How data is transforming cities into open-air computers

25 Oct 2017

Landscape of the Singapore financial district. Image: anekoho/Shutterstock

Will tomorrow’s cities be healthier, more comfortable and more relaxed than today’s? To accomplish this, cities will need to become much more efficient – in short: smarter.

We live in an age of urbanisation. For the past 10 years or so, more than half of the world’s population has lived in cities. Moreover, there’s no end in sight for this migration of people to urban areas. On the contrary, the latest UN forecast predicts that 70pc of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050. At that point, the world’s total urban population will be almost equal to the Earth’s entire population today. Within a mere century, the number of people living in big cities will have grown from 1bn to almost 6bn.

This trend will also lead to the rise of more and more megacities – cities that have more than 10m inhabitants. Whereas there were 28 megacities in 2014, there are expected to be 41 by 2030. Demands on infrastructures are expected to grow accordingly.

Smaller cities are also expected to grow considerably. In 2016, there were about 500 cities with more than 1m inhabitants; by 2030, there could well be more than 650.

Many cities are already suffering from housing shortages, overstretched infrastructures, and uncertain water and energy supplies. Added to this is the increasing risk of natural disasters resulting from climate change. Emissions from big cities, in particular from the transportation sector, are contributing considerably to this development. According to recent studies, the most effective low-carbon strategy would be to electrify this sector. Some areas are already trending in this direction. However, if the rise in global temperatures is to be kept to less than 2C, 90pc of all road vehicles would have to be electric by 2060.

Rise of the megacities

Infographic: Siemens

Clean air and water for all

The possibility that urban environments may deteriorate as a result of weather changes is a major threat. The aim in many cities is, therefore, to set the stage for clean air instead of smog, incentivise electric mobility instead of congested roads, and promote clean drinking water and affordable electricity from renewable sources that are available when needed, instead of expensive or ‘dirty’ energy produced from fossil fuels.

As more and more cities move toward these goals, they will rely increasingly on digital resources that will, for example, monitor emissions figures and traffic density, and coordinate local public transportation and traffic-light switching times with monitoring results. Ultimately, they will also use digital technologies to inform individuals about the best ways to reach their destinations, regardless of whether they are driving their own vehicles, sharing cars, using a public transport system or combining transport modes.

‘The challenge that cities face is thus to turn this avalanche of data into actionable information’

The effects are surprising. A recent study from Siemens published on 4 July 2017 in cooperation with Arup and supported by London’s deputy mayor for business, looked at the capital of the UK as a business case for smart cities. The report states that on-street smart parking management for the ‘arc of opportunity’ area in the eastern part of the city could save drivers who are looking for parking spaces 33,000 hours in the car. Applying these savings to an economic valuation of time savings leads to total indirect benefits of €870,000.

Forecasts for smart cities

The first step toward making a city smart is to increase knowledge regarding the operations of its infrastructures, ranging from water and energy management to traffic, air quality and lighting. In every big city, innumerable sensors and meters collect data from these and other sources. The challenge that cities face is thus to turn this avalanche of data into actionable information.

Answers as to how this can be done are provided by smart software – for example, the City Performance Tool (CyPT) from Siemens. It gives guidance to a city on how to achieve its environmental targets while providing an indication on how each infrastructure-related decision will influence job creation and the infrastructure sector growth.

However, many other software programmes consist of more complex systems known as neural networks. Neural networks are computer models that operate in a way that is similar to the human brain. They can be trained to recognise inter-relationships and use this knowledge to make forecasts.

‘Precise forecasts that are based on recorded data are at the heart of almost all smart city solutions’

Smart cities: Projects wordlwide

Infographic: Siemens

One example of the fascinating results that are possible with neural networks is software that was developed by Ralph Grothmann from Siemens Corporate Technology. The software can precisely predict the level of air pollution in major cities several days in advance.

Precise forecasts that are based on recorded data are at the heart of almost all smart city solutions. Such forecasts will enable smart grids to offset fluctuations in the electricity supply that are caused by changing weather conditions. A step in this direction is already taking shape as fleets of electric cars are integrated into building management systems so that the vehicles can serve as energy-storage devices.

From smart data to new markets

The future of smart cities will be shaped by the internet of things (IoT) as a networking technology and by smart data as a forecasting technology. For example, it will be possible to coordinate power generation and power demand more precisely than ever before. This development will make increasing decentralisation manageable, merge the markets for heating and electricity, and integrate industrial facilities, buildings and vehicles as energy suppliers.

One step in this direction is offered by MindSphere, an open, cloud-based IoT operating system from Siemens that offers both connectivity and a range of industrial applications so that any enterprise, regardless of industry or size, can begin analysing data to optimise its operations. Similarly, cities and infrastructure operators can develop IoT applications to relieve traffic congestion, conserve water and energy, and improve infrastructure services.

Singapore and Siemens aim to join forces in a drive to make the south-east Asian city-state a ‘smart nation’. Piloting MindSphere as the IoT operating system, Singapore has a unique opportunity to become a world-leading, fully integrated urban ecosystem. Siemens is supporting this master plan by setting up a digitalisation hub, which was inaugurated on 11 July 2017.

This will open up completely new markets for technologies and services. A McKinsey report from 2016 estimates that a total of $49trn will have to be invested in infrastructure projects worldwide between 2016 and 2030 in order to simply buttress expected economic growth rates. This averages out to $3.3trn per year, or about 3.8pc of worldwide GDP (based on an average GDP increase of 3.3pc per year). Approximately 60pc of these investments would have to be made in emerging markets.

This trend is causing the global market for smart city solutions to grow. According to Navigant Research, this market will grow by 10pc annually, from $40bn in 2017 to $98bn in 2026.

Smart cities: Cities publishing smart strategies

Infographic: Siemens

Cities and their residents can be linked together in networks that have the potential for optimising not only energy use, but transportation, logistics, medical information, entertainment and much more. Ultimately, however, all of these services are based on data, and that raises concerns about a ‘Big Brother’ state.

Will tomorrow’s cities be the world of George Orwell’s 1984? Not at all, says Gerhard Engelbrecht, expert in intelligent information and communications technology (ICT) at Siemens Corporate Technology. He heads the smart ICT topic in the Aspern urban lakeside development project in Vienna, where more than 100 households are taking part in the research and making their data on power consumption, air quality and room temperature available. “We are aware of this sensible topic and have designed the system accordingly, that only anonymised and aggregated information can be used for research,” he assured.

Open-air computers

What will it take to make cities smarter and increasingly liveable?

On the one hand, says Carlo Ratti, an architect, engineer and professor at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, cities won’t look much different in the future than they do today, in the same way that Roman cities didn’t differ that much from modern ones.

“What will change, however, is the way we experience cities,” said Ratti. He believes that this change will be due to the comprehensive use of digital technologies.

These technologies have already been introduced into all areas of cities over the past 10 years, and they now form the backbone of a large intelligent infrastructure. According to Ratti, our cities are increasingly turning into “open-air computers”.

By Sandra Zistl

Sandra Zistl works as a freelance editor and author for print and online media, and is based in Munich, Germany.

A version of this article was originally published in Pictures of the Future from Siemens