Empowering cities to survive and thrive

Cities are increasingly seen as central to the fight against climate change and managing the impact of global population growth with improved information and communication technology, writes Flemmich Webb

The sprawling, inefficient cities in which we live and work are not fit for purpose, and need a radical overhaul. Hence the idea of smart or intelligent cities, urban centres where data is collected, analysed and used in a way that improves the efficiency of  infrastructure and services through “smarter”  governance, use of resources and transport.

Crucial to this transformation is the integration of information and communication technology (ICT) across all areas of government, business and people’s lives. A 2010 Climate Group report estimated that ICT could, if deployed effectively, save up to 7.8 giga-tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) by 2020 – greater than the current annual emissions of either the US or China.

ICT is already used in cities around the world to great effect. In London, for example, the pre-paid Oyster swipe card has transformed the city’s public transport system. Introduced in phases from 2002, it is now used for more than ten million journeys each day on London’s public transport network, and covers about 96 per cent of ticketed travel on buses and about 80 per cent on the Tube.

Operator Transport for London (TfL) and passengers have experienced tangible benefits. Oyster is three times  faster than cash for boarding buses, which has reduced the time buses need to wait at stops and speeded up journey times for passengers; it has reduced station crowding and allows people to flow through station barriers 60 per cent quicker than they did before.

Governments see low-carbon technology as critical to the evolution of their manufacturing and knowledge economies

TfL has also benefitted from the data it is able to collect on passenger journeys, about how users travel as well as how its rail and bus services have operated. This helps increase efficiencies and alignment of the service with customer needs and behaviour.

Oyster data allows TfL to measure the variability of journeys, using the distribution of journey times to understand the range of times customers take to make particular journeys across the network. TfL can then measure the reliability of services, analyse the impact of new services and timetable changes, and better understand how customers use the system, which helps improve operational planning.

This is a step change in managing the system; prior to the introduction of Oyster, TfL relied solely on surveys asking passengers to report how they travelled, with all the restrictions on sample size and frequency that these entailed.

According to a 2009 World Economic Forum report,   many governments see smart grids and the broader low-carbon technology industry as critical to the evolution of their manufacturing and knowledge economies.

It also identifies a shift in the discussion on pure “smart grids” and electricity infrastructure to include intelligent infrastructure, whereby the sensing and control capabilities inherent in the smart grid are applied to multiple infrastructure layers within the urban environment, such as water, waste and buildings.

The energy sector has the highest profile, with many governments exploring the ability of ICT to help transform global electricity networks into smart grids, another key feature of smart cities. Smart grids, within which smart meters operate, will play an integral role, adding monitoring, analysis and control to existing energy infrastructure. That will result in two-way, real-time data transfer between energy provider and customer.

Smart grids and meters allow energy producers to respond to demand surges, cope with the intermittent nature of renewable energy generation and take advantage of new technologies, such as plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. They will allow customers to have greater control of their energy, drive the development of new business models in the energy sector and help reduce global carbon emissions.

They are also expected to help manage the increasing cost of energy. According to energy intelligence specialists NRG Expert, electricity prices in Western countries are predicted to soar by 400 per cent over the next 30 years if electricity grids don’t become smart grids.

“Certain cities already are, or soon will be, the vanguard of new urbanism,” says Simon Giles, Accenture’s global lead for intelligent cities strategy. “They will develop the methods that inspire others to develop differently. In many cities the demands placed on the local ecosystem are so onerous that the only growth possible is resource efficient, green growth. The smart city will enable the 21st-century’s new sustainable urban growth paradigm.”

Low-carbon and recession

In the UK, large-scale investment needed to upgrade and develop energy infrastructure by 2020 is estimated at £110 billion by the government, and in the region of £450 billion by Ernst & Young.

As energy demand grows and as the UK retires 25 per cent of its generating capacity by 2020, energy supply is of critical importance to governments. The cost of fossil fuels for energy and transport is expected to increase. While the cost of fuel for a renewable power plant is nil, the capital cost remains, on average, higher than that of fossil fuel. This lowers green appeal to recession-hit governments.

On the demand side, the economic opportunity provided by deploying energy efficiency, of focusing on the role of the “negawatt”, is immense. The 2011 Information Marketplaces: The New Economics of Cities report, by The Climate Group and Accenture (among others), estimates that, for instance, ICT-enabled energy efficiency could translate into more than £480-billion-worth of cost savings for the public and private sector; that 15 per cent of emissions could be saved in 2020 through ICT-enabled energy efficiency; and that investment in the smart grid creates 50 per cent more jobs than the average infrastructure project.

Higher capital cost lowers green appeal to recession-hit governments

“Smart cities could pay off hugely in the coming decades if we act now,” says The Climate Group’s chief executive Mark Kenber in the report’s foreword. “This isn’t only a technical challenge, it is a leadership challenge…”

What’s necessary for these technologies to be deployed is the ability to control systems remotely through interconnected networks. That leaves the “last mile” as the real challenge for smart cities and an optical fibre network as the solution, enabling the upload of data at remote points.  He says: “A truly connected world needs two-way communication, which will allow remote diagnostics, enabling the efficient distribution of people and services.”

Much of the technology to create smart cities exists today. The challenge for governments is to show leadership by creating the fiscal and regulatory environment that encourages R&D, investment and routes to market that will allow ICT to be deployed on a global scale to a clear timetable. If not, society might miss its fading chance to create a sustainable, low-carbon future.