Every day, leaders of large cities grapple with knotty, complex problems like decaying public transportation infrastructures, aging utility lines, urban blight, neighborhoods that are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and other multi-faceted socio-economic challenges. Increasingly, municipal leaders are turning to the game-changing tools of urban analytics, data collection, and advances in sensor technology to help solve the problems of modern cities in bold, transformative ways.
So-called “smart city” initiatives are getting lots of attention in the marketplace as well as from the federal government. Many visionaries have asserted the transformational power of the ‘Internet of Things;’ marked by the increasing ubiquity of sensors that collect and in some cases share or communicate data that can be used in almost infinite ways. The Obama White House announced just last month more than $80 million dollars in federal investment on smart city program incentives emphasizing features related to climate, transportation, public safety and innovative delivery of city services.
According to a White House report, released in February 2016, “Information and communication technologies (ICT), the proliferation of sensors through the Internet of Things, and converging data standards are… combining to provide new possibilities for the physical management and the socioeconomic development of cities. Local governments are looking to data and analytics technologies for insight and are creating pilot projects to test ways to improve their services,” the report states.
“Even though the applications are complex and varied, the goal is simple: whether it’s water or energy, commuter time or taxpayer’s money, better data collection and use of information can help us build and adapt systems that use our resources much more wisely than we have in the past,” said John West, SC16 General Chair from the Texas Advanced Computing Center. “In many ways, we are at the leading edge of a new era in city design, and we need massive programming acumen and computing power to help bring it to fruition,” according to West. “Smart city initiatives are highly integrated and complex problems to solve—exactly the kind of challenges that we HPC systems experts are equipped and excited to support.”
As old systems become obsolete, the most visionary urban planners are taking the opportunity to design the future, not just repeat and rebuild the past. So how are we making our cities smarter? Here are just a few examples:
Automation of Code Inspection Functions – Imagine if all the aging bridges in a city were equipped with sensors that measure and transmit their “shake” data to the postal truck that travels over them each day, and that data is then collected and used to make decisions about which bridges take first priority for repair or replacement. Similar systems could help with pavement crack/pothole detection, and other types of urban blight indicator tracking. Trial projects of this kind are underway in Illinois, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Resource & Climate Tracking – Streetlights use significant energy and are a source of light pollution, both of which can be mitigated by incorporating LED lights equipped with sensors that allow them to operate specifically how and when they are needed. Sensors placed inside water pipes can detect volumes and patterns of usage, helping utilities and consumers plan, shift and anticipate. Sensors in flood-prone areas could give advance warning of damaging flood conditions before they have developed to the point where they impact public safety, creating an early warning system for flash floods. Other systems are being tested to monitor air quality throughout a city more comprehensively and automating the process of pinpointing the sources of damaging pollution.
Enabling Transportation Improvement & Reinvention – Moving people around is a hot spot of potential for the future of urban centers. Smart cities aren’t just about the sensors that have proliferated with the Internet of Things. They also feature adaptations like bike loan programs with accompanying apps for end users to maximize green transportation; fresh approaches to upgrading bus systems with dedicated lanes and loading zones in urban centers and yes, mobile phone apps to help users maximize their use of public transportation; and even brand new species of clean, efficient public transportation like closed-loop driverless public transportation systems that can operate safely and quietly in a wide range of weather conditions, independent of human intervention.
1 Source: Technology and the Future of Cities,” report issued by the President’s Advisory Council on Science and Technology, February 2016. Accessed October 11, 2016 at https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/PCAST/pcast_cities_report___final_3_2016.pdf.