Smart Cities: How the Internet of Things is Changing Urban Areas

Which cities around the world are using the power of IoT?

smart cities network

A trend is spreading in cities all across the world: every day, more and more people just keep moving in. Already, more than half the human population lives in cities, and the number of mega-cities in the world (those that have more than 10 million people) keeps growing.

The problem is: few of the cities seeing this kind of growth were built to sustain it. More people crowding into a limited space causes critical issues including extreme traffic congestion, higher pollution levels, and a general strain on resources and utilities. For the city governments and the residents affected by these issues, figuring out ways to manage the growth without reducing safety and quality of life for everyone is a constant concern.

One possible solution could be found in the grand ol’ Internet of Things (IoT), a “here to stay” revolution that’s re-shaping our home and office lives day by day. Why not put it to use in our cities as well?

What is a Smart City?

Smart cities use IoT (simply: connecting the power and resources of the internet to devices such as phones, speakers, home appliances, cars, parts of machines, and an increasing number of objects) to better understand the trends of the city and to enable solutions to some of their main problems.

The devices can feature a variety of technology which are connected to a larger system – sensors, connected cars, lights, meters, etc. Each of these devices tracks information and shares data that the city can analyze in order to make more informed decisions about what changes or new projects will most benefit residents.

Consider motion detection sensors at intersections and stoplights, and all the movements (by vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists) they monitor. With that big data, city planners could assess the danger of certain intersections, and take steps to improve their safety.

smart cities infrastructure

Connected devices don’t just collect data though, they also play a role in solving problems, such as through apps that help people more quickly find a parking spot or smart grids that distribute energy in a more efficient way.

All cool stuff, right? So what’s the catch?

Do Smart Cities Raise Security Concerns?

The benefits of making a city smart seem obvious. The problems of overpopulation are growing and it can help city legislators drive new and efficient solutions – but it comes at a cost. In addition to the financial cost (this level of tech-ifying doesn’t come cheap), smart cities also raise concerns about privacy and security.

Installing connected devices throughout a city’s busiest areas – many of which are designed to track what’s going on or even record video or audio – understandably makes some people uncomfortable. Even if widespread surveillance isn’t the main goal of the initiatives, the IoT devices make it a possibility, bringing to mind sci-fi scenarios that warn of a world where our every move is watched.

Right now, legislation protecting people’s privacy in smart cities hasn’t caught up to the technology, but it’s something many city planners are considering in how best to implement their programs.

How IoT is Being Applied to Cities

Cities have embraced IoT to different degrees and in different ways. To give you an idea of what a smart city initiative can look like, here are some of the big examples making headlines across the world.

Chicago, Illinois: The Array of Things

The city of Chicago, in collaboration with a number of researchers, has begun the process of installing hundreds of nodes around the city that will track information on environmental factors, air quality, traffic, and light intensity. Interestingly, the data collected by the nodes is public information, and is thus made accessible to anyone who might want to use it. This sort of data can have value for researchers tackling environmental issues, city planners making decisions about infrastructure projects, and even citizens trying to figure out the best route to work.

The Array of Things project is already collecting data and aims to have 500 nodes installed by the end of 2018.

Amsterdam, Netherlands: Smart City Initiative

Amsterdam was an early adopter of the smart city idea and has done more to embrace it than possibly any other city in the world. They encourage cooperation from companies and citizens and actively solicit project ideas. With over 80 pilot projects in play, residents and nearby companies have shown they’re happy to use the data and resources available to pursue creative, helpful new solutions.

Projects vary from those that retrofit houses to link them to the smart grid and make energy use more efficient, to apps that allow people to control the street lighting as needed or find the closest public toilet. With the whole city on board and businesses encouraged to participate as well, Amsterdam is exploring the full possibilities of using IoT to improve the city.

Amsterdam smart city app
Amsterdam smart city app

Glendale, California: Smart Utilities

Glendale put the IoT to practical use by implementing a smart grid for both water and electricity. Many consumers around the world are installing smart electric and water meters to more efficiently and effectively track their use, but Glendale is one of the first U.S. cities to launch a citywide program designed to get both types of smart meters into homes and connect them all to a smart grid. In a state which has been long plagued by drought, the city is able to use the connected devices and the data they provide to use the resources available more efficiently. Then they provide citizens with tips and feedback in real time on ways to save water and energy.

Kolkata, India smart city app
Kolkata, India smart city app

IoT devices have a lot to tell us and can thoroughly change how we tackle problems at the city level. We’re still in the early stages of seeing how smart city initiatives can play out, and there’s every reason to believe these examples are just the beginning of what’s possible.