Your Questions Answered: Smart Cities

IEEE expert talks costs, benefits, and return on investment

30 June 2014

Image: iStockphoto

Our June special report on smart cities focuses on the development of urban areas around the world that are using the latest technology to update their infrastructure and services. Some have installed pneumatic waste management systems to keep city streets clean, while others are working on traffic control, reducing air pollution or energy usage, and improving public transportation and parking. We asked readers to send us their questions about the future of these cities, and invited IEEE Fellow Mischa Dohler to respond. He is the cofounder of WorldSensing, a company that offers solutions for building smarter cities, with offices based in Barcelona and London. Here is what he had to say.

Q: It’s one thing for municipalities to afford the cost of implementing smart technologies, but another for them to upkeep and upgrade them. Will smart cities be able to afford to maintain themselves? And could these added costs burden those who are supposed to benefit from them by increasing their taxes or having them incur other costs?

A: Many smart-city initiatives have been developed by marketing and innovation teams, which rarely consider operational costs for the long-term. It is thus important for a city to fully develop a business plan first, which should include a budget to pay for operations as well as other smart applications that can bring in or save money. For example, smart streetlights can reduce costs and use of electricity by turning off automatically when they are not being used.  

IEEE Fellow Mischa Dohler gives a presentation on smart cities at a TEDx Talk in London. Photo: TEDx Talks

Q: We’ve been hearing how technologies can better our everyday lives, but the very basic things that residents need are as simple as shorter commutes, more public spaces, and affordable housing. Do you feel that the focus on smartifying a city is getting in the way of these basic needs, or helping to solve them? 

A: Realistically, in many cities, the answer to the second part of the question will be no, these technologies will not be able to solve these concerns. Smarter technologies will not be able to mitigate long commutes, produce public spaces, or improve housing problems.

However, some cities have started to look into how real-time sensors and smartphone apps could inform commuters which route is best to take and at what time, thereby improving the overall experience of commuting. Other initiatives explore the possibility of digital technologies to improve public spaces. For example, digital maps can advise residents on the most scenic routes to take or which area of a park is less crowded.

Unfortunately, in areas where “smartification” happens, the truth is housing prices often increase. Perhaps policymakers will look to big data gathered from these smart technologies to help them determine when and where more affordable housing is needed.

Q: Public transportation works best when a lot of people want to go to the same place at the same time, which makes sense for highly populated cities like London and New York. How can public transportation become smarter in smaller cities where there is less demand for it?

A: Indeed, much of the focus is on the large metropolitan areas. Investment in small and medium-size cities is scarce and thus not as much innovation has taken place in them. The International Organization for Standardization’s Advisory Group on Smart Cities, which I am a member of, is working to change precisely that. In the meantime, car-sharing services have been popping up in cities of all sizes around the world to help solve some of this problem. Uber, for example, helps people request immediate car service from any location in a city through a smartphone app, similar to hailing a cab in New York City.

Q: Are there smart solutions for cities that are underdeveloped or underfunded? If so, which technologies should be considered for these areas?

A: Progress is generally underdeveloped and underfunded no matter what the city. If a case for funding can be made, all cities could potentially take advantage of smart technologies for their needs.

Q: What are ways that solar energy can help make cities smarter? Are there other ideas on how to save energy while powering urban environments

A: The advantages of solar cannot be disputed. The problem from a city authority’s point of view is the high costs for installation and purchasing panels in quantities that would have a significant impact. The paradigm of “solar-as-a-service” that is emerging, which charges for the use of the panels and not the initial installation, aims to get around some of these concerns.

In terms of energy usage, the biggest spender is streetlights. Smart streetlights and new LED technology can help reduce electricity use while saving money. Other innovations include tiles that can generate energy from walking on them, or waste disposals that can turn trash into electricity.

Q: What is the return on investment in terms of the economic value that smartifying a city can bring to its industries, local government, residents, and workers? How will this benefit them financially in the long run?

A: This is a difficult question since some aspects of making a city smarter cannot be put into some nominal value. For example, improving air quality, reducing pollution, or making cities safer. The aspects that can be measured, however, yield a very quick and strong return on investment. This includes smart-parking technologies, which can notify drivers when a parking spot is available, (as well as alert parking enforcement officers when a car is parked illegally or the meter has run out). This technology has paid off within nine months of it being installed in various cities. More of these economic and operational models are needed for the exponential growth in the return on investment for the city, local businesses and, ideally, residents.

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