Photo credit: Kenny Louie

The world’s rural population is expected to peak by 2020, with up to 80 per cent of inhabitants around the world, or a projected 7.2 billion people, living in cities by mid-century, according to the U.N.

That’s also the year a seemingly unrelated phenomenon will come of age. Smart Cities, the reciprocal web of personal devices, public wireless networks and urban policy, will be worth an estimated $400 billion a year by 2020.

With the concentration of populations in a handful of urban centres, cities like Vancouver are using big data and “the Internet of Things” to offset the costs—both fiscal and environmental—of big city life.

In 2013, Vancouver introduced a $30 million digital strategy that would accelerate its status as one of the world’s burgeoning smart cities and boost its mission to be the greenest city as well—also by 2020.

Since then, it has introduced a new suite of mobile interfaces between the city and its residents, including in 2015 VanConnect, giving user access to such data as an item’s recyclability, garbage pickup schedules, and real-time road conditions to aid commuters and reduce congestion.

“With increased access to data, more and more access to information, cities have to adapt, and become savvier,” Jessie Adcock, Vancouver’s Chief Technology Officer, said when the app was released. “There’s no doubt that cities are now mobilizing to respond to that.”

And as the burgeoning Internet of Things, from smart phones and wearable devices to digital electricity meters, gives cities unprecedented access to citizens’ data, urban centres are looking for greater ways to manage information to create systems that are scalable, efficient and, above all, sustainable.

Cities have already partnered with service providers to begin harnessing the potential of such big data pools. Songdo, South Korea, just southwest of Seoul, was built from the ground up with the technological potential of smart cities in mind.

With the help of Cisco Systems, Songdo will provide 65,000 residents and a projected 300,000 daily commuters with services like geolocation tags on cars to help the city predict congestion areas; public sensors to measure human presence in city hubs and regulate street lighting accordingly; new garbage containers equipped with smart chips to keep track of what forms of waste are disposed and with what frequency, allowing the city to better manage its waste assets.

Of course, the availability of vast stores of data of this kind has significant privacy implications. Governments, including in Vancouver, have responded by opening the data to the public, allowing individuals and companies to tap into the city’s databanks to come up with their own solutions to congested city life.

“I think society has really moved along that digital adoption curve quite quickly. Cities are slower to change because there’s tradition entrenched in them,” Jessie Adcock says.

“Cities right now are working very hard to catch up to the public that they serve.”

Arman Kazemi, 20 April, 2017


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This article was written for Clean Capital News a free bi-weekly publication dedicated to producing topical articles on sustainability and clean technology that advance our understanding of issues like climate change and help generate solutions for a more sustainable future.

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