Smart cities have arrived and the potential is huge

THE PROPORTION of people living in the world’s cities passed 50 per cent for the first time in 2008. And just 600 cities accounted for about 60 per cent of economic growth in 2011, according to McKinsey. While a third of the developed world’s cities are expected to drop out of the top 600 by 2025, 136 metropolises from emerging markets will take their place.

The continued rise of the global city will frame discussions at today’s World Islamic Economic Forum about the rise of the so-called smart city. Speakers including Uwe Krueger, chief executive of Atkins, and architects Neil M Denari and Abdel-Wahed Al-Wakil, will assess how developments in “smart” technology can improve quality of life, economic productivity, and international collaboration between East and West.

“We’re at a turning point with regard to smart cities,” says Leo Johnson of PwC, who has just co-written a book on the topic. “It is vital that we deploy technology in a way that empowers smart and connected citizens.”

And smart cities are already taking shape. Singapore’s network of man-made supertrees act as temperature moderators – measuring, absorbing and emitting heat, as well as collecting rainwater, providing solar power, and acting as ventilation ducts for adjacent conservatories. Meanwhile, sensors, cameras and GPS devices fitted to the city’s cabs measure road congestion, and provide projections of traffic flows to other drivers in order to help reduce jams.

According to the department for Business, Innovation and Skills, a smart city uses “intelligent technology to enhance our quality of life in urban environments.” But as Dr Koen van Dam of Imperial College London’s Digital City Exchange project says, “there is increasing potential to harness digital information for the benefit of the wider economy.”

Smart electricity grids, for example, provide suppliers and consumers with vast amounts of data concerning energy usage. With real-time information, network operators can allocate supply more efficiently – avoiding problems associated with peak demand, and anticipating future supply bottlenecks to a greater degree of accuracy. Ernst and Young estimates that investment in smart grids could save the UK as much as £10bn between now and 2050, even accounting for implementation costs.

“There is a lot the West can learn from the East in this regard, despite the very different challenges faced,” says van Dam. The planners of Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City have aimed to create “an integrated municipal platform” to monitor (and manage) city-wide consumption of energy, water and CO2 emissions.

But as Johnson says, “there is a danger of over-management in some cases. Many of the most exciting smart developments take place from the bottom-up, making existing processes smarter and empowering citizens.” The developing world may show the way forward.

Johnson cites the example of M-Kopa in Kenya, a startup that enables individuals to access to electricity on a pay-as-you-go basis. Lamps are rented to individuals who could not otherwise afford to access the conventional electricity grid, and chips in the equipment allow them to pay (via mobile) for what they use, as they use it. “Such examples offer an alternative concept of ‘smart’,” says Johnson. “Rather than deploying technology in an exclusively top-down way, we can allow individuals to make more informed (‘smarter’) decisions.”

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