sensor providers and the semiconductor industry. Adopting a fleet of autonomous, intelligent public transport systems would also help shake off images of long delays and overcrowding that still reside in the public consciousness.

Recent advances in semiconductor design have allowed OEMs to embed more processors inside vehicles. A typical car today has between 20 and 100 individual modules running real-time operating systems. However, self-driving cars require even more advanced microprocessor and microcontroller modules with hardware memory management, multithreading and virtualization capabilities that allow for more sophisticated software applications to be implemented, including model-based process control, artificial intelligence and advanced vision computing.

Self-driving cars will also come equipped with cutting-edge in-vehicle communications systems such as 5G. A smart intelligent transport system could then use the data readings from these vehicles to compute average speeds on busy roads, on-street or garage parking occupancy rates. More advanced methods could also rely on machine-to-machine (M2M) communications to direct self-driving cars away from congested areas of traffic or to avoid accidents.

The E-Health Opportunity

Worldwide healthcare costs—particularly among aging populations—are growing at an alarming rate. To address this issue, national and local governments need to work together with the healthcare and semiconductor industries to adopt a digital approach to healthcare also known as e-health. There are signs of this collaboration happening today. For example, the British-based Toumaz Group ran a six month study at Saint John's Health Center in Los Angeles in October 2012, monitoring 270 general ward patients using state-of-the art sensor equipment.

It turned out to be a successful pilot program, showing numerous benefits. From a medical perspective, hospital staff was able to detect and react much better to deteriorating conditions for a significant number of patients and greatly improve outcomes. These early interventions then yielded significant financial gains, leading to shorter hospital stays and the avoidance of more expensive treatments. After doing the math, the study found that extending the program for the entire year could bring the hospital overall savings of more than $200,000 (against an annual running cost of $20,000).

But smarter hospitals are not the only way to deliver better healthcare services directly to the people who need them. Increasingly, consumers and health professionals alike are grasping the significance of using personal electronic devices like fitness bands or smart watches as powerful tools for medical research and cure. For example, Apple recently introduced HealthKit, a software framework available in iOS 8 that provides developers the ability to create health and fitness apps that communicate with each other. These e-health apps can access user data such as weight, blood pressure, glucose levels and asthma inhaler use, which can then be sent to third-party devices and apps. E-health developers can use this valuable information to detect or treat multiple modern-day diseases, including asthma, cancer, cardiovascular conditions, diabetes or Parkinson's.

Today's Smart Cities

Amsterdam might ultimately be known for its bikes but the Dutch capital has really upped the game for technology adoption in recent years. For example, the Amsterdam Smart City is a glorified urban laboratory that incubates more than 40 smart city projects ranging from smart parking to the development of home energy storage for integration with a smart grid.

Barcelona is another bustling city rapidly adopting smart technology. The city council has been deploying a variety of sensors to measure everything from noise and air contamination to traffic congestion and even waste management. Barcelona has also set up 22@, an innovation district known for its urban planning and entrepreneurial spirit. The metropolis not only has been advancing its own initiatives, but also is trying to provide a framework for others to understand and address the challenges of modern urban life. Barcelona is now home to multiple annual summits and events dedicated to the smart city movement.

On the other side of the planet, China is definitely not getting left behind in this race. Its government is investing heavily in various smart city projects to combat pollution, overcrowding and reduce energy consumption. For example, Shanghai recently launched a three-year environmental action plan with investment expected to be around 100 billion yuan. Beijing is also spending up to 160 billion yuan (about $25.2 billion) to improve air quality by 25 percent in two years.

In Southeast Asia, Singapore has built a 250 acre green development called Gardens by the Bay which features three buildings that collect solar energy during the day and reuse it for lighting after night fall.

Metropolitan communities need to develop a personal vision of their smart city based on the particular needs of their citizens. However, many common requirements can be addressed today with intelligent hardware systems and cloud platforms, with strategic investments in areas related to public transportation, energy, healthcare or water and waste management.

Technology companies need to work together with government bodies, the town hall, standards committees and citizens to develop new and scalable solutions to existing problems, encourage innovation and calculated risk-taking and promote the tangible benefits of increasing the smartness of a city.

Return to: 2016 Feature Stories