Smart Cities: Theoretical Past and Economic Future

Hong Kong

Hong Kong view by Mike Hudson,

MESH Cities--commonly known by their early generic name Smart Cities--may well be the answer to many of the world's environmental, social, and economic challenges. But few of us understand where this generational disruptive technology came from and where it may go. Our editor recaps some of the early research behind smart cities then offers predictions on where these ideas will take us economically.

Smart Cities as an aspiration got traction in policy circles about a generation ago. MIT's Dr. Bill Mitchell started exploring the ICT-driven dematerialization of city infrastructure in his "City of Bits." Other researchers at the Brookhaven National Laboratory made public the ideas they thought were the next big thing—efficient cities.

While the commercial Internet was going insane over the ability to order pet food online, these bright US researchers looked to the future, and it was both clean and wired. They were convinced that the nirvana offered by ubiquitous computing lay just over the horizon. Here is how the idea of smart cities got presented in 2000, one year before the events that changed everything. It is worth the read if only to remind people who are just now discovering the field that their work builds on the sweat of bleeding-edge researchers who are generally forgotten:

The vision of “Smart Cities” is the urban center of the future, made safe, secure, environmentally green, and efficient because all structures - whether for power, water, transportation, etc. are designed, constructed, and maintained making use of advanced, integrated materials, sensors, electronics, and networks which are interfaced with computerized systems comprised of databases, tracking, and decision-making algorithms.(my italics) The research and engineering challenges along the way to this vision encompass many technical fields including physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, computing science, systems, mechanical., electronics and civil engineering. At the simplest level is the basic component and its associated “feedback” or self-monitoring mechanism(s).
Each must be identified or, if already existing, tailored for the appropriate application. At the next level is the design of the system making use of these components. Associated with this would be the interface to the computerized “monitoring” capability for each given function. Next, is the full structure or service supplied, and lastly, the integration of information across all related and seemingly unrelated aspects of an urban center's essential infrastructure.

What does that vision mean when it comes to reducing humankind's carbon footprint? The Carbon War Room published this statistic in February, 2013: "The total opportunity for ICT-enabled reductions is 9.1 Gt CO2e annually by 2020 . . ." That equals a 16.5% reduction in total CO2e emissions. But there is more. The sad truth behind climate change is that it is not part of some undetermined future. We are living it. See hurricane Sandy as just one example. Smart Cities can mitigate the damage caused by unusual weather and tides by making urban centres resilient. Brookhaven's researchers continue:

A city that monitors and integrates conditions of all of its critical infrastructures, including roads, bridges, tunnels, rail/subways, airports, sea ports, communications, water, power, even major buildings, can better optimize its resources, plan its preventive maintenance activities, and monitor security aspects while maximizing services to its citizens. Emergency response management to both natural as well as man-made challenges to the system can be focused and rapid. With advanced monitoring systems and built-in smart sensors, data can be collected and evaluated in real time, enhancing city management’s decision-making. For example, resources can be committed prior to a water main break, salt spreading crews dispatched only when a specific bridge has icing conditions, and use of inspectors reduced by knowing condition of life of all structures. In the long term Smart Cities vision, systems and structures will monitor their own conditions and carry out self-repair, as needed.
The physical environment, air, water, and surrounding green spaces will be monitored in non-obtrusive ways for optimal quality, thus creating an enhanced living and working environment that is clean, efficient, and secure and that offers these advantages within the framework of the most effective use of all resources. This paper discusses a current initiative being led by the Brookhaven National Laboratory to create a research, development and deployment agenda that advances this vision. This is anchored in the application of new technology to current urban center issues while looking 20 years into the future and conceptualizing a city framework that may exist.

Presented by: Robert E. Hall, Brookhaven National Laboratory Contributors: B. Bowerman J. Braverman J. Taylor H. Todosow U. von Wimmersperg

What is remarkable about this introduction is that a bright entrepreneur could just about take any one sentence from it and build a billion dollar company. Today, many are doing just that.

The Carbon War Room report goes on to describe the M2M (Machine to Machine) value chain:

Connecting the dots between these discrete functions will result in more than 12.5 billion deployed M2M devices by 2020. What does that do for major economies? 

The connected machines of the industrial internet are capable of generating both cost savings and new revenues that in total could add $10–15 trillion to global GDP—the current size of the u.s. economy—over the next 20 years (evans & annunziata 2012).

Let's get that straight. Building out smart, efficient cities will not only radically reduce greenhouse gasses, it will also add economic growth equal to the world's largest economic engine. 

Where do we sign up?

Take a moment to read our next story: MESH Cities Can Learn From Anarchy City

Did you miss the previous story? Designing Cities For Change

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