Bringing the smart city to life in Asia

Half the world's population already lives in urban areas. And there is no end in sight to the cityward migration: by 2050, around 70% of people are expected to live in a conurbation. With urban planners already under pressure to ease traffic congestion and parking, improve public services and make cities more sustainable, the prospect of even more metropolitan mega-sprawl is daunting indeed. But by intelligently connecting services and infrastructure, machine-to-machine (M2M) technology is already resolving many of these challenges, helping to transform traditional urban areas into smart cities where people want to live.

The futurist vision

We're all familiar with the futurist vision of cities: gleaming sidewalks, people-friendly buildings, clean and punctual public transport, and traffic congestion consigned to the history books. Smart city technology brings the urban area close to this vision by letting devices communicate with each other. M2M-connected sensors installed throughout the city or town - on public transport, waste bins, billboards and streets - capture data from their environment and send it to central systems, which transmit back instructions and information. The inhabitants of an M2M-connected smart city can look forward to less congested roads, because traffic flows are routed intelligently around choke points. They can expect lighter, cleaner streets - as sensor-equipped street lamps can automatically report a failure and schedule their own repairs, and city refuse bins can report when they need emptying, avoiding the health hazard of waste overspill that is all too common in densely populated areas.

Smart cities are around the corner

Is this another pipedream of idealists who are out of step with urban planning realities? In Asia Pacific, which has the world's largest and fastest-growing population, smart cities are commonly deemed as the way forward to achieve sustainability and spur future development. In fact, many nations throughout the region are racing to embark on their own smart transformation. India has announced that it is building as many as 100 smart cities1, while all eyes are also on South Korea's Songdo. The latter is dubbed the world's first smart city2, where an army of sensors monitor energy use, temperature and traffic flow. More significantly, annual smart city technology investment in Asia Pacific is projected to quadruple by 2023, reaching a staggering US$11.3 billion according to Navigant Research3.

Urban planners and municipalities of course need more than pilot projects and visions as they deal with the pressing and current challenges of how to keep cities liveable and appealing in the face of budget constraints. M2M technology is already in cities - and it works. But before councils everywhere rush to install M2M technology, answering three basic questions will help ensure the smart city is heading in the right direction.

What is the objective of the smart city?

Is the city primarily looking to cut costs, for instance easing pressure on budgets by reducing energy bills? Does the city aspire to be an innovator, introducing smart technology to enhance quality of life for residents? Or is there a real hands-on challenge to resolve urgently - like easing congestion at certain choke points on busy roads, or encouraging people to use public transport by introducing real-time information at bus stops? These objectives, by no means mutually exclusive, help planners define expectations and identify the best way forward.

What are the quick wins?

Making an entire city smart is a major, long-term challenge. Yet there are many scenarios where smart technology can be deployed on a more limited scale to deliver valuable quick wins. From street lights to networked traffic signals, smart parking and waste collection points that report when they are full, M2M-enabled devices and systems can make a huge difference to how the city operates.

Keep traffic moving

Take traffic congestion, for example. According to a study by Roland Berger, congestion in the world's biggest conurbations costs more than $266 billion every year. A smart city can reduce these costs. Digital billboards, for instance, can provide real-time updates on which city areas are particularly busy, giving drivers the opportunity to pick an alternate route. Likewise, the timing of traffic signals can be adjusted to optimise the flow of vehicles at busy periods and keep people moving.

Not that it's always a question of keeping moving. There is an acute shortfall of parking lots across India4, particularly in major cities and central business districts, resulting in rampant indiscriminate parking that impedes traffic flow. Smart city technology can be an excellent solution, with M2M-enabled parking spaces transmitting data to a cloud-based system which keeps a record of which spaces are currently available. Drivers can use a special smartphone app such as the one by Vodafone to find a spot close to their destination, and can even pay for parking using their smartphone. With this new system, people spend less time circling the block, looking in vain for a few metres of kerb space, and don't have to rifle through their pockets looking for spare change for the meter.

With traffic already a major cause of poor air quality in cities, more e-mobility is widely regarded as an imperative both to reduce air pollution and cut carbon emissions. The Chinese government wants to get five million e-cars onto the roads5, and a key prerequisite to achieve this ambitious target will be to make it as easy and as worry-free as possible for people to recharge their vehicles. However, existing e-car owners in China are reportedly having difficulty locating readily available charging facilities, which are extremely limited to begin with. Fortunately, a latest smart e-mobility solution developed by Vodafone and its partners is the answer. The system lets drivers utilize a smartphone app to locate the closest charge station, and can unlock the station via text messaging. What's more, they can even pay for their battery recharge through their mobile phone bill.

Smartening the municipal services

Municipal services are another area where smart city technology can deliver quick wins, particularly in waste collection and street lighting. To combat overflowing refuse bins in Seoul, a smart version boasting a solar-powered compacter and M2M connectivity has been created by Korean Ecube Labs, holding four times more waste and enabling the bin to be monitored remotely. But more importantly, notification can be automatically sent out when it needs to be emptied. Since rolling out the smart refuse bins, the Seoul municipal council has effectively reduced its waste disposal workload by around 20%, thanks to the fewer refuse collection trips. This also means lesser fuel consumption, which is not only more cost-effective, but beneficial for the environment.

A smart city also knows how to control its street lighting. In fact, it is estimated that up to 80% of electricity consumed by street lighting can be saved using a combination of efficient lighting (such as LED) and better controls. Japan has been a pioneer in smart and adaptive street lighting systems, with many of its cities piloting such solutions as early as the year 20116. In Hiroshima7, switching high-pressure sodium (HPS) lamps to dimmable LEDs has effectively reduced per-lamp electricity usage by over 50%, yielding nearly 120kg savings in CO2 emission per year, and is expected to save around US$240 per year per lamp. Furthermore, by analysing weather and traffic patterns via a connected central management system, an additional 20% to 30% savings can be achieved too. This is besides the advantage of real-time monitoring via M2M connectivity, allowing faulty street lamps to be quickly and easily identified, thereby increasing public safety and minimizing maintenance expenditure.

What are the technical requirements for the proposed smart city project?

The smart city is in most cases based on M2M communications, with devices and machines connected through intelligent networks, enabling them to exchange data with each other and with municipal IT infrastructure or a central application portal. It is relatively easy to start small, and install a solution that integrates well into existing structures. That said, building an M2M solution in an urban area can be complex. It usually involves multiple devices, networks and applications, often from multiple suppliers. Councils are therefore well advised not to go it alone, and should get expert advice on board to make the smart city project a success.

Getting the smart city right: good advice and a competent provider

An end-to-end solution from a single provider can be the best approach for municipal personnel who simply do not have the time or expertise to ensure smart city services are designed and operated in the best way to serve their aims - be it to provide better public services, reduce costs or carbon emissions, or make the city a better place to live. A solution that includes M2M terminals, fully managed connectivity, M2M platform management as well as full support to make M2M simple may be the best way forward to the smart city.

1 http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2015/01/20-indias-smart-cities-liu-puentes
2 http://techcrunch.com/2014/11/06/sparklabs-songdo/
3 https://www.navigantresearch.com/research/smart-cities-asia-pacific
4 http://www.moneycontrol.com/master_your_money/stocks_news_consumption.php?autono=1106851
5 http://cleantechnica.com/2014/12/24/china-puts-billions-electric-cars-ev-charging-stations/
6 http://www.itochu.co.jp/en/news/2011/110926.html
7 http://blog.echelon.com/echelon_blog/2013/04/echelon-itochu-and-mitsui-pilot-street-lighting-control-systems-in-japan.html

Reproduced with permission of Executive Networks Media