What value does a city gain by adopting a sensored infrastructure approach?

by Matt Ball on February 17, 2012

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We’ve long used sensors to track performance of networks, but the smart city that is comprised of a network of networks that inform and report on infrastructure is a relatively new concept that is taking hold. We’re seeing whole cities built around the concept of constant monitoring and feedback, with central control for increased efficiency. With this next wave of system of system integration, there may well rise a distinct “have” and “have not” dichotomy.

The considerable up-front investment for such a change is definitely a concern in times of global economic stagnation and tighter budgets. There’s a sales side to this equation where technology companies are working to spur demand to benefit their bottom line, but there’s also cost justification where the investment is paid back with savings from increased efficiency. The increased awareness provides a means to make proactive changes that all have bottom-line benefits.

Myriad Applications

When discussing what an intelligent infrastructure approach means, it’s beneficial to outline the many practical applications. The most well known is the smart grid that utilities are deploying with meters in homes to help consumers conserve on their usage, and intelligent transformers that balance the electric load more closely with less wasted power being transmitted. A similar approach is being applied to water networks, and transportation, to improve performance through constant feedback and analysis of trends and outcomes.

The proliferation of low-cost wireless sensors, along with monitoring and analysis software, are being deployed across a myriad number of applications in cities as well as in the businesses contained within a city. Facility managers are deploying sensors on key building infrastructure in the same way that sensors are being deployed to monitor bridges or roadways. Through quick reaction to failures, considerable money is saved by reducing the damage that is caused. The constant analysis also serves to streamline operations such as in asset tracking, where knowing where and in what state translates into improved performance. A recent alliance between position company Trimble and waste container company SmartBin points to some of the possibilities, where close tracking of waste container locations and percentage of capacity is said to reduce fuel costs, aid worker productivity, and drive down fleet size and cost.

Value of Innovation

Cities have long been able to trade on innovations to attract businesses and improve their economic outlook. In the increasingly competitive global marketplace, where cities are our primary economic drivers, there is an importance to be placed on global competition. A recent study goes way back in its analysis by looking at the impact of the printing press, and equating that to information technology investment, finding that cities that adopted printing presses in the 1400s grew 60% faster in the 1500s than other similar cities without them.

While you may think that it isn’t a fair comparison to consider the impact of the press or the Internet with the coming sensored world, you perhaps discount the paradigm shift that this trend will bring forward. Imagine the cachet of a city in your close proximity that would automate their entire operations with a focus on the quality of life of its residents. Such dramatic changes are taking place right now, albeit mostly in Asia, and the benefits of the technology has reaped rewards in marketing alone with rapid development.

Attractive Efficiency

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that we’re placing increasing pressures on our planet. With rising populations and growing economic power of individuals in developing countries, the mass-consumption lifestyles of the West won’t be sustainable. Given these realities, individuals will be forced to make changes. Proactive cities can help greatly by defusing the individual constraints with compelling collective benefits.

A city that reduces water consumption, improves services while increasing efficiency, fosters local food connections, improves mobility while reducing carbon output, and that fosters renewable energy stands to attract progressive individuals and companies. The reduced impact of the city then becomes a point of pride for individuals who might rightly assert that they are doing more individually based in part by where they choose to live. Additionally, the proactive cities can take a measured and incremental approach, avoiding mandates that pressure for more drastic change.

With increasing understanding of ecosystem services, and the value of natural capital, we’re slowly changing our approach to how we plan and design our urban areas. With the addition of a highly sensored urban ecosystems, we can finely tune our existing infrastructure, as well as having the valuable inputs to tune that infrastructure for reduced environmental footprints.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Theun February 18, 2012 at 8:44 am

For me smartcities so far seem too anthropocentric to deserve the name. For a city like Amsterdam, where I live, the biodiversity within urban areas is now higher than in our rural landscape. Have you seen Smartcity projects that measure or track urban biodiversity? Where monitoring of systems is not limited to human flows of various kinds.

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