Over the last few years, the term ‘smart city’ has sometimes been used simply to mean a city that is technologically enabled. However, I think that’s wrong. A genuinely smart city is one that adopts methodologies to enhance its performance across a wide range of key areas like transport, health, hygiene, water and sanitation, so that—and this is key—the quality of life of its citizens is improved.

When we use that definition, it is clear that there have been smart cities in existence for eons. Ancient smart cities were located along key trade routes, acting as centres for the exchange of goods and commerce. They leveraged natural resources such as food, water, geological formations, harbours and trade winds. In other words, they adopted sustainable development methods to ensure improvements in infrastructure that had positive effects on its inhabitants. Does this sound familiar?

By this definition, settlements like those in the Indus Valley and Machu Pichu are examples of ancient smart cities. Their main areas of expertise were in infrastructure, roads, and plumbing and sanitation.

People and energy

Today, 54% of people worldwide live in cities, and this is expected to reach 66% by 2050. Overall population growth and urbanization is expected to add another 2.5 billion people to cities over the next three decades.

However, cities already consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy, so there is immense pressure to move them towards Net Zero energy systems. Environmental, social, and economic sustainability is essential to keep pace with the rapid expansion that is already taxing cities’ resources. From a socioeconomic perspective, smart cities provide a safe, clean and conducive environment for human habitat and commerce, and efficient infrastructure. They also optimise resources and provide for efficient energy usage and management.

Unlike ancient smart cities, today’s smart cities uses different electronic methods and sensors (IoT) to collect data. Insights from those data are used to manage and optimise assets, manage resources and deliver efficiently. This reduces emissions and improves the quality of life for the cities’ inhabitants. However, this is a very general picture. Where exactly should smart city investment be focused to get maximum value?

Smart City Investments

There are many areas and opportunities for investments. However, I think it is worth focusing on the operational costs of data-centric enabling technologies and energy strategy.

  • Smart Data Centres

Smart cities need a data management and analytics platform. This needs to flex with data and energy demand, delivering open data and marketplace capability. This is essential for gathering insights from data, but also puts its own pressure on the energy infrastructure.

  • Transport

Autonomous electric vehicles and trains require digital twin capabilities for power management, navigation and integrated transport systems. Dynamic ontology data models are required for cause-and-effect algorithms for predictive and prescriptive analytics to manage and optimise routes, traffic, charging, maintenance and reliability.

  • Networks

Edge artificial intelligence computing, robotics for in-field devices and Internet of Things (IoT) operations require pervasive low latency networks. This increases demands for wireless (5G) and fibre optic networks. Support for video streaming services for work, education and e-commerce require reliable and robust networks.

Moving to Smart Energy

  • Smart Grid

Globally, data centres have generally performed well in energy management terms. They have certainly managed to increase use of energy from renewable sources. However, the call for smart cities to expand their use of renewable energy resources will gather momentum, putting pressure on software, data centres and building efficiency and locations. This is likely to require the reengineering of energy services.

Smart cities require a Smart Grid infrastructure as power generation moves from a few centralised sources to a distributed model. This will also need the increased use of digital information and controls technology to improve reliability, security, and efficiency of the distributed electric grid. Even with convenient access to renewable energy (water, wind and solar), load balancing and storage between energy platforms using Smart Grid technology is required.

It seems to me, therefore, that a Smart Grid is key to the next generation of smart cities. Without that, cities will be unable to manage the demands of the power, heating, cooling and waste management value chain for energy generation. And without that, they will fail the essential test for smart cities: ability to improve the lives of their citizens by harnessing technology.

  • Micro Grids

As we move towards the concept of Net Zero, energy density has become a primary factor in smart city design and development. A new generation of low carbon microgrids is changing the ways in which densely populated cities design and operate utility systems using the concept of locally generated and consumed energy. Microgrids allow predictive maintenance and are particularly promising for ensuring resilience in the energy demands of cities, this affects local generation, storage and consumption of energy. It is not a coincidence that smart cities have become energy- and data-centric places that leverage the value of scale, and high-density efficient urban living.

Coupled with rapid declines in the cost of emissions-free renewable energy technology such as wind and solar photovoltaic, recent drops in the cost of advanced stationary battery storage technology have altered the technological make-up of microgrids dramatically.

The long view

To date, the drive towards smart cities has come from urban planners and their technology vendors. As we emerge from this collective lockdown, we are seeing ordinary citizens more open to changing personal behavior to embrace more energy efficient habits.

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