Living A Smart City Life

Imagine a world where streetlights go brighter as activity increases on a street, yet dim when the activity subsides. Imagine a world where you are driving a car and are notified when there is a parking space available, and that parking space is unique to you? Gone would be the days of driving aimlessly to find a parking spot and then fighting somebody for it.

Imagine a world where vehicle ownership is a thing of the past, where your journey home from work is made using hired bicycles and communal vehicles? A world where traffic lights operate differently during peak traffic times according to traffic pressure found on the roads?

This is world of smart cities, where telematics dictates order and runs the city like a well-oiled machine. We have spoken in depth about the shared economy that we increasingly find ourselves living in. This will not only be driven by technology, but by the internet of things (IoT) and smart devices which interact with each other to personalise a unique experience for a person on a daily basis. Just think about it…no two days will ever be the same again.

The debate about this needs to go beyond whether we are ready to be living in smart cities or not, because I think that it will eventually be forced upon us. No, the debate we need to be having is whether the advantages of living in these cities outweigh the challenges/risks that will be encountered on a daily basis.

The freedom we want

I recently read an insightful article on regarding smart cities and their future. What became clear is free wifi will play an important role.

The article states that in the context of a smart city, free internet access provides more opportunities for both city administrators and citizens. Widely available Wi-Fi access will springboard an even more prevalent use of Internet of Things applications: data collection. A reliable network within a city also enables more innovative use of its services. The city can use data on how its services are used to become more efficient and streamlined.

Socially, individuals who may not otherwise have reliable access to online services will now be able to go online for free for education, job searches, or to communicate. The ability to access online resources will become increasingly important in bridging inequality gaps between socioeconomic groups as more business takes place online.

The Spanish tango

Barcelona was one of the first cities in the world and has benefited immeasurably from this technological focus.

The allaboutcicuits article pointed out that there are over 1 000 access points spread across the city to provide free Wi-Fi, including at outdoor facilities and on buses.

The service is provided in a private-public partnership with Aptilo Networks, which manages and distributes the access points.

Spain faced economic difficulties in the 2000s and, in response, began utilizing sensor and IoT applications to increase the efficiency of Barcelona city services.

An investment in the city’s smart capabilities has saved Barcelona millions by providing more useful data for more efficient delivery of services, providing opportunities for economic growth for citizens, and better connecting the city as a whole.

The local situation

So how would South Africa benefit from a focus to work towards implementing smart cities?

A recent article on the businesslive website discussed this in depth. The article pointed out that South Africa’s large metros often struggle to meet citizens’ needs, which drives conversations about the technology of smart cities.

These challenges are expected to grow in the years ahead due to increasing urbanisation, and in Africa this has become a significant driver of conversations focusing on smart cities.

The good news is South Africa has already made exciting progress, with IoT projects under way and the development of smart cities at the top of the agenda. These, it should be noted, work hand in hand. In fact, the IoT is essential to the success of a smart city, as it bridges the physical and digital worlds.

Doing so enables a metro to gather real-time data from millions of objects, such as water meters, electricity meters, waste bins, traffic lights and street lights. This forms the basis on which contextual data can be collected, analysed and used to manage the city in a smarter, predictive and proactive way.

The agricultural future

South Africa has recently come off the back of one of the worst droughts it has experienced in recent history. Cape Town is still reeling in shock over water supply issues and one feels that the city will learn some valuable lessons about water management in the future.

The businesslive website pointed out that in the near future, for example, nations’ growing populations will be fed by crops that are smartly planted at the right time and in precisely the right place to produce maximum yield. Using the IoT, farmers will be informed via connected sensors of the precise dosage of water, fertiliser and nutrients that the piece of cultivated land will need to produce an optimal yield in terms of volume and quality.

As the increasing demand for food and the effects of climate change on food security become dominant concerns, smart agriculture is just one of the ways in which the IoT will prove its value.

The dark side

This brings us to the next question, is everything about smart cities all good? what are the challenges we would face?

Privacy is one of them. This is a growing issue in a world where cyber criminals are the new threat. A recent article on asks the questions we all have in mind.

Smart cities will enable authorities to track a person’s location at all times by using video feeds across the city (in busses, outside stores, etc), facial recognition, and other sensors/technologies. Although a person’s activity may take place in public, this information can nonetheless be extremely private. For instance, people may need to travel to an HIV clinic, to a psychiatrist, to an abortion clinic, etc.

So what does smart city privacy look like? Should it be illegal to collect and store a person’s location information? What about when this tracking isn’t explicitly enabled but can still be pieced together from a variety of other data sources? Should those other sources of data collection be made illegal too?

The debate is relevant because it is becoming a reality. As with most things, I am optimistic about the future of technology. However, this optimism comes with a caution. As we embrace this, we need to be aware of the challenges it poses.