When Cities Run Themselves

London's a leader among smart cities
London's a leader among smart cities Photo courtesy of Flickr user UGArdener

The torch relay for the London Olympics began in England over the weekend. Officially, this hearkens back to the original Olympics in Ancient Greece, when a flame was lit to commemorate the theft of fire by Prometheus from top god Zeus. Unofficially, this is when the people running the Games go into panic mode because they have just over two months to make sure everything works.

It will be one of the first big tests of the modern “smart” city. Roughly 11 million people are expected to visit London later this summer, with 3 million more “car trips” added on the busiest days. The city already is wired with thousands of sensors which will let engineers closely track traffic flow, with the goal of curbing nightmarish gridlock–although it probably says something that the people manning the city’s data center will be provided with sleeping pods so they don’t have to venture out and risk getting stuck in traffic. (Not that London doesn’t have some experience in using tech to help drivers move around the city. When members of the International Olympic Committee were in town several years ago to see if London would be able to host the Games, their cars were outfitted with GPS devices, which allowed city officials to track them and turn stoplights green as they approached intersections.)

In response to the likely heavy traffic, a sensor system called CityScan is now being installed atop three buildings in London. It will be able to scan and read air quality all over the city and produce a 3-D map that lets people know when and where pollution may be getting unhealthy.

Machines talking to machines

No doubt that the Olympics will have a profound effect in shaping London’s future. By the time the Games begin, for instance, it will have Europe’s largest free WiFi zone, with the city’s iconic red phone booths converted, fittingly, into hotspots. But another opportunity London landed earlier this month could have just as much impact, perhaps more. A company called Living PlanIt announced that it will begin testing its “Urban Operating System” in the Greenwich section of the city.

What does that mean? Put simply, London would have its own operating system, much as your PC runs on Windows or your Mac runs on Apple’s IOS. This ties into the latest hot buzz phrase, “the internet of things,” which describes a world where machines talk to other machines. No human interaction required. So, for a city, this means sensors in buildings would connect to sensors in water treatment plants which would connect to sensors in stoplights. It would be one gigantic, computerized urban nervous system, which a lot of experts think is the only way cities can survive a future when they’ll contain more than two out of every three people on Earth.

Based on what sensors reveal about the location and movement of humans in a section of a city, for instance, buildings will automatically adjust their temperatures, streetlights will dim or brighten, water flow will increase or slow. Or, in the event of a disaster, emergency services would have real-time access to traffic data, trauma unit availability, building blueprints. And soon enough, our smart phones will be able to tap in to the Urban OS. So will our household appliances.

This is not some 21st century analogue of the personal jet pack. The Urban OS is the driving force behind a smart city being built from the ground up in northern Portugal. Construction is scheduled to be completed in three years; eventually it will have about 150,000 residents. It will also have more than 100 million sensors.

The U.S. soon will have its own real-world, smart city laboratory. Late next month, ground will be broken near Hobbs, New Mexico, near the Texas border, for a $1 billion cutting-edge ghost town, where researchers will test everything from intelligent traffic systems and next-generation wireless networks to automated washing machines and self-flushing toilets. It will be a very cool place–except no one will live there.

Just machines talking amongst themselves.

Sense and sensorbility

Here are other ways cities are getting smarter:

  • And you thought telephone booths were so over: Meet the Smart Booth, or as it’s being promoted, “The Telephone Booth of the Future.” Not only is it solar-powered, not only does it allow you to make calls on its touch screen or get tourist and shopping info, but it also offers WiFi, monitors pollution and has a surveillance camera connected to the local police station. It’s being tested in Turin, Italy.
  • In the future, there’s no such thing as a free park: Not everything will be better in the future if the new smart parking meters in Santa Monica, California are any indication. Sensors are able to tell when someone leaves the space and the meter automatically resets itself back to zero time. So you can no longer park on someone else’s dime.
  • Flowing pains: When you hear “smart meter,” usually you think power grid. But cities are also looking at how effective smart water meters might be. Places where water efficiency is given a high priority, such as Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates, can use 50 percent less water than comparable cities in the region.
  • So, the train is late. Buy some eggs: Now people waiting for SEPTA trains in Philadelphia can food shop instead of checking their email. Passengers can download a free mobile app for Peapod, the online grocer, then aim their cameras at the codes next to pictures of food on billboards at SEPTA stations. Your order is delivered to your home the next day.

Video bonus: Why is it going to be tough for a lot of American cities to get 21st century smart? Dutch sociologist Saskia Sassen, a leading expert on what’s become known as “global cities,” offers her take in this clip produced by Time. Oh, and there’s the obligatory “Jetsons” intro.

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