What makes a city smart, and how can data improve its performance?

February 29, 2024

Challenges like traffic congestion, road safety, air pollution, waste management, and cost-effective urban planning require a great deal of time, energy, and resources from every major city. Each of those issues demands a thorough analysis to be taken care of properly. Smart City technologies provide tools for data collection and management to develop solutions that improve the quality of life for their citizens. 

Most importantly, the essence of the Smart City concept is understanding the importance of data collection and analysis. To maintain growth, be sustainable, and stay competitive, city leaders need to base their decisions on research and verified information. By relying on complex analyses, decision-makers can stop assuming but simply know the outcome and choose the best possible option environmentally, politically, and financially. And with the correct approach to data comes the true Smart City revolution in a technological sense.

Although the general idea of the Smart City mainly comes down to understanding the importance of using data, there is a technological aspect to it as well. The modern concept of a Smart City often relates to using data collected from sensors, cameras, Internet of Things devices, Geographic Information Systems, statistical and demographic databases, as well as citizens themself to improve the quality of life and optimize costs of municipal maintenance and development. Using innovative technologies, city officials can understand every municipal sector better and make much more informed, data-based decisions. 

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So what makes a city smart?

Throughout the years, a wide range of smart city technologies were being developed independently in different urban areas across the globe. Smart solutions based on sensors and cameras were implemented for many purposes and impacted the lives of citizens in different ways depending on economic, cultural, and environmental challenges. Because of that, it's not easy to clearly say when exactly a town becomes smart.

However, we can say for sure what the leading indicators of the Smart City movement are:

1. Understanding the importance of data

Relying on information for decision-making is the foundation of the transformation, and the biggest challenge for emerging Smart Cities is to realize that data is key. The smartest cities have complex systems for data gathering and analysis, which significantly facilitate urban planning and development. It’s because they realize how valuable data is. Complex systems like Digital Twins are implemented by the most advanced cities to collect, analyze, and present all important data in virtual reality. 

The benefits of using Digital Twins in Smart City projects are significant:

1. Energy Efficiency:

  • 10-20% reduction in energy consumption through optimized management of lighting, heating, and cooling.
  • 5-10% cost savings on energy at the city level.

2. Sustainable Transportation:

  • 10-15% reduction in CO2 emissions through optimized traffic management and promotion of public transportation.
  • 10-20% reduction in travel time thanks to intelligent traffic management systems.

3. Public Safety:

  • 10-15% decrease in crime through intelligent monitoring and data analysis systems.
  • 5-10% reduction in emergency response time through improved coordination and information.

4. Quality of Life:

  • 10-15% improvement in air quality by reducing pollution emissions.
  • 5-10% increase in access to green and recreational areas

Here are some examples of Digital Twin for Smart City implementation:

Singapore: A virtual city model is used to optimize infrastructure, transportation, and energy management.

Barcelona: The city's digital twin is used to test and implement new solutions for intelligent lighting, parking, and waste management.

Helsinki: A digital platform integrates data from various sources to improve public safety, energy efficiency, and quality of life.

Additional benefits include:

Improved infrastructure management: Digital Twin allows for monitoring the condition of infrastructure and predicting failures, which enables faster and cheaper repairs.

Greater citizen engagement: The city's digital model can be used to engage citizens in decision-making and planning processes.

Accelerated innovation: The Digital Twin platform can be used to test and deploy new solutions in a safe and virtual environment.

To put it simply, there is no Smart City revolution without the correct approach to data and understanding its value for healthy and sustainable development. 

2. Use of electronic and digital technologies

Advanced digital technology is closely attached to the movement. Every project that relies on data gathering and analysis to improve citizens' quality of life and facilitate the development of cities can be labeled as Smart City. 

The digital transformation and the growing number of information sources has changed the way municipalities need to approach data. The biggest challenge that every Smart City project begins with is data collection and availability. To be effective, every implementation needs to rely on verified information from different systems, databases, and sometimes sensors, devices, and cameras in order to see, hear, or even “smell” the air quality and check temperature or moisture levels in real-time. 

The problem is, many of those systems are completely separate and incompatible with each other. To get a grasp of data chaos, there is a growing need for Digital Twins, which gather data from different systems and devices to create a multifunctional and live-updating model. 

For modern Smart City solutions, it’s necessary to use technology that’s future-proof. For example, in our Smart City and Digital Twin projects in cooperation with SITOWISE, we use the game-engine Unity to create precise and immersive virtual environments.

3. Focus on improving citizen welfare

The very essence of Smart City development is to make urban areas better, safer, more sustainable, and healthier places to live. The nature of the idea requires solutions to contribute to people's well-being. 

This is why a large part of the Smart City movement focuses on environmental issues, such as air quality and waste management. Most modern cities have to deal with air pollution problems and many of them are implementing Smart City solutions to solve them. For example, many cities use sensors on roofs and drones to identify polluting households and facilities.

4. Participation of city governments

Although private companies develop many smart city initiatives, they usually depend heavily on cooperation with public sector institutions and municipal governments. They operate within public spaces and often require a holistic approach due to integration with other common city services. This is why, in order to be successful, Smart City evolution requires citizen participation and cooperation between technological companies and the local governments. 

5. Creation of sustainable urban areas with more efficient energy infrastructure

Energy efficiency is one of the critical factors of sustainable growth. Smart infrastructure significantly lowers energy consumption thanks to data analytics, the use of renewable energy sources, as well as systems like intelligent street lighting and smart buildings that minimize heating costs. For example, as part of our project with Aalto University, we created a planning tool for street lights on their new campus area including both photometric light emission and energy calculations. You can read more about the project here.

How are Smart City solutions changing people's lives? 

The impact of smart technologies on daily life is very apparent, not only in the biggest and most developed metropolises. One of the most popular Smart City initiatives is a bicycle-sharing system, which just by itself significantly contributes to reducing traffic, noise levels, increasing road safety, and reducing air pollution. For some municipalities, bicycle-sharing is the only implemented solution, but its functionality and impact on citizen engagement is highly valued.

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What are some examples of impactful Smart City solutions?

It's safe to say that there are almost as many useful smart technologies as cities that implement them. Here are some of the most interesting cases.

Many ways to improve parking

Every major urban area has to deal with traffic issues, and no technology will solve them completely. However, some municipalities have developed solutions that significantly contribute to traffic management. For example, several European cities, including Amsterdam and Paris, have implemented a system called Mobypark, which allows parking space owners to rent them out to people in advance. This makes things more convenient for drivers and reduces air pollution and traffic, as drivers spend far less time finding parking spaces. 

A different solution for the same problem was introduced in Washington D.C. and San Francisco 10 years ago. According to a study, 15-20% of the traffic congestion in Washington D.C. was caused by people circling around to find an open parking space. Using thousands of sensors placed near parking spots, drivers can find one much faster. 

Optimization of waste management

IoT sensor-based waste management systems are already implemented in many areas around the world. Using data collected from sensors near (or inside) trash containers, companies can optimize waste collection routes and schedules to make the process faster and more cost-effective. 

Improving transportation using complex data

Another widespread usage of data collected from video sensors is for the optimization of public transportation networks. For example, the city of Barcelona created a new bus network based on information about the most common traffic flows. Thanks to intelligent traffic light technology, bus routes there are designed to synchronize with as many green lights as possible.

The system also helps emergency vehicles, such as fire trucks, to reach their destinations much quicker. Vehicles are equipped with GPS sensors and connected to the traffic light system, which sets green lights in advance of their approach along the entire route. 

Mobility as a service is another widespread idea that goes hand in hand with the Smart City revolution. Solutions like car-, bicycle-, and scooter-sharing systems are gaining in popularity, not only in the big cities.

Monitor air quality

One of the most direct ways that Smart City applications influence the lives of citizens is through air quality measurement systems in urban centers. In Copenhagen, citizens can access heat maps of areas with real-time information about pollution levels. This system can be used by cyclists and joggers, for instance in order to plan their routes accordingly. 

Environmental protection

One of the most developed projects in terms of environmental protection is Stockholm's Green IT Strategy, a plan for Sweden's capital to become one of the cleanest and safest places in the World to live. The project involves intelligent solutions for a wide range of areas, from eco-friendly transport and energy-efficient buildings to digitalization of document processing.

The inevitable future of urban planning and development

The nature of modern city development and a growing need for analysis make smart solutions a prerequisite to move forward. It's the only possible way, given the complexity of city operations and the vast amount of data that needs to be analyzed. To make smarter decisions in order to maintain security, air quality, and road safety whilst sustaining economic development, municipalities need to start implementing Smart City ideas. 

According to last year’s study by Frost & Sullivan, spending on smart city technology is expected to reach $327 billion by 2025, up from $96 billion in 2019. City leaders worldwide are either already implementing innovative solutions or have plans to implement them in the future. An idea that a few years ago was reserved for only the biggest and most developed metropolises is now becoming a universal worldwide movement to improve people’s quality of life.

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