An Urban Reality: Smart Cities

Many are already more livable

6 June 2014

Municipalities large and small are finding ways to use technology to make life easier for their residents and visitors. Among the cities striving to make themselves smarter are Barcelona; Da Nang, Vietnam; Edmonton, Alta., Canada; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and Rio de Janeiro.

Regardless of size, cities are becoming too crowded, and the lure of technology is appealing. A little more than half of the world’s population now resides in cities, according to the World Health Organization, and that proportion is expected to grow. The WHO predicts that 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2030, and 70 percent by 2050.

Because each city has its own challenges, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Some cities overhaul their transportation systems or coordinate their services in ways not done before, while others look for ways to reduce traffic congestion, monitor water supplies, and fight crime.

The technologies being applied can be as complex as advanced data and analytical tools, cloud-based services, and integrated data, voice, and wireless systems. Or they can be as relatively simple as making use of mobile devices, LEDs, and solar panels.

The cities below received grants from IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge, the company’s largest philanthropic initiative. IBM works closely with city leaders and issues recommendations on how to make cities more efficient.


Photo: Xavier Subias/Getty Images

Spain’s second-largest municipality is an acknowledged leader in the smart-city movement, and for good reason. It has introduced a host of services.

Barcelona collects garbage via a pneumatic waste management system, so its residents no longer have to see or smell overflowing trash bins. The covered containers [right] have portholes with chutes connected to a subterranean vacuum network. Some bins are color coded for recycling glass, paper, or plastic.

Sensors in the portholes indicate when the trash needs to be emptied, and they can help ensure that only one kind of waste material is traveling through the pipe at a time. The waste is moved through the underground pipeline by air pressure created by large industrial fans. The pipelines converge in a central processing facility, which directs the waste to the proper container. From there it is trucked to a landfill, composting plant, or other final destination.

The city has also installed thousands of LED streetlights to save energy. And at night, they’re not always on. The lights are activated only when a sensor detects movement. Other sensors collect information about the environment, such as humidity, temperature, noise, and air pollution.

To make life easier for commuters, Barcelona revamped its bus service. Like some other major cities, it relies on an orthogonal network with horizontal, vertical, and a few diagonal lines so that passengers need only one transfer to travel between any two points in the city. What’s different is that the buses are natural gas–electric hybrids, and solar panels on bus shelters activate a screen that shows arrival times.


Photo: Rob Whitworth/Getty Images

Vietnam’s fourth-largest city [right] has one of the highest population growth rates in the country. It’s challenging to keep its drinking water clean and its traffic moving.

During water treatment, samples used to be manually collected and analyzed. But the city’s water utility has automated the process by installing sensors throughout the system to measure salinity, pH, and chlorine levels in real time. The utility’s workers receive alerts and notifications when readings stray from norms or when analysis indicates that water quality has changed.

Da Nang is reducing traffic congestion by installing a traffic-control center that uses big-data techniques and predictive analyses to better coordinate city responses to accidents and bad weather.

With its system, Da Nang’s transportation department also has real-time information on its buses, including their location, speed, and predicted journey times. From a website, travelers can find timetables and learn about estimated arrival times and changes to bus routes.


Photo: Intergraph

Parks department workers are armed with tablet computers [right] to keep track of conditions in what is the largest expanse of urban parkland in North America. The rugged tablets are loaded with geographic information, which workers use to capture, report, analyze, and share data on the condition of playground equipment, picnic areas, park benches, and other amenities. The information is then used to prioritize maintenance projects for Edmonton’s more than 450 parks.


This city has a low crime rate, and its leaders want to keep it that way. So law enforcement keeps tabs on things using a variety of big-data sources, including emergency-response call records, crime statistics, and event information. Working with up-to-the-minute information and advanced predictive models, the police department hopes to gain a deeper insight into factors contributing to crime and predict when and where it should deploy its officers.


Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Open for nearly a year, the Rio Operations Center [right] has integrated the information systems and processes of 30 city agencies. The center, which provides an overview of how the city is functioning, uses analytical models to predict emergency situations and coordinate the city’s reaction to them. Officials from across the city collaborate daily to manage the movement of public transportation as well as monitor the use of electric power and water.

The center employs a high resolution weather-forecasting and hydrological-modeling system that can predict heavy rains up to 48 hours in advance. Forecasts are based on a unified mathematical model of Rio that pulls data from the city’s river basin, topographic surveys, the municipality’s historical rainfall logs, and radar feeds. Along with predicting rainfall, the system can anticipate flash floods and mudslides, and the city has begun to evaluate the effects of weather on traffic and on the supply of electric power.

Residents can access daily information from the center’s Facebook and Twitter feeds to get updates on weather and traffic as well as recommendations for alternate routes during crowded special events. That is likely to come in handy this month, as the city welcomes World Cup fans to matches, concerts, and festivals.

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