The increasing appetite for smart cities

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PJ Farr considers the challenge for smart cities and what UK plc must do to compete in this new arena.

There’s no doubt Britain is on course for an economic growth spurt, spurred by a wave of digital innovation and adoption. With far-reaching plans in the pipeline at policy and investment level, the smart city is set to be at the heart of this digital drive.

A design principle interconnecting our physical infrastructure with the digital world, in ways we haven’t yet seen on a large scale, improving our smart city credentials will achieve the infrastructure needed to support UK plc’s ambition of an interconnected, interoperable society.

With greater scope to enhance and optimise our infrastructure, mobility, public services, and utilities, as well as promoting sustainable living, the focus on smart city status is set to continue throughout 2022 and beyond.

A recent report around emerging smart cities stated: “IoT and big data technologies are being seen as a key driver for the emergence of smart cities” and, according to Forbes, it is expected that “by 2025, total global data storage will reach 200 zettabytes, with 50% being stored in the cloud”. The need for data now stretches to all areas of industry.

‘As urban sprawl continues to gather pace worldwide, smart cities are also set to play a key part in the fight against climate change.’

PJ Farr

For instance, in construction, data is being used to collect and analyse vast amounts of information to help inform business decisions, ensure accuracy and quality and help manage ongoing operation and maintenance across the built environment.

As our appetite for data grows, cities that that can collect and process big data will no doubt see the most improvements to business, services and the quality of life for residents.

Managing a rapidly increasing urban population while improving the quality of life will be a challenge, yet smart technology is helping to bridge the gap. This is reflected in global spend, with digital transformation and smart city deployments estimated to reach $6.8 trillion by 2025 with 40% of cities using digital space-planning tools by 2022.

To make this possible, emerging wireless technologies must be furthered adopted to handle the huge amounts of data needed to operate these smart cities. The latest standards 5G or Wi-Fi 6 are set to enable these developments, supercharging mobile broadband speeds and seamlessly connecting and supplying data to a host of growing IoT devices.

As a 2020 report on the future of smart cities explained: “In a modern data-oriented urban landscape, a city’s performance is measured, assessed and enhanced based on the ability of having control over the storage, management, processing and analysis of the urban data.”

In short, if cities are to grow, then having the right connectivity infrastructure on place will need to be their first port of call.

As urban sprawl continues to gather pace worldwide, smart cities are also set to play a key part in the fight against climate change. Quayside in Toronto, which now uses IoT sensors to monitor and optimise processes throughout city, is a good example. Through strategically-placed sensors, the city can monitor air quality, noise levels, traffic flow and energy usage in real time, improving city services.

Singapore is also using its ‘intelligent transport system’, which includes the world’s first electronic road pricing system, to deliver real-time traffic information and lower congestion rates.

Closer to home, the introduction of smart charging is helping UK cities manage power consumption. By allowing information from smart meters to be collected into cloud-based management platforms, mass data can be analysed to recognise energy patterns for more automated energy control.

Achieving universal smart city living is still a long way off, particularly in the UK, where inconsistent digital infrastructure remains a barrier to progress. However, it seems the message is being heard: the government’s £5bn investment in 2020 to make gigabit-capable broadband available nationally is a definite step in the right direction, as well as a more recent £50m investment to demonstrate the potential benefits of 5G technology.

This also falls in line with the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development recommendation on ‘Smart Cities and Inclusive Growth’ that states: “National governments can play and should play an enabling role to support innovation solution delivery, capacity building and upscaling.”

While steps are being put in place, the ante needs to be upped if we’re to compete with other smart cities, particularly on the world stage. The solutions and technology are available and a fervent uptake of 5G and Wi-Fi 6 now will pave the way for the country’s future success, improving our lives across the board. Right now, we’re living on the verge on a digital revolution, but the choice is simple: lead the way, or fall behind.

PJ Farr is MD of construction communications provider UK Connect.

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