Smart cities

HR-MAIN-ILLOMobile technology isn’t just changing our business, but the buildings around us, and even how we live together

We all know the pain of being gridlocked on the way to work, that sinking feeling of despair mixed with frustration. “Maybe I should just move to the country,” you tell yourself after you give up on honking your horn and text your boss that you’re going to be late, again.

There is a solution, though, and one that doesn’t require everyone else stuck in traffic with you to move away. Imagine living in a city where there are fewer cars on the road because mobile apps have made carpooling as easy as plugging in a seatbelt; imagine then that a traffic control centre knows where these cars are headed, which roads are blocked and which roads have newly reported potholes, and funnels everyone down different routes accordingly.

When you arrive at your destination, a parking slot has already been selected for you (and in an area closest to where you work, with the best price). Everyone gets to work on time, congestion is reduced, citizens are happier, have more free time and are healthier as a result. Sounds great, but that’s the stuff of sci-fi, right? Not necessarily: that vision is already much nearer to becoming reality than you might realise.

Welcome to the smart city
Welcome to the concept of the smart city. For the unfamiliar, it’s Town Planning 2.0. Where once, architects, councillors and utility experts might have met to hash out a plan for urban development, the smart city taps into a vital resource to provide facts, not hunches, and in real time, thanks to the power of the internet.

The big conceptual change is the notion that cities can be made better with the power of big data. Thanks to the power of the internet (and now the ability to connect any electronic device to the web to share the data it gathers automatically) it’s now possible to use software to analyse the vast amount of information that can be gathered. This information can be anything from congestion on roads to pollution levels and beyond to discern trends, and make informed, even automated choices off the back of that.

We’ve seen this concept in operation all over the world in some ways for years – variable speed limits on motorways in some countries for instance, to reduce congestion. But a smart city as a vision is much more ambitious. It’s not just about reducing traffic or generating more tax money, it’s about companies, buildings and governments coming together to solve even bigger problems.

Take power consumption: imagine how much could be saved if entire business districts co-ordinated their lighting not just by time of day, but by footfall, the number of people in the area. The week after Christmas is going to be just as dark as the week after New Year, but much more quiet, after all.

The concept is already being applied all over the world. Late last year, US president Barack Obama committed US$160 million in federal research money in order to help 25 projects designed to help local communities evolve and get online. In Seoul, South Korea, a new platform called Sharehub is helping foster a collaborative economy where citizens can share resources they don’t always use, from cars to aircon. And in London, England, as part of a €25m Europe- wide trial, one local borough is trialling 300 smart parking bays, installing solar panels on residential buildings, heating houses using energy from the River Thames – and making all the data available online.

Naturally the rush to save others’ money represents a big opportunity for businesses too. Navigant Research recently estimated that the smart city technology market could be worth as much as US$27.5bn annually by 2023.

Thankfully, it may not be the taxpayers who pick up the bill as a result. “The majority of Internet of Things (IoT) spending for smart cities will come from the private sector,” says Bettina Tratz-Ryan, vice-president of research at Gartner. “This is good news as the private sector has shorter and more succinct procurement cycles than public sectors and cities.”

The smart city is not just a nice idea, however – it’s needed, with more people than ever moving to the urban sprawl. The United Nations estimates that by 2050 the world’s population living in cities will have reached a staggering 6.3 billion, up from 3.6 billion in 2011.

The internet of things

How machines can stay connected

If you’ve not heard about the Internet of Things, or IoT, before, you soon will. While we’re all used to surfing the web and using the internet to stay in touch, IoT is the concept that even machines without human control – your PC or smartphone – can benefit from staying connected. It’s integral to the idea of smart cities. Think about it – if every parking meter in the city can report how busy it is, town planners can get a realtime feed of how many people park each day, and where, and can plan accordingly, or even alter prices depending on demand. The gadget most likely to benefit from an internet connection, however? The humble light bulb. Gartner estimates the number of smart bulbs in use will swell to 570 million in 2020, from 6 million last year. That’s a lot of energy saving – when lights can tell if the room is empty, there’s no need to remember to switch them off, after all.

Smart city in Africa
While the smart city concept was originally pioneered by Silicon Valley dreamers and futurists, it’s already being applied to urban developments all over the world. Across Africa, towns and cities of all sizes are applying its principles to improve life for citizens.

Nairobi for instance is pushing ahead with a central mobile app for all government services; it runs on any Android phone, and lets you do everything from find and pay for parking to pay your local business’s rent or permits. The city has also partnered with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme to work on an unorthodox, empowering initiative to engage young people with town planning. Called Block by Block, the programme uses the popular computer game Minecraft to imagine new buildings and developments in a way anybody can understand – handy in the council meetings of the future. Leading the charge for the continent, however, is Johannesburg in South Africa, where the mayor has in recent years led a drive to bring free Wi-Fi hotspots to public areas. The city is working closely with software giant Microsoft to make the most of all the data it has available, as well as telco giant Ericsson to deliver an affordable internet infrastructure for all citizens.

Where one city goes, others will surely follow, and it is clear that other African governments are taking note. The XON Summit, hosted in South Africa late last year, saw delegates from Ghana to Madagascar arrive to discuss and explore connected smart solutions to today’s urban challenges, and even hear from INTERPOL on the role smart cities can play in fighting crime in a connected world.

Changing people, not just buildings
The smart city as a concept is broad, encompassing many different strands, but one common trait all these initiatives share is their potential not just to change our environment, but ourselves. Too often, people don’t vote because they feel ignored and cut off by the government. Give them the tools to communicate and contribute – by a phone app, say – and suddenly the smart city can become a means to create a sense of civic duty.

The rise of the smartphone has made popular the notion of crowdfunding data – getting everybody, everywhere, to chip in with what they’re seeing right now – and it’s helping improve cities while getting their residents involved. Johannesburg Road Agency’s Find ‘n Fix app for instance already sees over 1000 motorists sending in reports and photos of potholes, damaged roads, broken lights, and other infrastructure issues – every single week. Users don’t even need to provide an address, since their phone’s GPS does all the hard work automatically. Once flagged, maintenance staff can head straight out to the problem site.

The model can be applied to everything from weather to illegal dumping and crime. In Nairobi, the website Hatari.co.ke lets citizens flag up any illegal activities they’ve witnessed – plotted on a map, the police have a much better idea of how to monitor areas.

While African towns may not have the funds of American coastal cities, it is this sense of spirit that will help drive the smart city in the future, “The main emphasis of a smart city is to offer a safe public environment,” explains Ravin Naidu, regional director Southern Africa for Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise. “In the future Africa will be able to compete on a global level.”

Competing for a connected utopia sounds compelling to us – better download those apps.

Top 5 apps for city life

We pick five of the best apps that will change the way you live

Taxify: taxify.eu
Mobile location apps like Uber and its competitors have taken the world by storm, making it more convenient than ever to hail a cab at a time and price that suit you. While Uber has begun operating in Africa, it faces stiff competition, particularly in South Africa where Taxify has gained a foothold in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. It works on a similar premise – fire up the app, and it uses your phone’s GPS to bring a cab straight to you. The big difference compared to Uber is that with Taxify you don’t need to pay with a credit card.

eButler: beta.ebutler.co.za
A home-grown solution dreamt up by two young entrepreneurs, eButler is only available in South Africa right now, but its reliance on machine learning and convenience offer a great example of what living in a smart city could soon look like the world over. The app works by offering you groceries it thinks you might like (though you can of course select your own); you then simply pick a delivery time, and one of the company’s butlers will go and buy them for you and bring them to you in an UberX vehicle. Best of all for those wary of online security when it comes to payment, you can just pay the butler on arrival. Farewell to supermarket queues.

Nairobi City County Mobile: bit.ly/1wXU2ST
This Kenyan app for Android smartphones is another glimpse of the future on the continent. Just install it and add funds to your eJijiPay Wallet and you can simply pay for all sorts of council services online from parking and rent payment to permits for businesses and construction. Cutting the red tape seems like an excellent step towards creating a smart city, if you ask us, and this app does just that.

KaChing: kachingparking.com
Unless you park regularly in one of a few select car parks in one of South Africa’s coastal cities, you won’t be able to make use of KaChing, but it’s a concept to watch. The app makes private pay and display car parks painless to use – once you’ve programmed your details in, the barrier will lift as soon as you arrive at the gate and bill you via the web. No more scrambling around for change then stretching to reach the till through your car window.

MyQ: myq.com.ng
Public transport in many African countries is a case of trial and error at best, something the Nigerian creators of MyQ know all too well. Tired of turning up at transport hubs and hoping for a ride, they created an Android app that shows all the info for you, seats available, price and even the time of departure. It’s Uber for inter-city transit, and has the potential to take the continent by storm.

Smart food!
Works by offering you groceries it thinks you might like (though you can of course select your own); you then simply pick a delivery time, and one of the company’s butlers will go and buy them for you and bring them to you in an UberX vehicle