The World’s Biggest Development in Smart Techonology

By Martin Biancuzzo, The Daily Reckoning Oct 30, 2013, 11:50 AM 

Today’s article is brought to you by the word “smart.”

It’s become the buzzword for our advancing world. Technology is allowing everyone to do everything smarter. We all have smartphones… we’re living in smarter homes… there’s the smart grid. Many of us are eating smart and working smart. Some of us have smart cars and smart watches.

But there’s one big area that we haven’t yet dragged into this smarter world.

Our cities.

They’re incredibly important for our economy, our growth, our communities and our lifestyle.

But to put it bluntly, they’re pretty “dumb.” And very inefficient. Here’s what I mean…

So in keeping with the trend of how smarter technologies are advancing our world, designers and innovators at MIT and IBM (IBM) are working towards building smarter cities, too.

Some of the concepts they’re developing are truly remarkable. And I got the story firsthand a couple weeks ago I was at MIT’s EmTech Conference for emerging technologies…

So what is a “smart city”?

To answer that question, IBM first had to define the very concept of a “city.”

Obviously, no two cities are the same. Each one has its own set of challenges.

So the company worked with 2,000 major cities to establish the core functions of each one.

And IBM discovered that there are common patterns between all cities.

– Infrastructure: Water, power, buildings, transportation, etc.

– Safety: If there’s no security and enforcement, and people don’t feel safe, there’s no city.

– Lifestyle: The reasons why people choose to live in a particular city. This includes the real estate market, job market, recreation, community, etc.

– Governance: The people in charge who affect all of the above.

After completing its research, IBM concluded that all cities could be much more efficient. And it identified (and ranked) six main areas to address…

  • Smarter Economy
  • Smarter Governance
  • Smarter Mobility
  • Smarter Environment
  • Smarter People
  • Smarter Living

These six areas are the traditional building blocks of urban growth and development.

But a smart city essentially means an efficient city – efficiency based on proactive, forward-thinking governance and genuinely active citizen participation in public policy.

As I said at the top, we’re living in a smarter world. If you think about the capabilities we have from our smartphones alone, it’s beyond fascinating.

Cities simply can’t thrive by working harder for longer periods of time or by throwing more money at a decaying system. As demands increase and budgets tighten, cities have to work smarter.

The technologies embedded in our mobile devices – social media, GPS, location services, etc. – have changed human behavior. They’ve changed the way we communicate with the world around us and with the people in our lives.

And given how rich our cities are with data these days, it’s crucial for city planners to analyze this on a much larger scale and base their decisions on the demands of its citizens. Things like where we want to go, when we want to go, and how we choose to get there.

And knowing information ahead of time enables smart solutions for core city services…

Think about the amount of information we individually spew out at all hours of the day. City planners can take several steps back and evaluate it all on a broader scale. They can assess trends and predict events far in advance of them actually occurring.

For example, let’s say someone posts a status update or tweet, saying, “Ugh… not feeling so hot. I think I might be coming down with the flu.” Now imagine if a couple of thousand people in the area where you live or work were saying the same thing. City planners with access to this information could predict the next flu outbreak and work towards preventing it before it evolves into something worse.

Officials could also use information to better predict traffic jams, power outages, waste management issues – and actively provide solutions before they become a problem.

This kind of data is out there every single day. It’s the hotbed of all major cities.

But there’s a problem: IBM has discovered that much of it is just sitting there, waiting to be processed. (Many city leaders are remarkably incapable when it comes to gathering, storing and analyzing their data.)

It’s led MIT and IBM to start thinking far outside the box. They’re no longer just thinking about how we wire our buildings or how we communicate with our cities.

Their thinking has evolved towards how our buildings, roads, bridges, our car and bike-sharing programs, and our governments can effectively and efficiently communicate with us.

The key concept behind their collaborative work – and the driving force for smarter cities – is “Sensing, Listening and Actuating.”

Cities simply can’t thrive by working harder for longer periods of time or by throwing more money at a decaying system. As demands increase and budgets tighten, cities have to work smarter.

In the future, smarter cities will drive sustainable economic growth by leveraging data and optimizing all functioning components. Their leaders will use smarter technologies to anticipate problems and resolve them proactively; analyze data, leading to better decision making; and coordinate resources to operate effectively.

By IBM’s (IBM) definition, a city that’s “smarter” is one that’s highly efficient. And high efficiency can only be reached when each of the city’s moving parts effectively communicates real-time data.

To achieve real-time data communication, IBM builds a centralized hub. They call it The Intelligent Operations Center for Smarter Cities. Their “smart hub” comes fully equipped with…

  • A digital dashboard that monitors citywide operations in real-time with measurable performance indicators.
  • A drill-down functionality that provides insight on each underlying agency, such as emergency management, public safety, social services, transportation and water.
  • A predictive algorithmic tool that identifies potential problems before they occur.
  • Real-time collaboration between city agencies for more efficient communication.
  • Mobile and website reporting for proactive citizens and businesses to report community issues.

Here’s a look at one of the control rooms in Rio de Janeiro:

But in order for the smart hub to work, cities need to implement new technologies throughout their entire network. Let’s take a look at what that means for transportation.

Cities have many modes of transportation – cars, buses, trains, ferries, planes…

The transportation system has thousands of moving parts, and it’s extremely delicate. Whether it’s into, around, or out of the city, people and consumer goods are constantly on the go.

By making transportation systems intelligent, cities are able to drastically improve the commuter experience while also increasing efficiency and security. But in order to do so, they need to rewire the infrastructure with some of today’s most advanced technologies…

In smart cities, transportation systems have digital infrastructures built into their physical infrastructures. Think sensors, meters, applications, biometrics, RFID tagging…

It’s all part of a citywide wireless sensor network (WSN) that collects and transmits data, providing the operations managers with a better overview and understanding of the health of every system – in real-time.

After all, a smart city’s primary focus is sensing what’s happening right now.

Say there’s a car accident at 13th and I Street in the Northwest District of Washington. WSNs buried under the road send that information directly to traffic managers in the smart hub. They then use IBMs “traffic models” to communicate with emergency response units. Managers can also predict the effects of the accident on traffic for up to several hours after it occurs. Finally, operators send traffic alerts to commuters suggesting alternative routes.

Smart hubs are tapping into a wealth of underutilized data providers, such as:

Digital street meters that identify open parking spaces; toll booths that record traffic in real time; fares that count passengers on public transportation; eye witnesses, such as people calling 911 after an accident; and speed cameras that can identify traffic delays in real-time.

Additionally, smart airports and railways are converting internal Bluetooth and Wi-Fi systems into an overview of every person that’s in the building.

Combine this technology with robust algorithms that sift through the data, and you have a city where managers can effectively fix problems by predicting where and when they’re going to happen. And by switching from a scheduled approach to a method of predictive maintenance, airports and railways can improve runtime and lengthen the shelf life of their equipment.

Although major corporations like Cisco (CSCO) and General Electric (GE) have jumped into the competitive spectrum, they’re both light-years behind IBM in digital infrastructure technology. IBM already has numerous smart city projects running in Europe, and interest in the United States is steadily growing as a result.

So far, the outcome of IBM’s smarter transportation technology has included:

  • A 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in Stockholm’s inner city, with an 8% to 14% improvement in air quality.
  • A 10% reduction in traffic that translated into a 1% growth in economic productivity. (If Charlotte, North Carolina set up a smart transportation system, 1% economic growth would equate to $22 billion.)
  • China spent $176 billion to collaborate with IBM and fully integrate smart technology into their high-speed railway system. Over the span of one year, six million jobs were created and carbon emissions were reduced by 33%.

Cities are always looking to grow their population and increase their stake in the global market – especially in times of economic downturn. And with results like those above, digital infrastructure is sure to be a lucrative tech trend. In fact, I believe digital infrastructure will be just as big as the internet was at its start.

Don’t worry: I’ll keep you posted on the companies leading the charge in digital infrastructure innovations.

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