‘Smart Cities’ Are Poised to Change Health, Safety, and Everything in Between
The future of modern cities is anchored in data.
In 1999, a new device called a “smart phone” was just starting to hit the market—and it was a revelation. Smart phones, from the Simon Personal Communicator, launched by IBM in 1994, to the Blackberry, to the Apple iPhone, effectively changed the way we receive and distribute information. With smart phones, users could store several gigs worth of files in their pocket, communicate quickly through text and predictive typing, and access breaking news at the click of a button.
Two decades later, cities and infrastructure are poised to be the next big thing disrupted and improved by technology. Like smart phones, urban areas—dubbed “smart cities”—are now harnessing data to improve how the city is run and how residents access local services.
Though it might seem like a futuristic trend, smart cities are already starting to become more popular across the U.S., and are expected to become commonplace with the rise of 5G capabilities. In Kansas City, MO, sensors monitor the flow of traffic in the city's streets, while public kiosks, powered by wi-fi, provide safety alerts to residents. Further east, in San Jose, CA, residents can report streetlight outages, abandoned vehicles, graffiti, potholes, and any illegal activity through an app called “My San Jose.” Smart cities are also gaining popularity abroad as well: Hangzhou, a Chinese city just south of Shanghai, now uses surveillance videos from intersection cameras as well as GPS data to monitor the flow of traffic throughout the city.
But the purpose of smart city technology isn't just to collect user data. The end-game, according to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute, is to ultimately create a more efficient, and sustainable way of life. In Hangzhou, for instance, operators have been able to use traffic data to better coordinate traffic signals, which lessens the chance of gridlock. When emergency strikes, dispatchers can also use that data to direct emergency vehicles to the scene of an accident using the quickest possible route. Supported by 5G, emergency vehicles can get directions to the scene of an accident in the quickest way possible, since internet shortfalls like latency or buffering will be non-existent. It's not surprising then that cities that use smart technology, often powered by 5G, can expect a 35 percent faster emergency response time and shorter commute times by up to 30 minutes. In cities where people can report illegal activity through an app—like San Jose—can decrease their crime rate by as much as 40 percent, according to the McKinsey report.
Another draw of smart cities are the possible effects on health. Not only does smart city technology provide faster response times in case of an emergency, but experts say that it could also lower the burden of disease in a given area between eight and 15 percent. Efficient traffic routes, for example, lead to lower commute times, which produce less smog and environmental pollution, which in turn alleviates health problems like asthma and other respiratory illnesses caused by the fine particulate matter found in air pollution. Kiosks—like the ones in Kansas City—can identify health risks based on demographics and issue information about vaccines, safe sex, sanitation, or warnings about deadly epidemics. Residents can also access medical services via telemedicine apps and hail cabs from the safety of their homes, a measure thought to reduce traffic fatalities by at least one percent.
But one of the biggest benefits of “smart cities” is that they have the potential to be environmentally sound. Urban areas are notorious for producing high levels of smog and pollution that can cause health risks such as cancer and negatively impact other areas of the surrounding environment, like the water supply. But smart cities could change that as well: Services like bike-riding (where bikes are unlocked and borrowed by residents with an app) and ride-sharing work to cut down on air pollution. Waste management systems like BigBelly—already implemented in several cities—use sensors and solar power to compact trash and communicate with local waste management organizations when they need to be emptied. Automated systems, like BigBelly, reduce or eliminate the need for city workers to do these chores manually—meaning a reduced carbon footprint, less waste, and a healthier environment all around.
So how can cities get “smart”? While it's possible to spend billions on cameras, sensors, and sophisticated software, many cities are opting for an easier route: smartphone users have built-in sensors that can collect and transmit data either voluntarily or automatically, called mobile crowd-sensing. GPS sensors, for example, can provide important data about where traffic is located in a city at a given time, while other sensing systems can detect things like potholes or slippery roads, and when these devices are powered by 5G, it's possible for things like traffic rerouting, ride-sharing, and data collection can all happen instantaneously In other words, rather than building a “smart city” from the ground up, many are electing to use the technology that's already there, in our pockets.
By 2050, the United Nations estimates that the majority of the world—around 68 percent—will be living in cities. Before that happens, it behooves us to make those places as efficient, sustainable, and healthy as possible. [if !supportLineBreakNewLine] [endif]