Our reliance on technology is undeniable. It ensures we have potable water in our taps and that food is available on the supermarket shelves. Technology continues to change our lives and this dependence is only likely to accelerate given that, in 2010, we passed the historic milestone of having the majority of the world's population live in cities. As we consider the implications, the question of sustainability is often raised.
Information technology has the unique capability of being able to capture the ever-increasing amounts of information generated in the world around us – whether it is sensors that monitor traffic on the roads, the passage of water through pipes or the GPS signals from mobile phones.
The instrumentation of the planet is providing us with increasingly detailed information about the services we depend on and advances in data communications are allowing us to combine real-time data with existing information. At the same time recent advances in analytic algorithms mean that, more than ever before, we can gain new insights from this rich data store to help us make smarter decisions.
Since we find ourselves with the opportunity to use new technology to make things work better, then at least a significant proportion of our efforts should be directed towards the structures which could have the greatest impact on the most people – our cities.
People want to live in cities where there's a high quality of life. These demands are placing a huge strain on city infrastructures and the planet's resources. We need a "smarter" approach to delivering vital services, such as transportation, healthcare, education, public safety, energy and water. It's estimated that lost productivity and energy use due to traffic congestion alone wastes between 1% and 3% of the world's gross domestic product.
Although addressing sustainability across an entire city can be more rewarding, given the number of stakeholders involved, it will nearly always be more challenging. Strong leadership will be an essential ingredient of any program. City leaders need to think about three things in order to transform their city:
1. Assemble a team
City departmental leaders need to work across their own organisational boundaries and even partner effectively with other levels of government. In addition to formulating new policies themselves, city leaders must be able to articulate their challenges when policies are made elsewhere.
2. Think revolution, not evolution
City leaders need to look at systems, most of which are interconnected, and enable people and objects to interact in entirely new ways. Connected systems allow cities to respond quickly and accurately: for example, traffic systems able to automatically re-route vehicles around automobile accidents.
3. Target all city systems, not just one
A city should be considered a "system of systems". A holistic strategy that looks at all of a city's systems, and builds in system-wide feedback mechanisms, is a better way to deliver sustainable prosperity to its citizens.
Work has already begun in cities around the world. The cities of Singapore, Brisbane and Stockholm are all working to reduce both traffic congestion and air pollution through intelligent transportation solutions, including predictive tools to route vehicles around traffic accidents.
Several cities in Italy, the island of Malta, as well as the US state of Texas are using smart electric meters and instruments to make their power grids more stable, efficient and ready to integrate renewable energy sources and electric vehicles.
In an innovative project in Glasgow, new system insights are helping the council develop strategies to provide affordable warmth to vulnerable citizens while making progress towards the city's 2020 reduction targets for CO2.
Rotterdam is adopting a monitoring and forecasting system to support both its water and energy that uses real-time information to manage infrastructure and operations related to the effects of climate change.
China is introducing high-speed trains and expanding its rail network between cities, adding 25,000 miles of track between now and 2020. The goal is to fuel economic development without increasing automobile or truck traffic.
Societal changes and mounting pressure on resources will require cities to be increasingly sustainable. These solutions and many more are making a real impact and represent the first steps towards creating smart, sustainable cities. To see more examples, we need to encourage stronger collaboration between governments, business, academia and residents. Each offers strengths in solving challenges and recent advances in technology will help us work together as never before.
This blog was first published by Guardian Professional.