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 cities, while all eyes are also on South Korea's Songdo. The latter is dubbed the world's first smart city, 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 Research.
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.
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