After mobile – Smarter cities

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve looked at what are the next big waves now that the shift from PC to mobile devices is entering a more mature phase. Among the trends we’ve explored so far are how technology companies are looking at the living room and the human body as two big battlegrounds. This week, let’s take a survey of a new phenomenon called the Internet of things and its more specific application to cities.

Started as a concept over a decade ago, the internet of things stems from the idea that every object could eventually be attached to the internet. To date, its richest implementation has been through the use of RFID technology to track inventories in large warehouses and at big box retailers. In the last decades, companies ranging from giants like WalMart to specialty retailers like Prada have used such technology to get a better sense of where their different assets are.

With sensor and networking technologies becoming cheaper, more and more devices are now connecting to the internet (some estimates are that as many as 15 billion physical objects are already connected to the internet) and those devices are broadcasting information into the cloud that makes us understand how to make better use of resources and where more emphasis is needed.

Songdo: Connected from the start

South Korea has long been an early adopter of technology, still boasting the world’s fastest internet network for consumers and dealing with a culture that is more accepting of technological progress, as a whole, than most places. So it is hardly surprising that South Korea would be among the first countries to attempt to mine the power of the internet to create smarter cities. So in 2001, they landfilled some portion of their coast and turned it into Songdo, a high-tech city where people truly live in the future:

Here, the electric infrastructure is completely wired to not only provide the city’s managers with information about where and when most of the current is used but it also provides individual residents some greater level of control over their personal usage. Likewise, roadways have built-in traffic sensors that provide the city’s transportation administration with details on traffic patterns, allowing them to smartly reprogram traffic lights to reduce traffic congestions, accidents, and optimize traffic and pedestrian speeds. These “smart roads” connect over the internet to a central office where they also provide information on weather conditions and can serve as early warning in case of seismic activity (South Korea is prone to earthquakes so such sensors can make a large difference to residents).

Noise, Pollution, and even Parking Spaces

Santander is a mid-size town in Spain. In an effort to reduce air and noise pollution, the city has started looking at technology and has become one of the testbeds for large scale sensors deployments. Through a public/private partnership entitled Smart Santander, the city has deployed around 10,000 electronic monitoring devices. Each devices includes 2 radios to communicate with other devices (create a wireless networks between each devices), a GPS, and a host of sensors to monitor carbon monoxide emission, noise, temperature, ambient light, and whether a car is parked or not in a particular space. Each devices updates data over the internet in real-time, allowing drivers to either use a mobile app or read smart signs to find the next available parking spot.

Using the same technology, Libelium, one of the Spanish startups behind Smart Santander, has expanded into as wide a range of uses as radiation monitoring Japan, traffic restructuring in Spain, and public transportation improvements in Serbia.

Savings with sensors

Meanwhile, in the United States, several municipalities have been adding new monitors to their sewer and water systems, allowing them to save large amounts of money thanks to smarter monitoring. South Bend, Indiana, for example, has reduced wastewater overflows by 23% and entirely eliminated clogged sewers incidents by installing technology from IBM that allows it to aggregate data it gets from all its different agencies and manipulate it to turn it into useful information. The city estimates that it will recover the cost of installing this new technology in less than 2 years.

Further south, in Miami-Dade county (Florida), city administrators estimate they will save $1 million a year and reduce water consumption by 20% through the use of smart sensors that allow them to more quickly repair water leaks. And in Texas, Corpus Christi analyzed almost 4,000 water main breaks and discovered that simply changing the size of some smaller pipes was enough to dramatically reduces such incidents.

Keeping it cool

And it’s not just cities getting involved. In New York city, Con Edison, one of the largest electric utilities, kicked off the CoolNYC program, which provides, free of charge, equipment that New Yorkers can attach to their air conditioning unit in order to help reduce consumptions when heat waves happen (the plugs have temperature sensors and wireless broadcasters that connect to the internet), monitor their energy costs and even schedule when and when to turn on their A/C unit through either the web or a smart phone. Consumers who take part in the program can, for example, leave their AC unit while they are at work then pull out their phone before they head home, arriving to a cooled down house.

The company also monitors usage and, if usage spikes endanger the power grid, which could lead to black-outs, it can selectively remotely turn off A/C units that are sitting in areas where the temperature is lower than that set by the customers. This means that Con Edison can proactively manage a small portion of its electrical grid through smart use of data, ensuring that all customers are served while waste is reduced. Every step of the way, however, it leaves the consumers in charge, letting them choose to selectively turn certain units on or off and allowing them to decide whether they want to allow Con Edison to turn off their AC units. With 6 million window air conditioning units in New York, such a program could have a major impact in how much energy is consumed on hot summer days.

Expect those things to become more common relatively soon, as costs continue to drop and cities and utilities see the value of outfitting their customers with tools that will reduce waste and increase overall quality of life.

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