In recent years, as the world’s attention has turned to sustainability, the concept of a smart city has positioned itself as a very plausible, fitting solution. As Forbes journalist Francois Laborie wrote in 2021: “technology enables the development of new products and services that use less energy, chemicals and water, and reduce waste from operations.”
Smart cities can successfully negate at least some of the issues associated with rapid urbanisation.
According to UNEP, by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities, compared to 54 per cent now. The urban population growing by almost 2.4 billion translates into a need for considerable expansion of urban environments or the creation of new ones.
How to Make A City Great, a McKinsey report from 2013, notes how cities are likely to experience “challenges related to growth, performance, competitiveness, and residents’ livelihood” as a result of the major urban area explosion.
For the environment, urban sprawl creates a myriad issues that include poor waste management, a scarcity of resource, increase air pollution, and heightened congestion.
As defined by TWI Global, a smart city is one which “uses information and communication technology to improve operational efficiency, share information with the public and provide a better quality of government and citizen welfare.” However, this is just one of hundreds of definitions which exist online.
What defines a smart city?
There are a number of ways in which a smart city is measured:
- By the infrastructure based around technology
- By the environmental initiatives
- By the effectiveness of public transport
- By the progressiveness of planning
- Whether people are able to live in the city and use its resources
According to population matters.org, “as an island nation with limited land area and natural resources, the United Kingdom is under tremendous population pressure. The UK has one of the highest population densities of all the European nations, with an average 281 people per km2, therefore harnessing the powers of smart cities would be particularly beneficial to the UK.
Smart city projects can create tangible benefits when it comes to “productivity, job creation, improvement of safety, improved access to public services and, of course, the environment.”
Glasgow’s Future City project, which commenced in 2013, reported an impressive return of £144 million on an initial investment of £24 million some four years later, highlighting the economic benefits associated with smart cities. Glasgow is joined by a host of other cities across the UK that are investing in smart projects including Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Hull, Manchester, London, and Peterborough.
But, what have smart cities got to do with the UK’s sustainability goals?
Well, the UK Government is currently working towards the Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener and has already committed more than £12 billion of domestic green investment since March 2020 and has doubled the International Climate Finance Commitment to £11.6 billion to 2025.
The UK was the first major global economy to legislate to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Furthermore, the strategy for net zero entails a ten-point plan which points to the following:
- Working with the grain of consumer choice
- Ensuring the biggest polluters pay the most
- Ensuring the most vulnerable remain protected
- Working with business to continually deliver deep cost reductions in low carbon tech
So, when you consider aligning with the consumer, protecting the most vulnerable, and working to find more cost-effective solutions for the future, the UK government’s green plan is very much inextricably linked with that of the concept of a smart city.
What a smart city can offer
The capabilities of smart cities are immense. Obviously, they can lend themselves to more efficient waste management, by using tools such as smart bins which provide real-time updates to collection services, helping prevent overflowing and unnecessary pickups, or, like the BigBelly Solution in the Co. Dublin town of Dun Laoghaire, helping to managed waste associated with unpredictable weather. Of course, these are very modest examples, but they are ways in which smart city technology can improve the urban environment.
Smart cities go way beyond. In Toronto, embedded sensors at Google’s Quayside Site help city managers monitor traffic flows, noise levels, air quality, energy usage, and travel patterns right across the city. Ultimately, these sensors give the city managers a full view of what is happening, in real time, throughout their city, allowing them to take appropriate actions to limit the impact on the environment.
In Norway, meanwhile, the emphasis has been placed on smart lighting. Oslo, the capital, and renowned global centre for sustainability and innovation, fitted 10,000 streetlights with sensors that adjust brightness according to necessity – the goal within the city is to reduce electricity consumption by 70%.
The considerable population growth currently being experienced by the UK coupled with the government’s commitment to net zero means that smart cities could well be a big part of the solution. They bring reduced CO2, improved energy and water management, optimised transportation, and better security – surely they have to be considered the most appropriate solution? Add on to these the fact that investing in and developing smart cities will create so much in the way of jobs and business growth opportunities through public sector contracts and smart cities become even more attractive.
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