By Phil Beecher, President and CEO of Wi-SUN Alliance
The pandemic is likely to accelerate new IoT initiatives and opportunities for smart innovation. Phil Beecher, President and CEO of Wi-SUN Alliance, looks at the smart city technologies that we can expect to see in the future
Over half (56.2%) of the global population now lives in cities, according to the UN Population Division. By 2050, it’s estimated that around three-quarters of the world’s population will live in cities. Africa and Asia – which already have urban populations bigger in total than those in Europe, Latin America or North America – have been increasing their share of urban dwellers the most in the last 70 years.
With no sign of this changing, it will put huge pressure on city authorities, planners and service providers to tackle serious issues like traffic congestion, transport infrastructure, pollution, and the growing social issues associated with increased urbanisation. With so much focus on our cities, there’s a need to make them smarter and ‘fit for purpose’ as the population continues to grow.
There is also the fall-out from the global crisis to consider as part of this urban evolution, which is further set to change the way we live, especially in those cities where very large numbers of people – over a billion – are co-existing within close confines to one other. The pandemic has shown just how important it is to speed up technological innovation and the value of integrating smart devices and applications to help tackle both healthcare and other issues.
We have already had a glimpse of what’s to come, with the rapid rollout of new technologies to help tackle the pandemic, with innovations ranging from drones to robotics. Some technologies will be familiar to us, such as telehealth, which has helped to alleviate the pressure from frontline healthcare workers, and contact tracing apps helping to identify people that have come into contact with those with COVID-19.
Other developments that were perhaps in their infancy before the crisis have come into their own in the last year. The use of drone technology, for example, and robotics is helping with the delivery of medical supplies, screening individuals for infection, as well as for surveillance purposes. Many will have seen the images of Singapore’s robot ‘dogs’ in the city’s parks reminding residents of the need for social distancing.
While the global economic slowdown may have some initial impact on smart technologies, the pandemic is likely to accelerate new initiatives in the future. In it latest predictions, Frost & Sullivan has forecast spending on smart city technology will reach US$327 billion by 2025 from US$96 billion in 2019.
From our perspective we’re seeing some of the most important developments around smart grid technology, which is critical as urban populations increase. Smart grids provide more than just remote meter reading; they can help to control loads on the electricity supply. This load shifting can help reduce peak demand, and enable optimum use of renewables. As countries sign up to the Paris Agreement and set out their stall to reduce carbon emissions, this sort of technology will become integral to our lives.
Energy consumption in our cities will come under greater scrutiny over the next few years. Street lighting is a good example of a system that is often based on inefficient and out-dated technology. But it can become the entry point for much more ambitious smart city development. Once in place, a street lighting canopy then provides the network infrastructure to deploy other smart sensors and applications, from waste collection management to electric vehicle charging.
But a wireless communications network like this could feasibly be used for other smart applications that have become more important to our post-pandemic lives, such as automatic temperature screening to reduce risks at key locations like train stations, airports and offices. If you take this a step further, you could add air purification and environmental systems for public spaces and urban transport systems to ensure good airflow and help with post-COVID transmission of other diseases like flu.
When it comes to our health, the value of green spaces in our cities – often dominated by glass and concrete – has never been more important as people find sanctuary outdoors to help with their physical and mental wellbeing. In the age of the smart city, technology could play an important role in creating and managing ‘smart parks’ for example. One application is smart irrigation, the use of sensors and automation to ensure lawns and plants are watered in response to weather and soil conditions. Systems like this are already installed in city parks from Barcelona to Singapore.
Smart technology could also be used to create initiatives to encourage citizens to make better use of green spaces. LA’s Interpretive Media Lab is a joint venture between UCLA and California State Parks, which has created a mobile website that encourages residents to explore the hidden history of the city’s parks and trails. Sheffield in the UK has installed digital systems into its park-based exercise facilities to encourage participation.
But any developments must address the challenge of building a network infrastructure that can scale to support many millions of devices in a reliable and secure way, and that can evolve to meet the needs of future smart city applications for decades to come. Scalability will be critical when designing the underlying communications infrastructure. As you add more devices onto the network, it must be able to scale quickly and reliably, and be highly resilient, capable of providing coverage even in the most challenging environments.
Interoperability between devices, sensors and apps will also be crucial, especially for utilities where interoperability is key for developing infrastructures to manage essential services like water and electricity. The network must be reliable and fast as more devices are added, and the network topology is important when planning a highly scalable smart grid solution.
We have entered the age of smart cities. As populations continue to increase, this heralds a new era of innovation and change, with more connectivity than ever before. But with this comes great responsibility for managing this growth and ensuring the underlying technology is fit for purpose.
Phil Beecher is President and CEO of Wi-SUN Alliance, an industry organisation that seeks to accelerate the implementation of smart cities, smart utilities, smart grids and other large-scale outdoor Internet of Things (IoT) applications by enabling the global adoption of interoperable solutions based on open standards.
Since 1997, Phil has played a key role in the development of communications standards including Bluetooth, WiFi, and IEEE and the specification of test plans for a number of Smart Utilities Network standards, including Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) and Home Energy Management Systems. https://www.wi-sun.org/