Smart cities IoT development isn’t just better – it’s essential

8 Oct 2015

With migration to urban centres occurring at greater rates than ever, cities are under increasing pressure to cope with huge amounts of people, which is where smart cities using internet of things (IoT) technology come in.

IoT Makers Week

In the legendary comic Judge Dredd, the end of the world through nuclear war brought on the development of so-called ‘mega cities’, each of which functioned as its own city-state faced with almost uncontrollable urban sprawl and pollution as a result of enormous populations.

While it would seem a giant leap to compare a piece of science fiction with reality, the concept of the mega city, at least, is one we are actually beginning to come to terms with as a reality.

Earlier this year, a former director of the United Nations Population Division, Joseph Charmie, described how the exponential growth of populations since the post-war period of the mid-20th century has seen the number of mega cities – where populations exceed 10m – grow from one in 1950 (New York) to 28 in 2015.

At the top of this list is Tokyo, which claims a population of a staggering 38m people. More than half of the world’s entire population – 54pc – lives in urban centres.

With such growth, city developers and governments are facing the challenges of making public transport infrastructure to more efficient, managing pollution better, and responding to crime more effectively.

Sure it sounds great, but why?

Of course, it’s quite easy to pay lip service to the idea of completely changing the way a city operates, but, when it comes down to brass tacks, what does a smart city bring to the table for its population?

Well, for starters, recent research has suggested that, if sensors powered by IoT were to utilised in major cities, we could be doing the environment, and our national bank balances, a major favour, saving us as much as US$17trn by 2050.

By distributing an array of smart sensors across a city, a city’s infrastructure department could read in real-time where the largest amounts of harmful pollutants are being created – such as those found in traffic jams – and then use that data to determine how best to amend this.

When it comes to traffic jams, placing IoT sensors on city streets could, again in real-time, provide information to street traffic signals, as well as to drivers’ on-board navigational systems, changing sequences and guidance instructions to allow traffic to flow into less congested areas.

The 'supertrees' found in Singapore. Image via Phoebe/Flickr

The ‘supertrees’ found in Singapore. Image via Phoebe/Flickr

The good news is that cities have already begun rolling out at least the early stages of smart cities, with some cities in particular far ahead of others; most noticeable among these is the Asian city-state of Singapore.

In the heart of the city stand 18 stunning 50m-tall ‘supertrees’ that are not only impressive to look at, but act as giant, bio-harvesting data generators.

While gathering data on the local environment, the supertrees also collect rainwater, absorb and disperse heat, and generate solar power.

Meanwhile, taxis are fitted with IoT sensors to monitor traffic congestion, with gathered data sent back to the city’s government, and passengers’ fares lowered to compensate for bad traffic.

But, all the way on the other side of the world here in Ireland, a number of companies and organisations are working on making Ireland one of the world’s development hubs of smart cities technology.

Dublin’s part in making cities smart

Intel last year announced that it was to work with Dublin City Council to develop a network of sensors across the city to give the public access to real-time information about Dublin, particularly its air quality and noise levels.

Likewise, over at IBM, the Director of IBM Research Ireland, Dr Eleni Pratsini, and her team are busy developing the technologies necessary to make Dublin the smart city it aspires to be. Dr Pratsini recently discussed this at the Dublin PowerShift summit for new energies.

Speaking to, Dr Pratsini said, “Our researchers in Dublin focus on analysing data from a wide range of industries, such as transportation, emergency management, marine, healthcare, education, and infrastructure, thereby offering a wider coverage in cities to ensure a more efficient management of its local resources”.

“Our projects are supporting the needs of each citizen, and they range from person-centric care and citizen care co-ordination through to connected cars and smarter energy and renewable energy management.”

The Irish IBM Research team has also been active outside of Ireland, working with officials in Venice, Italy, to develop IoT solutions to manage people coming to cities as tourists, such as sensors which can direct crowd balancing.

“We give plans to tourists according to the attractions they want to visit, but also taking into account the crowding level of pedestrian areas,” she says. “That way, tourists can avoid crowded areas, while keeping the list of visited attractions unchanged.”

Dubai smart city

Dubai tram station. Image: Steffan Ramsaier/Flickr

Smart cities vs smart rural

But are we neglecting those who live outside of cities? After all, while smart cities are the key to our future, are we leaving those who want to live in more rural areas behind in the IoT technology revolution?

No, says Dr Pratsini. Rather, when we say ‘smart cities’, we’re really talking about a growing national infrastructure.

“By treating the city and rural areas as interconnected – that they are all part of a multi-part ecosystem – leaders and policy makers can integrate their vision and strategy for both rural and urban areas, then they can build a road map that promotes well-being, prosperity and productivity across all citizens.”

There’s still more work to do, however, in Dr Pratsini and IBM’s opinion. Much of the data that we are generating is being unnecessarily lost, as from a leaking pipe, she says.

“IBM estimates that 90pc of all data generated by devices such as smartphones, tablets, connected vehicles and appliances is never analysed or acted on,” she explains.

“As much as 60pc of this data begins to lose value within milliseconds of being generated.  Meanwhile, our knowledge of cities grows with every connected sensor and device, but too often we are not acting on it, even when we know we can ensure a better result.”

With more smart cities research and development, however, we can hoepfully aim for something more like Tomorrowland than Judge Dredd.

IoT Makers Week explores the internet of things revolution and the makers driving it with reports on from 5 to 9 October 2015. Get updates by subscribing to our news alerts or following @siliconrepublic and the hashtag #IoTMakersWeek on Twitter.

Singapore skyline image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic