We are living through interesting times. Name any tech buzzword – be it artificial intelligence, big data, Internet of Things (IoT) – and you will see a ripple effect on different industries. One thing remains certain: We live in a world of cities, and our planet is increasingly urban. By 2050, more than 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. Cities are the new engines of growth in the global economy, responsible for 80 percent of global GDP, and they have been under constant transformation for the future.
There is increasing awareness of the benefits that smart cities can bring, including their ability to help meet the United Nations' Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs). By taking advantage of new and emerging technology trends and data sciences, cities can manage their growing urban environments to become more livable with safer, cleaner, healthier and more convenient communities; more workable with a modern digital infrastructure that attracts companies, jobs and talent; and more sustainable when powered by clean, renewable energy.
What makes infrastructures smart?
But with this tech revolution comes a need to change how our cities are powered! The world of energy is undergoing a massive transformation: it is moving away from fossil fuels and a centralized supply provided by a few power plants and towards renewable energy sources like wind turbines and solar power systems, in conjunction with storage technologies and a distributed structure.
Thanks to its accessibility and its eco-friendliness, solar power is increasingly being touted as the future of energy for smart cities. In addition, solar-powered microgrids have the capacity to run off-grid for several days in the event of power outage due to natural calamities, etc.
For example, the Oman stands to benefit tremendously from solar energy thanks to a conducive climate and favorable geographical position, ensuring the country with sunny days for most part of the year. The sultanate has been setting ambitious targets for solar power generation, which will likely produce 21 percent of total power needed in Oman by 2030, according to Oman Power and Water Procurement Company counting both independent solar power plants and rooftop photovoltaic systems. Launched under its renewable energy initiative "Sahim," the Authority for Electricity Regulation (AER) seeks wide-scale deployment of small photovoltaic (PV) systems at residential premises in Oman. With a higher contribution of renewables to the energy mix, compensating for fluctuations in power supply will be increasingly important in order to maintain stability and reliability of the electricity grid.
Smart city, smart water
One of a city's most important pieces of critical infrastructure is its water system. With populations in cities growing, it is inevitable that water consumption will grow as well. The term "smart water" points to water and wastewater infrastructure that ensures this precious resource - and the energy used to transport it - is managed effectively. A smart water system is designed to gather meaningful and actionable data about the flow, pressure and distribution of a city's water system. Further, it is critical that that the forecast and actual measurement of water consumption are accurate.
A city's water distribution and management system should be equipped with the capacity to be monitored and networked with other critical systems to obtain more sophisticated and granular information on how they are performing and affecting each other. Incorporating smart water technologies allows water providers to minimize non-revenue water (NRW) by finding leaks and bursts quickly and even predicatively using real-time SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) data and comparing that to network simulation models.
Another important element we have to consider is, in both agricultural and commercial building applications, irrigation systems are required to keep the landscape healthy and vibrant. However, there is often a tendency to over or under-water, which can lead to damage of plant life, as well as increased operational and energy costs. Intelligent irrigation systems can help mitigate these issues and generate savings that far exceed the cost of their implementation.
Key technology: building automation
There is further potential for greater sustainability in cities in the merging of buildings and power grids. Buildings are becoming increasingly smarter and more networked, as they exchange energy and data with the grid. Buildings are no longer only consuming energy, they also store and distribute it.
At least 30 percent of electricity in buildings is being wasted: heating or cooling systems not adjusted according to room occupancy levels, leading to over-heating or over-cooling; sprinklers incorrectly aimed and/or activated during the warmest hours of the day; lights kept on all day in spaces where sunlight could be used for proper illumination or where partial lighting could be sufficient; computers left running 24/7 unnecessarily. The intelligent integration of lighting, data, heat, ventilation, air-conditioning, fire safety and security systems with automation platforms could significantly reduce wasted energy and therefore, optimize total consumption.
One thing that is uncontestably true in smart cities is that cars and people will exert a heavy burden on our mobility systems and infrastructure. Thankfully, mobile apps, automated parking systems, street-side sensors, and open data all stand to revolutionize parking systems in major systems. We are moving towards a parking paradigm that yields greater convenience for drivers and less congestion for cities.
All in all, emerging and digital technologies offer huge potential to address infrastructure challenges, but ready access to resources and expertise is essential. Today, enormous amount of data is used in silos, limited to narrowly defined purposes. Much of its value goes unmined, because real benefits are only created when this "big data" is gathered and analyzed into true ‘smart data’.
Regarding systematic gathering and integrating urban data, this will only be possible when individual infrastructure units – power grids, trains, traffic systems and intelligent buildings – are connected to the digital world.
Finally, we have to remember that the story of the smart city is a story about innovation. It is a story about people because smart city strategies will always start with people, not with technology. Smartness is not just about installing digital interfaces in traditional infrastructure. It is also about using technology and data purposefully to make better decisions, to deliver a better quality of life to the population.