Has Covid-19 strengthened the case for smart cities?

Greater awareness of sustainability coupled with the need to adopt digital solutions during the pandemic has ensured that cities continue to become smarter by the day.

London smart city
A street in London. There has been some debate over whether the pandemic has helped or hindered the progress of smart cities. Image: Piqsels

There is no denying that the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the challenges faced by many cities across the globe. From digital connectivity to safety and security, education and work, we have already seen some sections of society progress in leaps and bounds, whilst the challenges for others have been laid bare. As we emerged from a turbulent 18 months, the case for smart cities appears to be stronger than ever.

A smart city is a place where traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital and telecommunication technologies for the benefit of its inhabitants and businesses. Insights gained from that data are used to manage assets, resources and services efficiently; in return, that data is used to improve operations across the city.

It means smarter urban transport networks, upgraded water supply and waste disposal facilities and more efficient ways to light and heat buildings. It also means a more interactive and responsive city administration and safer public spaces. Smart cities are a “system of systems”. These can include smart lighting systems, building automation systems, emergency management systems, security and access control systems, intelligent grids, renewable power, water treatment and supply, transportation, and more.

So, what developments are we likely to see as we progress towards smarter cities? Here are a few of the most prominent:

Greater adoption of renewable energy

Wind and solar energy sources grew at their fastest rate in two decades in 2020 and reports by the International Energy Agency suggest that they will continue to grow at a much faster pace than in pre-pandemic times. As heating and cooling accounts for almost 50 per cent of total final energy demand in Europe, heat pumps are a technology with significant potential to contribute to Europe’s renewable energy and climate targets.

To reach the United Kingdom’s net-zero emissions target in 2050, the country needs to reduce heating emissions by 95 per cent. For any building owner or operator, a similar target applies. Decarbonising heat offers substantial carbon savings that will contribute towards net zero and can be measured and reported under disclosure frameworks by the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures or the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board.

This level of reduction requires a substantial shift in heating technologies towards renewable energy. Synergies between heat pump technology on the demand side and decarbonisation on the supply side can be exploited to make a significant contribution to reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Natural gas and inefficient electric heating in buildings can be phased out and replaced by a combination of technologies.

Cities harness the power of data

The age of the Internet of Things (IoT) has brought with it an increasingly broad range of sensors and IoT platforms. Many of these have made their way into the smart cities sector, heat pumps are increasingly connected as are heating and cooling systems and so the data they produce can be used for multiple purposes, including optimising the design of plants and systems, optimising building performance, power grid efficiency and energy storage optimisation.

Growing demand for hybrid clouds

Smart city-integrated platforms may be deployed in a private, public, or hybrid cloud, via a remote server, or on-premise. Private clouds are maintained by the platform provider. Amazon Web Services (AWS) is rapidly emerging as the most popular public cloud in this space.

Hybrid public/private clouds are also a popular option, with the public cloud in place to serve peaks in data demand. As the pandemic led to a mass exodus from the office in favour of remote working, a report by NTT revealed that nearly 94 per cent of global businesses believed that hybrid clouds were critical to meeting their immediate business needs. 

Recently, it was announced that Nvidia’s AI-on-5G Innovation Lab, with Google Cloud, will ‘jumpstart the development of artificial intelligence (AI) workloads for 5G networks. Development is due to start later this year and will combine Google’s Anthos hybrid-cloud platform with Nvidia-certified hardware and software. The ultimate aim is to create a consistent platform for the development of the 5G services and applications necessary to facilitate smart cities. 

Data platforms for smarter decision making

Ultimately, cities can’t be “smart” unless the right people are empowered to make good decisions. Large networks of legacy systems, combined with new IoT-based sensors and systems, can make it challenging for smart cities to manage all these different data sources and turn the data into useful, actionable information. This requires shareable data, perhaps freely or for a price or some model in between. It needs multiple parties to provide and use the data. In short, it needs a platform.

A data platform is an integrated technology solution that allows data located in databases to be governed, accessed, analysed and delivered to users, data applications, or other technologies for strategic purposes. Building the platform in the cloud will enable Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to be leveraged.

The city data platform underpins the Smart City providing shared data insights and linking systems together. It is unlikely to be one platform, rather an eco-system of platforms that work together. Recently, 3D data specialist Euclideon signed a strategic partnership with Microsoft to build the world’s largest geospatial data platform. Potential applications of such platforms range from business process optimisation and smart cities to the creation of digital twins.

Achieving consensus about a data structure or dictionary in any sector is nearly impossible because of all the competing ideas and technologies. Enabling one to emerge through evolution and to continue to evolve is clearly a better way.

Looking to the future

There has been some debate over whether the pandemic has helped or hindered the progress of smart cities. It is certainly the case that large transformation projects have taken a back seat as the world focused on fighting the biggest health crisis to hit the human race in over 100 years.

What is clear, however, is that the pandemic has led to a greater focus on some of the key building blocks that will be essential to the development of future smart cities. Whilst there is still some way to go, a greater awareness of sustainability coupled with the need to adopt digital solutions during the pandemic has ensured that we continue to become ‘smarter’ by the day.

Tim Rook is chief markets officer at Clade Engineering, the United Kingdom’s leading designer, manufacturer and installer of large scale carbon dioxide heat pumps.

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