Smart Cities, Sensors and The IoT

17th December 2019

When you think of a smart city, what images does your mind conjure up? Perhaps it’s the futuristic, highly-stylised ‘Metropolis’-like vista with great transport but questionable architecture… Or maybe Blade-Runner’s dirty streets, dirty rain and lots of neon? Or perhaps you’re more of a 2001-er, where your smart city of the future is in the sky, circling the earth to the music of Holst, with its inhabitants dressing in a more stylish manner than you can afford. Whatever your vision, chances are it’s a long way from reality – but no less seismic in its impact. We recently explored how the IoMT (Internet of Medical Things) is transforming healthcare and discovered some of the incredible IoT innovations shaping the world around us. Today we’re exploring the future of smart cities, sensors and the IoT.

The United Nations has said that 68% of the world’s population – or 6.6 billion of us – are expected to live in cities come 2050. It makes sense, then, that the emergence of the smart city is set to become one of the biggest game-changers for our society in the 21st century, promising to make lives easier, governments more efficient, and enterprise more relevant – all enabled, powered and unified by digital. The good news is we’re only just getting started, yet we’re already enjoying the myriad benefits the smart city has to offer (more on that in a bit). The even better news? There’s lots more to come. Technologies driving the smart city (revolution) such as artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality and IoT continue to evolve at breakneck speed, and with that evolution, more and more impressive innovations mean that someday, city inhabitants everywhere will be living lives that look very, very different than they do today.

What exactly is a smart city?

We may imagine a stylish utopia, but the fact is the smart city is a far more benign, ordinary-looking entity, one where technology invisibly underpins the foundations of the city ecosystem and delivers the benefits of doing so. It goes without saying that what drives the smart city is, you guessed it, the Internet of Things … beating steadily at its epicentre and enabling millions of devices and sensors to connect, monitor and control the world around us. Using the mountains of big data gathered from these IoT powered smart sensors, networks and applications, today, smart systems are already busy controlling our city’s traffic, electricity and water flows, the lights on our streets, our waste collections and our safety, to name just a few. *STOP PRESS* – the potential for the smart city that’s driven by IoT is huge:

  • Greater efficiencies powered by data-driven decision-making
  • Safer communities and environments
  • Reduced environmental impacts
  • Improved transport networks
  • New economic development opportunities
  • More efficient public services

A “municipality that uses information and communication technologies (ICT) to increase operational efficiency, share information with the public and improve both the quality of government services and citizen welfare”, the smart city promises a lot. And with a predicted fifty billion IoT-connected devices expected worldwide by 2020 – 20 billion of these in our cities alone – we’re already well underway as cities the world over make their push off their starting blocks and set in motion a whole raft of smart city projects that are usurping ‘business as usual’ and reimagining what being a city resident means in the 21st century:

  • The Amsterdam Smart City initiative has seen the city partnering with local enterprise and organisations to run sustainable solutions on its Utrechtsestraat, a major shopping location in the city. The so-called ‘Climate Street’ includes energy-efficient lighting, waste reduction and recyclable tram stops – all helping to reduce energy use on the street by 10%.
  • In Toronto, Sidewalk Labs, a smart-city enterprise created by Alphabet (Google’s parent company – even Google has parents!) is planning to turn the Lake Ontario shoreline into “the most innovative district in the entire world” by introducing heated pavements, wider sidewalks, curbless street design and wayfinding beacons and heated pavements – all helping, it’s claimed, to reduce commute times, introduce affordable housing and create new jobs.
  • The 6th smartest city in the world, Singapore’s digital dalliances are making big waves, carving a digital economy, government and society and making a real difference to its citizens live. From its integrated sensor platform that enhances city-level operations, municipal services, planning, and security, to traffic lights, road signs, and security cameras that talk to each other, to on-demand shuttle services, the reality is as mind-blowing as the vision.

Powering it all, the smart sensor. But what is an IoT sensor, what exactly are they doing, and what are the tangible benefits they’re delivering? Here’s our take on sensors and the smart city …

Sensors – what they are and what they do?

By and large, sensors are devices that detect and respond to changes in the environment – cars, buildings, sub-sea, the atmosphere, our bodies; take your pick. Input, or data, can be gleaned from a whole variety of sources; so think temperature, motion, sound, pressure etc – and shared with other sensors and systems.

Though the IoT is still a toddler, sensors have been around for a long time in one form or another, the first thermostat coming to market in 1883. Nearly 140 years later, they’re everywhere; in our homes and offices, public and private transport, hospitals and schools and just about anywhere else you can think of, including our smartphones. They also happen to be a fundamental element of the Internet of Things (IoT), the IIoT and some of the biggest, most impactful innovations that our new digital dawn has delivered to date. Sensors can tell us all kinds of information, and today are crucial to the operations of many organisations and businesses, relaying information about their surroundings and providing insights and performing actions that benefit us in all manner of ways, not least when it comes to the smart city.

The goal of sensors is to collect information – data – and relay it to a cloud-based central management system. Once it gets there, it’s processed when it could then result in an action, such as sending an alert or adjusting an element in the sensor’s environment (changing the temperature, redirecting traffic, etc), automatically. There are loads of types of sensor but there are 3 that are making a big difference to our smart cities:

The Proximity Sensor

The beloved sensor of smart cities the world over, the proximity sensor is used to detect objects nearby. Meh, you might say – but proximity sensors across the smart city deliver some pretty impressive use cases and benefits. The sensors themselves work by emitting either electromagnetic fields or radiation beams (like infrared) to identify relevant objects around them, then using that information, we get to enjoy smart parking, smart lighting, people and vehicle counting, smart temperature control and lots of other smarts. What does this look like in real (city)life? One of our favourite examples is the proximity sensor for parking. Detecting availability of parking spaces in large buildings and venues such as shopping malls, airports, sporting venues and city centres is a big deal, helping to ease congestion, streamline traffic flow and save us a whole lot of time. Some of us will also be familiar with the proximity sensors in our vehicle that help us to park safely – you know, the one that tells you when you’re about to run the cat over for the third time this week…

The Motion Sensor

No points for guessing what the motion sensor does, but you might garner a few if you can name a use-case or two that doesn’t involve the very obvious ‘smart’ building. We’ve probably all had motion-sensor experience in the smart building when we walk into a rest-room and the lights go on -but there’s more to meets the eye than just dimming the lights; smart lighting saves cities millions across resources and infrastructure every year, savings which we should all aspire to. Schenectady in New York state N.Y. has installed environmentally-friendly LED bulbs across its 5,000 streetlights. When no one’s around, the lights dim, but when our old friend the motion sensor detects people or cars, the lights go on and they can get around safely. Even more innovative, Los Angeles has also got in on the act, installing motion and sound sensors in some of the city’s streetlights, with the sound sensors able to identify sounds that might be a threat to public safety, such as gunfire.

The Optical Sensor

An optical sensor views the world around it and uses the intelligence gleaned to drive specific actions. Used to ‘see’ its immediate environment, these sensors get about – from self-driving cars to digital cameras to security systems. But make no mistake, the implications of being able to automate tasks and processes that would traditionally require resources, time and money to do via the human route, are huge, with the potential to rewrite the rulebook on city operations. One of the more ‘innovative’ uses of the optical sensor we’ve come across lately is the one deployed in the smart bin. Yep – if you thought it was just vehicles that could self-drive, be scared. Be very scared. The smart bin is coming to a drive near you, programmed to know when it’s full (thankyou, volume sensor), and to take a stroll to the kerb to wait for emptying by, you guessed it, the self-driving waste collection vehicles. Just remember to remove the body first to avoid any awkward small-talk with other bins in your hood.


The SmartCan, coming to a drive near you.

The SmartCan, coming to a drive near you.

5 smart city innovations coming to a city near you

Optimus Ride, New York

With MIT origins, the self-driving vehicle enterprise Optimus Ride recently launched New York’s first autonomous vehicle program with a view to providing “autonomous transportation solutions for geofenced locations.” The clue is in the geofencing, enabling its fleet to navigate safely through robustly mapped areas across the city, powered by machine vision (hey optical sensors!) and now well on its way to transporting 15,000 passengers every month. Not to be scoffed at!

Optimus Ride

Optimus Ride

Optimus Ride Shuttles have been in operation across a number of different states in the U.S., including Virginia, California, Boston and Massachusetts – with more on the cards. Expect this kind of service to be coming to a city near you in the not-so-distant future.

  • Reduced traffic congestion
  • Less CO2 Emissions
  • Increased lane capacity
  • Lower fuel consumption
  • Reduced travel times and costs

Pedestrian Lights, Vienna

Another optical sensor innovation, the smart traffic lights system in Vienna, is well on its way to deployment come the end of this year. With the aim of reducing waiting times and enhancing traffic flow around the city, these 200 pedestrian crossing lights are able to recognise when a person wants to cross the road.

Using mounted cameras with a wide visual field, these new smart traffic lights are intended to supplant the traditional button system and make crossing its busy, often chaotic roads and thoroughfares far easier and safer, particularly for large groups, the elderly, and people with disabilities – in other words, those often at a disadvantage crossing roads using the rigid, inflexible old ways. And it’s interesting stuff. The research teams building out the new system utilised global movement models to create the learning algorithms which enable the system to identify when a person wants to cross the road. And once it’s identified the need, the action is triggered and the light changes, remaining green for the duration of the crossing. Result!

  • Safer and faster crossing for pedestrians
  • Smoother traffic flow
  • Reduces congestion and time spent waiting at lights
  • So reduced pollution too …
  • And of course, the system provides invaluable data to enhance city transportation.

Everyone, Everywhere

The true meaning of the smart city (IOHO), the Smart Citizen Kit is one smart city innovation we’ve got our eyes on here at WHQ. In true power-to-the-people fashion, this gamechanger exists to “empower communities to better understand their environment”, streaming data to the SmartCitizen open platform where it’s then shared to build a crowdsourced map of environmental insights from cities around the world.

Seeking to engage cities, citizens and communities in collectively addressing environmental issues in their cities (think light, noise and air quality for starters), there are currently around 1,000 kits – and rising – in circulation. Anyone can purchase a kit, install it on their balcony, rooftop, window ledge, etc, and start gathering data from their environment via, you’ve guessed it, the IoT sensors inside. What happens to that data is up to users – share it for research, analyse it to drive environmental initiatives in your community, or wait until the big idea drops and you can use it to change the world. Either way, we love that this project truly engages city dwellers in ways that can drive real, lasting change. You can find out more, and get involved here:

  • Helps raise awareness of community issues
  • Empowers citizens to take control
  • Drives better research
  • Encourages communities to come together

Bristol – Smart City Projects

Bristol’s smart city project, Replicate, is more an exploratory initiative that seeks to explore how technology can help address the myriad issues affecting most cities in the 21st century. From inequality to fuel poverty, poor health and inefficient transport touching the lives of many of its half a million inhabitants, Bristol believes that digital is the way to a better-off, more engaged, more healthy population. Here are just a few of these fantastic initiatives already making real change across the city:

  • Some participants in the program are currently using a range of IoT appliances in their homes, such as smart washing machines, tumble dryers and dishwashers (hey, I’ll take 3 of each!). With each appliance managing its own energy use via the built-in sensors, users can save on utilities spend and reduce energy usage.
  • From an electric car and taxi-bus, and smart parking and travel planning apps, Replicate’s transport projects are making travel easier, smarter, more efficient and cost-effective. Oh – and you can add 24 new charging points for electric vehicles to the list too. Bottom line? Bristol city travel just started getting a whole lot more fun.
  • Air quality sensors shaped like ladybirds have been tested by school kids, city cyclists and taxi drivers to measure air quality across their regular travel and walking routes, with other project participants gathering data from sensors installed on their houses and office buildings. The kits contain ozone and air pollutant sensors which can be activated via a smartphone app. The collected data is then aggregated, anonymised then shared for review, research and action!

Rio De Janeiro – Intelligent Operations Centre

After disastrous floods in 2007/8, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil made the decision to do what it could to minimise the chances of something similar happening again. Lofty aspirations, sure, but where there’s a will, there’s a way, and while you can’t stop the weather, what you can do is get visibility of potential problems quickly, and minimise potential disruption and disaster. The answer? IBM’s $14m intelligent operations centre, set in motion nearly a decade ago, and today well on the way to proving a success and ensuring Rio’s position as one of the world’s smartest cities.

Not really so much sensor-driven as people-driven,” this cutting edge system monitors dozens of social and data feeds every second of every day across a vast city-wide digital network to glean information, spot issues and take action. Data around weather, transport, recreation, crime, energy and communications is all up for grabs, resulting in wide-reaching benefits for the city’s 6.3 million inhabitants:

  • Coordinating and integrating the operations of multiple city agencies
  • Better managing of public utilities and transport issues
  • Enhancing safety and driving faster emergency and disaster response
  • Alerting citizens to incidents and providing timely information
  • Coordinating safety and security at large scale events.

Of course, the future of the smart city – and the sensor! – is assured but still in its infancy, what it looks like once it grows up is anyone’s guess. As technologies evolve, sensors become even more clever and citizens become more engaged, and an efficient, effective smart city should be able to work with the increasingly vast amounts of data in ever more clever, value-add ways, providing citizens with what they need for a much-improved quality of life. As the above examples demonstrate, the potential to deliver such benefits isn’t in doubt. Cities are smartening up, and there’s lots more to come …

What to do next

If your business is interested in making your city smarter, we’ve got the expertise to make it happen. Tell us all about it, and let’s get the conversation started!

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