Imagine stepping out of a restaurant onto the sidewalk after having dinner with friends. Since traffic on the road is heavy, the dynamic curbs automatically move back several feet to open up another lane. You approach a bus stop and get onto an electric, driverless bus. On the way home, streetlights illuminate the road as the bus approaches them, automatically switching off as it passes. During the ride, stationary cameras as well as drones monitor the road to detect any threats to safety. After the bus finishes its shift, it plugs into a charging station where its battery is used to store electricity generated from solar and wind. This is the vision of smart cities that some firms and municipalities anticipate in the coming decades.

Smart cities have come in for heavy criticism lately. In particular, Google’s Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto has been portrayed in mainstream media as a private firm’s attempt to govern city neighborhoods without the consent of their citizens. Moreover, complaints about data protection have grown as the project moves forward. It’s not hard to imagine Orwellian scenarios of sensor-filled cities whose inhabitants’ every move is scrutinized.

But the logic of smart cities is clear. The world’s urban population is rapidly increasing, so it’s a good idea to make urban functions more efficient. So let’s start with what cities do, and then get into how smart technology can improve those functions.

What do cities do?

I think of what cities do in two categories: 

  1. Primary city functions. These are the reasons why people migrate to cities in the first place. They move to cities because cities: 
    • Provide jobs
    • Provide community
    • Cultivate collaboration and thereby innovation
    • Provide cultural amenities
    • Reduce travel time
  2. Supporting functions. These are the services that cities provide in the interest of supporting their primary functions. In order to operate smoothly, cities must also supply:
    • Electricity, heat, and water
    • Internet availability
    • Public transit
    • Schools and universities
    • Public spaces (parks, squares, etc.)
    • Policing
    • Emergency response
    • Hospitals
    • Waste management

As we’ll see, smart cities have a lot of potential to improve the efficiency of cities’ supporting functions. However, there are significant opportunities for smart cities to improve on the primary functions as well. 

So without further ado, here’s my list of 7 ways smart cities can improve urban life.

1. Smart grids to optimize energy usage and distribution

As someone who works in the energy industry, the potential of smart grids is obvious to me. With an increasing share of renewable, intermittent and distributed generation, as well as the electrification of numerous sectors, it is increasingly challenging for grid operators to distribute electricity where it is needed in a timely fashion. Smart grids provide a solution.

The foundational element of smart grids is the smart meter. With the ability to measure consumption/generation data more precisely and transmit it more frequently to grid operators, smart meters allow power companies to monitor usage and distributed generation patterns in real time and allocate power where it is most needed. Importantly, the costs of on-site meter reading disappear when smart meters are implemented.

Moreover, more precise generation and usage data allow grid operators to adjust consumption prices to match electricity availability. With smart home appliances that access those prices in real time, consumers could, for example, load their dishwasher and wait for the machine to automatically run once prices are low. Such appliances improve grid stability while consuming the same amount of power.

Aside from smart meters, smart grids can include other elements such as smart transformers and self-healing technologies. Grid operators use these elements to gather real-time data from their infrastructure to identify critical power lines and ensure a stable bi-directional flow of electricity.

Clearly, a stable supply of electricity is crucial to urban areas, where electricity consumption is only expected to increase in the coming decades. Compounding the issue is an evolving generation mix for which power grids weren’t designed. Smart grids should help grid operators to provide and store reliable, clean electricity in a rapidly changing environment.

2. Smart mobility to optimize your commute

Modern cities, especially those in America, have been designed for the automobile. To handle peak traffic times, new lanes are often added to accommodate even more cars, leaving less and less space for other modes of travel. Oftentimes, road expansion doesn’t progress swiftly enough to reduce congestion, meaning people spend a lot of time sitting in traffic. Moreover, car crashes are a major cause of death in developed countries. Clearly, we can do better.

Streets could be designed to accommodate several modes of traffic by including bike lanes and bus lanes, as well as separating streets/lanes by speed

New technologies like LED-embedded pavement could be coupled with traffic sensors to make streets more flexible and allow them to change their speed limits and lane types. Similarly, dynamic curbs could make certain streets wider or narrower based on traffic. These technologies could transmit signals to self-driving cars to avoid confusion.

Sensors and/or data-gathering apps could optimize (self-driving) public transit by adjusting transit availability based on real-time ridership demand.

Once you start imagining what streets could be if they harnessed the power of smart technology, it becomes clear that there is huge potential for optimizing mobility within cities.

3. Smart lighting to cut power usage

Streetlights that are constantly turned on throughout the night are a huge electricity suck. If they aren’t LED lamps, they’re even worse. Moreover, if one of them burns out, someone has to report it before the lamp is replaced.

Enter smart lighting. Streetlights that are equipped with sensors would only turn on when pedestrians/vehicles are in the vicinity. And as soon as they burn out, the city would be automatically notified and prompted to replace them as soon as possible.

This video is a good illustration of the concept:

I don’t have much more to add here. Smart lighting is a no-brainer.

4. Smart public places to optimize free time

All cities have certain public places which are highly trafficked because people like to hang out there. Theoretically, cities could install sensors in these places in order to provide citizens with information about how crowded these places are.

Imagine a city installed sensors on all its public benches. Instead of wasting time looking for a bench along your favorite riverside promenade, you could check your city’s app and see how many benches are currently occupied. Want to see how crowded your favorite park is? Just check the city’s live camera feed.

Admittedly, this idea might be a reach. The cost seems likely to be prohibitive. One could imagine a privately-run app that accesses its users’ GPS data to give you a good idea of how crowded public places are. However, installing sensors on public property would provide a level of precision that even the GPS-based app couldn’t. A man can dream…

5. Smart air quality monitoring for happy lungs

According to the WHO, 4.2 million people die each year from outdoor air pollution, while 91 percent of the world’s population lives in areas where local air pollution exceeds WHO guidelines.

By installing sensors that monitor local air quality, cities could more precisely assess how car travel is affecting certain areas. This information could be used to implement road use taxes. Preferably, the sensors would be tied into the smart mobility concept and determine transit availability.

As the world’s population increasingly moves to urban areas, people will increasingly put themselves at risk for health risks from air pollution. Smart technology could help mitigate this problem.

6. Smart waste management to clear the clutter

“With large swaths of humans come heaping piles of trash.” -Socrates (probably)

Obviously, large concentrations of humanity bring large concentrations of waste. Again, this is a supporting function of cities that smart technology could improve on.

There is a spectrum of possibilities for smart waste management, from the feasible to the more unrealistic (at least in the short term). Here are a few examples:

  • Smart public trash cans that notify public waste management when they’re full
  • New buildings designed to include loading docks with built-in trash compactors that empty directly onto garbage trucks
  • A fully integrated system of underground tubes that transports garbage directly to landfills, obviating the need for garbage trucks completely

This is another area where significant public investment would be necessary (aside from the public trash cans). However, Barcelona has implemented an automated waste management system in certain parts of the city, proving that the underground concept is possible:

7. Smart technology to improve policing

To wrap up the list, I’m going full George Orwell. Police could employ cameras, sensors, and autonomous technology to both catch criminals and prevent crime in the first place

The most obvious example of smart policing is the growing use of body cams. While they have generated considerable controversy, body cams provide more accurate accounts of critical events and act as a check on abuses of power by police officers. In my opinion, the more body cams in operation, the more everyone can be held accountable. 

Now let’s get to the juicier surveillance tech: drones.

One application of drone technology would be to use them as a cheap alternative to helicopters. When suspects are fleeing, pursuing them with camera-equipped drones and communicating their location to officers on the ground provides an environmentally friendly and cost-effective method of policing. This report indicates that drone usage in US police forces increased by 82% between 2017 and 2018.

In a further exciting development, the city of Louisville, Kentucky has deployed SpotShotter technology, which can detect gunshots via microphones and accurately transmit their location. The city is now exploring drone deployment in areas where gunshots have been detected.

This is the future of smart policing: criminal activity will be detected and tracked without putting human officers in danger. 

The big-brother end of the spectrum includes not only facial recognition technology, but gait recognition. That’s right, police in China have begun testing technology that identifies citizens based on how they walk. So, even if you cover your face, you can still be detected. This is where I draw the line on civil liberties. While smart policing makes sense, gathering every bit of information on citizens possible is repressive government overreach. That being said, it’s not exactly surprising that this is going on in China.

The outlook for urbanization

As the world urbanizes, technology needs to adapt in order to keep city living attractive. While this post has covered a range of possibilities for smart cities, from the obviously practical, to the probably-too-expensive, to the downright scary, the probability that cities will fundamentally change in the coming decades seems high.

I think the following are the most workable first steps toward smart cities:

  • Smart grids
  • Public lighting
  • Air quality monitoring

The types of smart technology in transportation, waste management, and public places discussed in this piece are either too expensive or probably don’t offer enough benefit to be introduced in the near future.

In any case, modern cities are far from perfect. As they increasingly become the focal point of human life, we will need to transform them into smart cities.