Today, about 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, but this share is expected to increase to 68% by 2050. Combined with the overall growth of global population, this could add another 2.5 billion people to urban areas by 2050, with close to 90% of this increase taking place in Asia and Africa, as reported by the United Nations’ 2018 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects.
Since the world continues to urbanize, a wiser and far-sighted management of urban resources is more and more needed, especially in low-income and lower-middle-income countries where the pace of urbanization is projected to be the fastest. Smart technologies and smart urban platforms can support City managers in tackling the increasing demand for energy, infrastructures, affordable housing, well-connected mobility systems, healthcare and education, as well as quality of life and jobs.
To understand how smart technologies work, we should picture Cities as distributed communication systems, where urban objects – think of streetlights, meters, parking lots, waste bins, Wi-Fi hotspots, video surveillance cameras, etc. – are not dumb, isolated devices, but smart nodes of a citywide network. With the Internet of Things (IoT), all these objects are injected with intelligence and acquire the capability to receive and transmit data and execute commands, thus enabling remote monitoring and dynamic, adaptive control functions.
Acquiring and correlating data from urban assets is a significant step forward to improve quality of public services and citizen satisfaction, reduce energy consumption, optimize costs and simplify processes for City operators and managers. Even more, it provides actionable information to feed strategic decisions about services efficiency and improvements, and take evidence-based actions where and when needed.
Let’s apply what we’ve just described to a basic service such as street lighting. By connecting street lamps to a wireless IoT network, it becomes possible to turn them on/off and adjust brightness according to daily solar times and ambient light levels, defining variable patterns for working and festive days, residential and industrial districts. Sensors can be integrated to bring lights up when human or vehicle presence is detected, and on demand actions can be triggered in real time for single or grouped lamps – for instance when a car accident or an emergency requires intense lighting in a specific area.
It is proven that implementing LED lighting and an IoT remote management and control platform can cut energy consumption and greenhouse emissions up to 70%. Moreover, connected lamps can monitor key operating parameters and automatically report failures, generating extra savings on maintenance costs. Considering LED technologies last about 50% longer than traditional light sources, the US Federal Department of Energy estimated that if the entire country converted to LED lighting over the next 20 years, it would save a total of USD 120 billion.
Even more interesting developments are possible with blockchain technology, which can make Smart Cities far more secure, transparent, efficient and resilient. As an original combination of mature technological concepts, including peer-to-peer networks, distributed consensus algorithms, validity rules, ledger technologies and cryptography, blockchain can be successfully applied in any domain where stakeholders’ relations are based on trust and may be entirely disintermediated. This is particularly true in Cities, as they rely on accurate, secure, authentic and trustworthy information exchanges to deliver services to people and businesses.
About energy distribution, for instance, blockchain-based metering solutions can accelerate the adoption of real-time differential pricing models and encourage users to participate to power generation by connecting their renewable energy microgrids to the main grid. In water networks, blockchain technologies enable smart contracts and validated rules to automate water supply in the most possible efficient manner, minimizing leakages and tampering.
Blockchain technology can be combined with IoT solutions to provide better waste collection services: it allows to accurately track waste input and optimize waste truck routes upon parameters like bin status, filling levels, etc. This increases service quality and efficiency, and generates further savings on fuel expenses and overall maintenance costs. Garbage-related data could also support the introduction of customized fees for household and commercial users, thus rewarding recycling and correct waste separation.
Coming to public government and administration, blockchain can be used to automate and digitalize civil registries, as well as property, real estate and business registries, generating notable cost savings and increasing quality of service. Considering citizen participation, blockchain-based voting platforms can improve present, analogue electoral systems by achieving secure, anonymous and unique voting in a decentralized manner. Same platforms can be used to poll citizens on specific urban initiatives, making sure contributions from civil society are recognized in Smart City planning and development.
Blockchain technology is still in its early days, but most experts agree it has a potential for disruption. And some pioneer experiences – from Dubai to Tokyo, from New York to Tallinn – demonstrate that benefits for Smart Cities can really be worthwhile.