The digital revolution is making inroads in the development of our cities and the infrastructure systems that support them, writes Richard Shennan.
The exponential growth in capability and reduction in cost of data gathering, storage and transmission have transformed sectors as diverse as finance, media, manufacturing and health. It has changed the way citizens work, shop, communicate, learn, manage their finances, play and travel – and how businesses function.
Building on the increased availability of data, entrepreneurs have been creating new services and rethinking the way things are done, from ordering a meal to assembling a car. And now the digital revolution is making inroads in the development of our cities and the infrastructure systems that support them.
‘Smart infrastructure’ is continuously optimised and adapted using data from sensors and citizens. It enables desired outcomes to be achieved by making existing infrastructure work better, or by addressing the root cause, changing demand or reducing load. Where new investments are to be made, the potential benefits can be modelled to challenge, justify or optimise the decision. For city authorities and their service providers this is an exciting time, as processing power now enables scenarios to be modelled in the context of overall systems, to understand district or even city-wide causes and effects.
This crucial development comes as the pressures on our cities become more acute. Limited space and resources are in stark contrast with growing social need and environmental challenges. However, the ability to gather, sift and manipulate data can provide new insights into city challenges, enabling better decisions faster and cheaper, delivering enhanced outcomes and better value.
New lens on old problems
Growing populations place greater pressure on urban infrastructure. A typical challenge is traffic congestion. The average UK commuter spends 30 hours a year stuck in traffic jams and the average driver in London spends 100 hours. Road congestion cost the UK economy £37.7bn in lost productivity in 2017. It is a story repeated in cities all over the world.
The traditional solution is to increase capacity with new roads, bridges and tunnels. However, smart traffic management can unlock hidden capacity and enable pre-emptive action to prevent congestion.
From insight to action
Once in place, data-driven solutions can yield added benefits. In Auckland, New Zealand, the city is determined to deliver best value for their citizens in performance of water and waste water systems. Moata is a cloud-based predictive analytics and visualisation service, being used by the city council to understand how the network performs in real time. Sensors measure flow rates, water levels and pressures at key junctions, enabling decision-makers to identify the need for maintenance in advance of failures and manage flows through the system to prevent flooding incidents. The result is a better service to residents and reduced need for new construction work.
Active and engaged citizens
Town hall discussions with Auckland residents showed they wanted better information on the cleanliness of local beaches, where bathing water quality is impacted by heavy rainfall events and sewer overflows. This led to Safeswim, a public online platform powered by Moata that combines data from the wastewater network with weather and tidal information. It provides real time updates on water quality at 84 beaches and predictions for the coming days based. This engagement with citizens has led to public support for targeted investment to make improvements in key areas.
Immersive technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality enable a different kind of public engagement. Sydney Metro in Australia has used them to consult members of the public on the design of stations to optimise wayfinding and accessibility, and emergency responders to improve security and safety.
Face the future
Real-time data can help city authorities to spot needs and plan for them before they become critical. For example, information about journeys, from origin to destination, combined with insight into different transport modes used, and detours or stops en-route (to buy a coffee, perhaps), can be brought together with demographic, economic and transport operator data to assist decisions about transport investment.
Adaptability is key to healthy cities, as social patterns change and technology advances. Establishing a digital model or ‘twin’ enables rapid scenario planning and response. By linking models of the systems that underpin the function of the city, interdependencies can be understood and city leaders will be empowered to meet today’s needs and tomorrow’s, with better investment decisions and targeted action.
To deliver the potential value of digital transformation to their citizens, mayors can take the lead. By setting common standards and specifying information requirements for all of those who develop and operate infrastructure, the city will build towards a digital twin that will enable data-based innovation in the future.
Leaders can also set policy and requirements for open data standards. Sharing data empowers people to make decisions and develop solutions which benefit them, while boosting citizen engagement. Open data stimulates entrepreneurship and innovation from citizens themselves, who use city information to meet real local needs.
Establishing a city-wide culture where information is valued and viewed as a public good will stimulate the economy of the city. It will encourage and enable digital innovators to set up and show leadership in developing new ways to bring benefits both locally and across the wider market.
Richard Shennan is global digital business development director at Mott MacDonald.