While smart homes have enormous potential to enrich our home lives, there’s another smart side to the story that’s set to change society on a more profound level.
Because we now have the technology to create hyperconnected, ultra-sustainable, energy-efficient communities, all without compromising our shared beliefs and values. And with around 7 billion people predicted to be living in urban areas by 2050, now’s the time to start thinking smart about the future of urban life.
We all know that smart technology brings convenience and can help us become a more sustainable society, but what about its potential to develop ultra-safe and secure communities?
Smart technology can, and will, save lives. IoT devices can be used to notify firefighters and residents in the event of a fire, for example. Early smoke, CO2, or fire detection can help prevent fires, while a detailed analysis of the location and nature of a fire can help firefighters take an effective strategy.
Crime prevention and crime detection is another area that can be completely reimagined by IoT technology, with great potential to keep communities safe from crime. Local police can be immediately informed if smart security sensors detect a break-in, while the idea of an interconnected smart community will likely prove to be a massive deterrent for criminals in the first place.
Machine learning analytics, smart drone technology, and AI-driven crime investigation are already in use among UK Police forces, while predictive policing tools like Shotspotter and HunchLab are now regular features of policing in the States.
The effectiveness and fairness of these tools do come into question. With concerns of racially motivated bias and inaccuracies, we need to be careful that we use AI in a just way, and not as a way to exacerbate racial disparities in policing. Regulatory change will be key, but perhaps even more importantly, we must ensure that AI’s are not just developed in computer science but are also tested and reviewed by communities to ensure ethics and the complexity of human behavior are fully accounted for. On top of that, tools like the NYPD’s Sentiment Meter, created by tech startup Elusd, could go a long way to improve police accountability as well.
And if we do get it right, technology could have a massive impact on safety in our communities – it’s estimated that smart technology could reduce overall fatalities by 8-10% and assaults, robberies, burglaries, and car thefts by 30-40%.
For those living in areas where natural disasters occur, connected homes make impending danger alerts a lot easier. Whether it’s an earthquake, flood, storm, tsunami, or wildfire, being able to communicate emergency instructions to a whole interconnected community will bring a new level of efficiency to natural disaster response.
Green roofs are being talked about as a major development in urban sustainability, bringing biodiversity to the city while helping to manage rainwater, reduce flooding and mitigate the urban heat island effect. Now, smart green roof technology could truly reimagine the idea of a ‘green city’ by using IoT technology and big data to create an e-cological paradise.
Smart devices can monitor the health of vegetation and soil, automatically watering or treating them when needed. Weather can be analyzed in advance, preventing flooding and managing rainwater systems efficiently. And, of course, solar panel technology can be used to power everything.
Machine learning can help the green roof system adapt to the needs of the vegetation, in line with the local environment. Just imagine cities filled with smart urban community gardens providing food for the community! Well, they’re on their way... smart green roof projects are already being rolled out in Belgium and the Netherlands.
When it comes to meeting the needs of a growing population, smart farming will be key. It’s predicted that, by 2050, global food production will need to increase 70%. For this to happen, a new era of tech-driven ‘precision agriculture’ will help bring food to our plates, while smart city circular food economies will become the benchmark food system.
Through sensors, smart communication, automation, and machine learning, smart technology is set to make road congestion a thing of the past.
We are already in an era of profound change when it comes to the mass adoption of the electric car. Now, our transport infrastructure also stands on the brink of a complete transformation. And while driverless cars are still a long way off, we’ll soon see a system – the Ford-backed Transportation Mobility Cloud (TMC) – where cars, bikes, buses, trains, trams, scooters, and everything in between are connected to one centralized platform. The vehicles will send data to the platform, like route info, average speed, condition of the vehicle, etc., and the platform sends data back to the vehicle. With this form of two-way communication, we’ll see a new integrated digital transport network; one in which the private car will take a supporting role.
A similar system is already in place in Denmark. Copenhagen Solutions Lab has been using big data to connect parking systems, traffic lights, buildings, smart metering, and charging systems for electric vehicles to direct traffic in real-time, while optimizing energy use in line with fuel prices, traffic, and weather.
There’s a flip-side of course. While our traffic will run like clockwork and getting around the city will be easier than ever, once our cars, trains, buses, and bicycles are online, our movements could also be tracked. And, with concerns over how third-party cookies currently track our online activity, we need to be smart about our approach to a cloud-based transport system that could capture yet more personal data.
We don’t often associate garbage collection with efficiency and precision, but all that is about to change. Solar-powered waste management systems can now compact waste – up to 8 times that of regular waste – while providing precise data to an online platform. This data can be used to help manage trash pickups, optimizing collection routes and schedules.
In addition, waste management companies are now using machine learning technology to analyze data and predict waste patterns throughout cities, helping them stay ahead of the garbage curve. Overflowing trash cans will soon be a thing of the past.
Another form of waste management is the way we consume and save energy (or don’t save energy, as the case may be). Although a growing list of countries and companies are investing in renewable energy, there’s still huge scope for creating more energy-efficient systems. Thankfully, there’s an abundance of innovative projects that aim to reshape urban energy systems.
Panasonic’s ‘Future Living Berlin’ is one such project – it will combine air source heat pumps, photovoltaic panels, and storage batteries to create an energy-saving community, all integrated into a highly intelligent, super-efficient energy management system.
Meanwhile, a Swedish startup has created smart glass with embedded sensors, which will enable buildings to create and store their own energy. This could potentially be combined with a connected infrastructure, where each building ‘communicates’ with a central platform, storing and diverting power as needed. Kind of like a digital mycelium network... and what better inspiration than Mother Nature?
This principle of diverting power back to the grid is already up and running in the world of electric cars. Bidirectional electric car chargers enable EV drivers to, not only charge their cars at super-fast speeds but also send excess power back to the grid. With EV adoption set to take pole position in the years leading up to the ban on diesel and petrol cars, this type of circular technology will surely become ever more influential.
In order to meet the needs of increasingly densely populated urban areas, public health care will need to evolve in two key areas – prevention and treatment.
Cities are already using IoT technology to measure environmental conditions such as air quality – Beijing managed to reduce deadly airborne pollutants by around 20% in less than a year. By precisely analyze big data, AI and machine learning technology can also be used to identify those with higher risk profiles and target interventions more precisely. It’s estimated that this could help to lower the disease burden by 8 to 15%.
Now, with the help of IoT and AI data analytics, wearable medical devices and track and trace technology, we are entering a new age of healthcare. And how about this for pushing the boundaries? – 3D printed digital pills are already a reality!
Of course, the protection of our privacy and data is fundamental. There have been many recent concerns regarding health technology and how companies have access to private health information, most notably with Amazon’s new fitness tracker, Halo. And while IoT technology and AI data analytics could create a more efficient, effective healthcare system, all this innovation means very little without maintaining the aspect of privacy. Managing this balance will be crucial and the EU’s new AI regulations are a big step in the right direction when it comes to safeguarding fundamental rights within healthcare.
The main challenge for all these innovations is building and maintaining trust. Most of us have at least some degree of skepticism when it comes to technology – and understandably so. That’s why the idea of a ‘smart city’ might seem a lot more dystopian than utopian.
There’s already been plenty of pushback from concerned citizens over several attempts to launch fully integrated smart cities. A notable example is in Toronto, where Google’s Sidewalk Labs shut down their hugely ambitious project to create a neighborhood of the future in the city’s waterfront district.
While economic uncertainty has been cited as the main reason, the project was met with considerable opposition from locals, who objected to Sidewalk’s parent company and aimed to “protect Toronto from Google’s corporate takeover.”
The fact is that, for all the talk about safety, convenience, greenification, and energy efficiency, distrust will halt progress in its tracks. We need to believe and ensure that innovation is being made in our best interests, not at the expense of our privacy.
The EU’s Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act were created for this exact purpose, while the new set of proposals are the most ambitious AI regulations seen so far. With these and future regulations, we’ll hopefully see a more ethical, responsible approach to progress. Then, smart homes and big data could have a truly profound impact on our lives.