Smart Cities: Creating a blueprint for the cities of tomorrow

The second part of our series on Smart Cities focuses on the Smart City movement in Asia and how Google is making its own mark on the cities of the future. Click here to read Part 1 of this series. 

To find cities originally conceived, designed and developed as Smart Cities, you must set your sights overseas. At a cost of $35 billion, Songdo, South Korea is rising out of underdeveloped marshland. The shiny new city will consist of a patchwork of design elements copied from other cities from around the world, including a central park like New York City, canals like Venice and smaller “pocket parks” like Savannah, Georgia. But the most impressive and smartest attributes of the city will not be seen from street level.

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Songdo is a metropolis designed so that all major information systems for residential, medical, business and governmental services are linked together. It has taken pervasive computing to a whole new level. Citizens use one smart-care house key to access their homes, pay parking meters, ride the subway, see a movie, borrow public bicycles and access other public services. Other proposed technologies include pressure-sensitive floors in elderly homes that can detect falls and immediately call for city emergency services, smart phones that control home appliances to lower energy costs, and microchip bracelets that allow for real-time tracking of Songdo children so they never get “lost.”

In Songdo, even the most mundane city functions, like trash collection, are automated and centralized, but you’ll never find garbage cans or trucks on the streets because trash is literally sucked from apartments and offices into a series of pipes within the city’s buildings. Trash is eventually funneled through underground tunnels until it ends up in an efficient waste collection plant, run by only seven employees, that automatically sorts and recycles it.

China’s top-down approach to “smartness”

There is also significant Smart City development in China that is driven by the national government. In the city of Zhenjiang, Jiangsu, you practically can’t survive without an assortment of smartphone apps at your disposal. Citizens use apps to find parking spaces, track down public bikes and even make appointments at the city hospital. In fact, Zhenjiang’s entire bus line is interconnected with the government’s transportation system. Don Johnson, an urban planner based in Shanghai and Smart City expert, wrote in the China Business Review that Zhenjiang city buses continuously report their position and operating characteristics to a “smart dispatch” control center, helping operators improve scheduling efficiency and reduce fuel use and emissions. According to Johnson, Zhenjiang has reported that half a million riders a day are checking bus arrival times using smartphone apps, saving the city 6,700 tons of carbon dioxide and $2.7 million in fuel costs annually.

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But China’s ambitions to lead the Smart City revolution do not end with just one city. Johnson reports that China’s “central government has made development of Smart City technology and projects a key national policy” and that “it’s now difficult to find a Chinese city of any size that does not have aspirations to be ‘smart.’”

Why is China so committed to Smart Cities? Because it believes that it has no choice. For two decades, twenty million peasants per year move from rural areas of China to factories and construction sites in the country’s cities, fueling China’s tremendous growth. And the Chinese government is relying on further urbanization to support that ongoing economic development. While this growth is encouraging from an economic point of view, it also presents another whole set of challenges—affordability of housing, traffic congestion and pollution are already having a major impact on the quality of life in Chinese cities. Johnson says, “With millions of rural migrants arriving every year and environmental and economic pressures mounting, Chinese cities can surely use all the smart they can get.”

Despite China’s enormous economic, political and social challenges today, the country seems to have reached the point of no return on its ambitions to develop smart cities of tomorrow. The country’s Ministry of Housing and Urban and Rural Development (MOHURD) has selected 193 local governments as Smart City pilot sites, making them eligible for funding from a $16 billion investment fund sponsored by China’s central bank. Johnson says while there are no fully-integrated, comprehensive Smart Cities in China just yet, because of China’s commitment to improving its cities, innovation mindset and willingness to take chances with new technologies, it’s only a matter of time before Chinese cities claim a disproportionate piece of the Smart City pie.

And then, of course, there’s Google

While efforts to push Smart Cities are strong and structured in Asia, there are also significant efforts to develop Smart Cities on American shores, beyond the spattering of smartphone apps and sensor technologies that exist in some forward-thinking cities such as Scottsdale and Boston.

With its stated goal of “making life better for billions of people,” Google has launched a division called “Sidewalk Labs” focused on developing urban technologies that will address difficult urban challenges like making transportation run more smoothly, cutting the use of energy and natural resources, and lowering the cost of living.

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Google understands that in the end, Smart Cities will require much more than just the latest and greatest technology, but will also need innovative and forward-thinking ideas for urban planning and policy. And Google’s approach to drumming up those big ideas has been quite different from other technology companies and cities.

Carlo Ratti, an expert on cities at MIT, told the Financial Times, “Sidewalk Labs has assembled small teams of experts to brainstorm ideas and launch experimental projects that have the potential to catch on virally with large numbers of city dwellers.” The Times reports that “this kind of ‘bottom-up’ approach has the potential to bring rapid change at low cost, in contrast to the more centralized, ‘top-down’ tech projects” that many cities and countries are using to streamline services and improve quality of life.

The basic premise behind Smart Cities is the sharing of data across silos, and what better organization is more suited for that goal than Google, the undisputed leader in collecting and analyzing enormous amounts of data? Not to mention that other Google assets and inventions like driverless cars, Nest thermostats and smoke alarms, its newly-acquired Waze app for monitoring traffic and other innovative technologies yet to be discovered and launched can more easily be applied to its Smart City strategy.

Google’s upfront investment in Sidewalk Labs was not made public and it’s still not clear what specifically the division will be working on, but the hope is that it will contribute much more to the Smart City movement than just another smartphone app.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of our series on Smart Cities that will focus on the future of Smart Cities and the challenges they must face in this continuously evolving period of data sharing and interconnectivity.

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications Dan Antonellis, who can be reached at dantonellis@suffolk.com. Connect with him on LinkedIn here and follow him on Twitter at @DanAntonellis.

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