What could digitalisation mean for our cities?

20 Oct 2021

Image: © Eimantas/Stock.adobe.com

Digital cities are already here but, as transformation continues, Dell Technologies’ Jeff McCann talks about the next big trends for urban areas.

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What do we think of when we think of digital cities? Some may think about a distant future where autonomous vehicles and drones shape our transport systems and human-machine partnerships shape how we live and work.

Future Human

The truth is that most of us already live in cities increasingly framed by data and technology. From clever waste management systems such as solar-powered smart bins to real-time information regarding public transport and air quality, digital cities have begun to emerge in recent years, including here in Ireland.

As an innovation hub, Limerick has become a ‘lighthouse smart city’ for a major climate pilot programme that looks at how the city can use data and innovations in energy technology to dramatically reduce carbon emissions.

However, we are now faced with a unique opportunity to fuel the development of digital cities across Ireland that meet the needs of today and tomorrow. Exciting new developments in 5G, AI, IoT and edge computing are unlocking new opportunities.

And with digital cities expected to generate $20trn in economic benefits globally by 2026, now is the time to think about how we can harness the benefits of these technologies to build digital cities that are drivers of economic recovery and growth.

Digitalisation and sustainability

As we look ahead to the future of urban areas, it is clear that two major trends will shape Ireland’s direction when it comes to the cities of tomorrow – digitalisation and the climate crisis. It is at the intersection of these two trends that many of the opportunities for making our cities smarter will meet.

For example, as organisations embrace hybrid working with many people continuing to work outside the office, the use of IoT smart sensors can help less-populated city buildings to adjust their power consumption to the needs of the grid and match energy use to occupancy. We’re already seeing this in action with some large-scale electricity users that use IT to reduce their energy consumption when the grid is under pressure.

Developments in AI can also help drive energy efficiency in most factories and production facilities. From helping to forecast energy demand and consumption and scheduling power-intensive tasks accordingly, to providing insights to reduce the need for heating and cooling, AI is shaping the sustainable development of industry 4.0.

Digital cities can also build on these improvements in energy efficiency by building homes that use technology to generate their own electricity from wind and solar and sell any excess back to the grid. The development of the Government’s first microgeneration support scheme this year is an important first step on the road towards incentivising people to avail of new technologies to create truly sustainable digital cities.

In transport, successive lockdowns over the last 19 months have given us a glimpse of the impact of a reduced number of cars on the road. In 2020, transport emissions fell by 17pc.

However, reducing emissions need not just be a matter of reducing the number of cars on the road. Automated tolling systems, intelligent traffic lights and intelligent fleet management solutions open up the possibility of cities being able to tackle congestion and roll out new smart public transport options.

In September, the Government announced new laws to enforce variable speed limits on Dublin’s M50, something that will greatly contribute to reducing emissions and improve journey time reliability.

An inclusive city

The convergence of AI, IoT and cloud technologies is also helping to ensure that a digital city can also be an inclusive one.

With more than 630,000 people in Ireland aged 65 and above, and more than a quarter of these living alone in their homes, smart assistive technologies can provide better support and help people live independently in their own homes for longer.

Dell Technologies’ Customer Solution Center Innovation Lab in Limerick has been working closely with healthcare providers to apply new technologies to enable the better management of chronic illnesses such as type 1 diabetes. This could help to lead to broader changes in how healthcare is provided in digital cities – shifting focus from reactive, acute care to proactive and preventative care in the community.

Inclusive digital cities cannot be forged by technology alone. They need people with the tools to apply new technologies to provide care in the community.

Laying the right foundations

Of course, in order to bring digital cities to life in Ireland, the right foundations need to be in place.

At the very centre of that foundation must be data. From connected healthcare and traffic monitoring through to virtual citizen services, digital cities will need to process a growing bank of data at a speed not seen before. The continued roll-out of the National Broadband Plan will be crucial to harnessing the power of that data.

5G offers the potential for enhanced connectivity to enable new use cases as part of wider digital city initiatives. As many IoT sensors and connected devices are likely to be located in difficult-to-reach places, 5G wireless connectivity will allow for more flexible design and on-the-fly reconfiguration.

However, next-generation AI-based solutions will demand more computational power and require data to be processed at ‘the edge’, on devices that are closer to the users of real-time AI applications.

With the International Data Corporation predicting that there will be an 800pc increase in apps at the edge by 2024, businesses and public sector bodies will need to look at how they can unlock the value of data at the edge so it enhances the lives of those within digital cities.

The last 19 months have shown us how quickly society can transform through necessity. Now as we move towards recovery, let’s maintain that momentum to transform the places where almost 65pc of Ireland’s population lives – our cities. By harnessing the power of data and new technologies with a security-first approach, we can build digital cities that fuel economic growth and provide a higher quality of life for their citizens.

By Jeff McCann

Jeff McCann is director of the Customer Solution Center Innovation Labs at Dell Technologies Ireland.