Intelligent technologies promise smart cities that are luxurious and comfortable while protecting the environment and conserving resources. But the smart city also means blanketing public spaces with sensors that follow us at every turn.
By Eva-Maria Verfürth
In the United Arab Emirates, the “Masdar City” project is pioneering the dream of a climate neutral eco-city in the desert. This vision of a zero-emissions-and-waste, comfortable, energy-independent life for around 50,000 residents could soon be reality. According to the ambitious plans, the only modes of transportation will be street cars and self-driving electric cars controlled remotely via underground induction fields. Above ground, the cityscape will be lushly green with schools and childcare centres in easy walking distance. Arrays of solar cells will generate the necessary energy. So is this the promising future of our cities as well?
Groundbreaking technology and intelligent software are taking this urban vision out of the purely utopian realm. “Smart cities” are urban areas with a comprehensive network designed to intelligently save time, money, energy and resources. Sensors collect huge amounts of data and transmit it to management systems operating in a wide range of areas, from building technology and traffic control to the water supply and energy production. The data ensures the best possible fit between supply and demand. Buses only take routes to pick up actual passengers. Offices are only heated when the rooms are in use. Irrigation in parks adjusts according to the weather forecast, and clever rubbish means only full bins are scheduled for collection.
As Tobias Wallisser from the Laboratory for Visionary Architecture Berlin (L-A-V-A) explains, “It is about linking humans and machines in a comprehensive network. Ultimately it may take us much further than we can even imagine right now – such as when the Internet of Things has been established and intelligent machines start communicating with each another.” In future, a self-driving car might swing by to pick us up in response to an appointment in our smartphone calendar.
Smart doesn’t mean new
Outfitted with ubiquitous sensors and smart systems, shining examples like Masdar City and the Songdo business district in Korea are attracting worldwide attention. We don’t need to start from scratch to create the cities of the future, though. Quite the opposite in fact, Wallisser points out, citing the interesting advantages of existing smart city technologies for the cities of today. “The infrastructure of our cities – let’s call it the hardware – has grown and developed over centuries. In some European cities, the sewer systems and underground networks are up to 150 years old and it would be hard to change them. For a smart city, we add software – programs to control the existing infrastructure – that is much easier to change and adjust. There is great potential here, and we can optimize our use of resources by cleverly linking the individual parts without having to build new infrastructures.”
Smart technologies are one way European cities can drive sustainability while also improving quality of life. Around 75 percent of all Germans live in urban areas today. Local governments are faced with the huge challenge of guaranteeing prosperity and quality of life for a rising population without overburdening the environment. German cities are a few steps behind their European counterparts overall, according to Gerd Landsberg, Managing Director of the Deutschen Städte- und Gemeindebund (German Association of Towns and Municipalities): “When you hear the public debate about long waiting times at government offices, the lack of traffic control systems, and subpar broadband coverage, we clearly have a lot of catching up to do.” Still, many cities are working on smart strategies and some have already kicked off initial pilot projects. In Braunschweig, for example, remote-controlled traffic lights are keeping traffic flowing and Cologne offers parking spot sharing, a kind of “AirBnB for your car”. Self-driving cars have taken to some Munich streets for a test drive, while in Berlin street lamps outfitted with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and weather barometers are saving up to 80 percent in energy per year.
Dresden is pioneering some traffic management ideas. The VAMOS traffic control system keeps city traffic running smoothly, leads drivers to available parking, and controls the traffic lights. Streetcars running behind schedule have the right of way at intersections, while those a bit ahead wait slightly longer. Starting in spring 2018, the “Bike Now” app will tell cyclists how quickly they need to pedal to catch the green lights. Sven Fröhlich from the Technical University (TU) Dresden says the intelligent system is designed to encourage the use of streetcars, busses and bikes. Around 1,000 sensors have been installed throughout the city to collect the detailed traffic data needed.
“1984” is outdated
“The smart city is all about optimising resources and increasing individual comfort and convenience,” Tobias Wallisser explains. But it comes at a price: complete transparency. “The network offers a lot of advantages. But we have just started exploring the repercussions of surrendering this amount of data. Orwell’s dystopia of the totalitarian, surveillance society in 1984 looks pretty tame and outdated compared to what we can do today.” Wallisser has identified whether a system is decentrally organised or has one central institution to collect and evaluate all the information, which would also then have access to all the data collected, as a central issue. “Thinking about privacy issues may be a very German approach. But we will have to talk about the way we want to live.”
In Masdar City, the first flats will be ready for occupancy at the end of 2017, and the entire city is scheduled to be completed by 2030. Some of the plans have hit a snag or two and needed some tweaking. At a press conference at the end of 2017, British architect Chris Wan admitted that streets and private garages were being added, as potential Masdar City residents didn’t want to give up their private vehicles. Dresden has noticed similar human interface issues. According to Jürgen Krimmling from TU Dresden, only about ten percent of all drivers actually follow the intelligent traffic control system even though it would get them to their destinations faster. It may turn out that the gulf between theory and practice is wider than we think, and that technology and human beings don’t always go all that well together.