Innovation pays off for city life

Low-carbon transport systems, buildings that automatically switch off electrical appliances when energy demand is high, increased efficiency and lower operational costs are all good reasons why cities should spend scare resources on smart upgrades, as first Felicia Jackson and then Jess McCabe discover

Megacity’s metro system

Brazil’s São Paulo is a megacity with more than 20 million inhabitants. Increasing urbanisation is a growing trend, and between 1991 and 2000, São Paulo increased in population by 15.8 per cent. In a burgeoning megacity, the issue is not how to become a smart city, but how to become smarter.

The city is relatively compact, with a density twice that of Paris and three times that of Los Angeles, which makes it a prime target for an effective public transport network.

Yet transport is one of São Paulo’s major issues: the city has 7 million vehicles, 9 million transport users and only 3.7 million metro users. The metro system is small relative to the size of the city, with 70 kilometres of track. Most transport within the city is by bus, with around 15,000 buses running.

The city’s transport plan included the addition of some electric and ethanol-powered buses, but the opening of São Paulo Metro’s driverless Line 4-Yellow which, at 13km long, is South America’s only driverless subway line, had the biggest impact.

The line runs through the city centre, taking 12 minutes to do a journey that can take one and a half hours by car

The line, which was opened in phases, has seen a rapid increase in use. When the first two stations opened part time, the line was used by 11,600 passengers per day. With another new station, passenger numbers leaped to 25,300 a day. With the next, numbers jumped again to 44,200 passengers daily, and with the opening of the Republica and Luz stations, passengers numbered 250,000 per day by September 2011. By May 2012, that number had increased to nearly 700,000 passengers a day travelling through just six stations.

Key to the system’s success is that it goes to the west of the city, where no other metro line runs. There is no extra cost to the citizen, as a flat-rate travel fee is paid and the apportioning of revenue to the subway consortium and the city takes place through a third party.

At the same time, the line runs through the city centre, taking 12 minutes to do a journey that can take one and a half hours by car.

While as yet no study has been undertaken on emissions saved by the new trains, it has a number of benefits for the city. Journeys by car and bus are cut. Travel becomes more efficient and the system is safer, monitored from a central control, providing passenger security and train headway. Driverless operation means more room for passengers and the system uses regenerative braking, cutting electricity consumption. The Siemens system being used can reduce carbon emissions by 30 per cent.

Given that more than 85 per cent of Brazil’s electricity production is low-carbon – with over 75 per cent of that generated by hydro power – an electrified metro system seems like the smart solution for São Paulo.

Technologies paying their way

“Putting up a shopping list for city authorities seems quite counterintuitive, given current budget restrictions,” says Eric Woods, director at cleantech specialists Pike Research. But advocates say the technologies will pay for themselves.

Technology companies are keen to extol the savings that their particular products can achieve. “You could only afford to do it if it saves you money,” says Steve Lewis, chief executive of Living PlanIT. By rationalising the construction process, he says, builders can reduce waste and therefore the cost of building by 18-20 per cent, for example. 

Independent third-party research suggests that the savings could be significant. The non-profit Climate Group estimates the implementation of information and communications technology (ICT) could cut carbon dioxide emissions by 15 per cent on business as usual by 2020.

This could have a major impact on short to medium -term climate targets, but the energy savings are also potentially vast. Estimates on savings for smart logistics are £281.6 billion from automation efficiencies, reduced fuel costs and possible carbon savings. Projections for savings from better building design, management and automation in the construction sector have hit £217.3 billion.

The reality is that the costs of inaction may be too high to ignore

There is a broader economic case in terms of growth and regeneration. Ina Homeier-Mendes, a city administrator in Vienna, which often tops smart city rankings, explains. “The city wants to position itself as a leader in research and technology in Europe,” she says.

Cisco calculates that, within 20 years, a city of 5 million people could generate £10 billion in revenue, increase GDP by 9.5 per cent and create 375,000 jobs.

Mr Woods at Pike Research adds: “If you’re not engaging in terms of the basic infrastructure a city needs to be effective, you’re going to struggle in the competition for economic investment. You accept that you’re going to be a picturesque – or not so picturesque – backwater.”

Dave Openshaw, of UK Power Networks, says: “There are compelling arguments for the smart city concept, but it’s fair to say that the benefits have yet to be proven.” The company is running a £30-million trial in London, funded by the energy regulator Ofgem, including smart meters, demand-response technologies which reduce electricity consumption at times of high demand, and exploring how the electricity grid will cope as more Londoners use heat pumps and electric cars.

“The benefit to all consumers will be in terms of savings in energy bills, by avoiding having to make additional investments in future generation and network capacity,” Mr Openshaw predicts.

San Francisco is often held up as a leading smart city. But a city official explains that developments so far have been funded by grants or by private companies looking for somewhere to demonstrate their technologies. “Moving forward, we’ll need to evaluate these pilots and make decisions on which technologies will help achieve our goals, whether they are carbon goals or financial goals,” the official says.

The reality is that the costs of inaction may be too high to ignore. Annie Xu, Hong Kong-based senior vice-president, smart cities at tech firm Schneider Electric, lists some of the consequences of inaction. “Traffic congestion, power shortages, poor public services, air pollution; these are the things we can observe around us,” she says.

There are also the less visible consequences of rising greenhouse gas emissions and resource scarcity as the population and consumption of resources continues to grow.