How can IoT make Asia's cities smarter and renewables pervasive?

The Internet of Things has the potential to make Asia’s bustling cities safer, cleaner, and greener. But to build truly smart cities, more data must be freed and shared, says Michael Ding of Envision.

smart city SG
Digital Singapore. The city-state is known as one of the world's smartest cities with a host of industries powered by digitisation. Image: Erwin Soo , CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

What if trains could teach their drivers how to drive better, saving us time and energy? What if air-conditioning units could learn about the weather, and power down before it rained, keeping us from freezing? What if irrigation systems knew when the soil was dry, and sprinkled only when needed?

All these things are possible, and are happening now in cities from Moscow to Singapore thanks to the transformative powers of the Internet of Things (IoT).

IoT—which interconnects everyday objects likes street lamps and refrigerators to the internet, enabling them to ‘talk’ to us—has the potential to make our cities smarter, cleaner, safer, greener and more liveable. Urban planners across Asia are working out how to use IoT to build and manage smart cities.

Tropical city-state Singapore has set its sights on being the world’s first truly smart nation. One of the best examples of Singaporean smart city innovation is its bus network, which ‘knows’ how fast or slow a bus is traveling, and how many people are on board at any given time, and traffic officials can use the data to alleviate congestion during rush hour.

However, as much progress as Asian cities are making to get smarter, there’s more that can be done to unlock the potential of IoT, says Michael Ding, executive director of Envision, owner of EnOS, an IoT platform for managing energy.

How internet of Things is saving energy in Asia’s smart cities

In JAPAN, home to one the world’s safest, most efficient and busiest train networks, uses IoT sensors attached to the railcars, rails and power lines to gather huge volumes of data, which are analysed to work out precisely when equipment needs to be fixed. IoT saves the city millions every year in maintenance costs.

In CHINA, properly giant Wanda uses 5.6 million sensors in its shopping malls to capture data ranging from water supply and lighting to fire alarms and video surveillance. Analysed in the cloud by the world’s biggest building management system, Wanda’s chief technology officer Feng Zhongqian says the system has helped her company slash energy costs. “Energy consumption must be centralised,” she says.

In KOREA, a smart city off the outskirts of Seoul, called Songdo, has been built from scratch on a 600-hectare patch of reclaimed land. The energy consumption of every building is controlled via IoT and a central nerve centre, which manages everything from the light coming through the windows to the water-cooled air-conditioning systems. This has helped to reduce energy consumption in buildings by 30 per cent.

IoT sensors alone are not sufficient to milk the benefits, and neither are the systems that analyse the data. What’s needed is for more data to be freed and shared, says Ding, who shares that IoT can reduce the energy consumption of buildings by up to 10 per cent.

How to create a genuinely smart city?

“Singapore is a role model for smart cities. But a lot of the current IoT infrastructure is very quiet—different systems are not talking to each other. For instance, transport and energy are not communicating,” remarks Ding.

If data from the transport and energy sectors was pooled, both systems could be better managed, says Ding.

For instance, energy consumption anomalies within the transport network could be used to identify performance issues, and that data used to make trains and buses run more efficiently, he says.

Where energy and transport converge naturally is in electric vehicles (EVs), which Singapore has been showing signs of embracing after a slow start. By pooling data from EVs, charging points and the grid, users can work out how to save electricity and recharge less often.

Another example is using weather forecasts to manage public lighting better. “If lampposts knew that a storm was coming, they could be smarter about providing light when citizens need it,” Ding says.

But connecting two sets of data does not go far enough, says Ding. To create a truly smart city, data from all sorts of systems and functions should be brought together, creating massive energy savings in the process.

“Every city needs an operating system, and the next wave [of the Internet of Things] is to capitalise on energy potential for entire cities,” says Ding.

Digital is the only solution to integrate all energy sources and help make the system cost of renewables affordable.

Michael Ding, executive director, Envision

This may seem like an ambitious claim. However, in October Envision was appointed to develop a platform to house all of the Singapore government’s IoT services. The platform will allow government agencies to pool their data, and monitor, test and improve their systems by dipping into the “data lake”.

A strength of the platform is that it is open for all to use, says Ding. And the more that the data pool is used, the more value it will produce, he says, touching on a common criticism of smart city projects—it is sometimes hard to see their value.

The digital path to a cleaner future

One important way IoT can add value is in speeding up the shift from fossil fuels to clean energy, a transition which has been slower in Southeast Asia than anywhere in the world.

“We believe that digital is the only solution to integate all energy sources and help make the system cost of renewables affordable,” says Ding.

Ding says there are two main costs associated with renewables—one, energy generation, and two, the system cost. Both translate to high costs for delivering energy to the consumer—but smart digital technology can slash the system cost, he says.

He points out that one argument that is always made against renewables is intermittency—the power supply is unreliable, pausing when the sun stops shining or the wind blowing—and traditional power is needed as backup. Another obstacle is how to integrate renewables with the grid. But once IoT is in place, and flexibility is created in the system, “we won’t need traditional power anymore,” says Ding.

Another way digitisation will pave the road to cleaner cities is by enabling people to trade renewable energy. A project in Bangkok’s upmarket Sukhumvit neighbourhood shows what could eventually become the norm across the region. Community members can sell excess energy to their neighbours through a peer-to-peer trading system that uses blockchain.

“The future is the shared economy,” says Ding. “We share cars, houses, and bicycles. Everything can be shared. Soon we will use energy like we use Uber and AirBnB.”

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