Living on a platform


For cities to become truly smart, everything must be connected

IN SINGAPORE conversations about water quickly turn political. The city-state no longer wants to depend on water from Malaysia when the current water-supply agreement between the two countries expires in 2061. More than once the neighbour to the north, of which Singapore was part before an acrimonious split in 1965, has threatened to increase prices or even cut off supplies. Yet politics is not the only reason for Singapore’s advanced water system. The information centre at the Marina Barrage features pictures of floods and droughts. “We have either too much water or too little,” explains Yap Kheng Guan, a director of Singapore’s PUB. Even today, despite a sophisticated system of ditches and tunnels, floods can suddenly strike. In July parts of the main shopping district were under water after heavy rainfalls. The problems of scarcity and excess are in evidence on the city-state’s roads too. Singaporeans, who are among the world’s richest people, love to drive, but space for roads is severely limited. When in the early 1970s the central area became too congested, the government introduced the world’s first manual urban road-pricing system. In 1998 it became the first to be automated. “Singapore proves that necessity is the mother of invention,” says Teo Lay Lim, who heads the local office of Accenture. In this special report •It’s a smart world •A sea of sensors •Making every drop count •» Living on a platform « •Augmented business •The IT paydirt •Your own private matrix •Sensors and sensibilities •Horror worlds •Sources and acknowledgments •Offer to readers Now the city wants to become a “living laboratory” for smart urban technologies of all kinds—not just water and transport systems but green buildings, clean energy and city management too. Both local and foreign firms in these sectors will be able to develop and show off their products on the island before selling them elsewhere, explains Goh Chee Kiong, who is in charge of the clean-energy cluster at Singapore’s Economic Development Board. There is strong demand for making cities smarter, not just in China and other rapidly urbanising countries but throughout the Western world. Resources like water, space, energy and clean air are scarce in urban areas, which makes them the natural place to start saving, says Mark Spelman, Accenture’s global head of strategy. “Smart-city” projects have been multiplying around the world. Some of them are not as new as their labels suggest, and in any case what exactly constitutes a smart city is hard to define. But they all have one thing in common: they aim to integrate the recent efforts to introduce smart features in a variety of sectors and use this “system of systems”, as IBM calls it, to manage the urban environment better. The best-known smart city is Masdar, a brand-new development in Abu Dhabi that recently welcomed its first residents and will eventually become home to 40,000 people. It is being built entirely on a raised platform, which makes maintenance and the installation of new gear much easier. Below the platform sits the smart infrastructure, including water pipes with sensors and a fibre-optic network. Above it is to be a showcase for all kinds of green technology: energy-efficient buildings, small pods that will zoom around on paths (no cars will be allowed) and systems that catch dew as well as rainwater. Yet experts see Masdar mostly as a property project: hardware in search of a purpose. What really matters to a city’s smartness, they argue, is the software that runs on it and the network that connects its parts. “It is the common infrastructure for all the smart systems,” says Wim Elfrink, who heads the “Smart+Connected Communities” initiative of Cisco, the networking-equipment maker.

 Getting it together

Cisco is trying to demonstrate that point in Songdo City near Seoul, where the firm provides all the digital plumbing. Sitting on reclaimed land, Songdo is perhaps the most ambitious smart-city project so far. It is expected to cost $35 billion and will be home to 65,000 people. Like Masdar, it will boast all the latest green technologies. But its main claim to fame is that everything in the city is wired up. Residents of “First World”, the first completed apartment complex, already enjoy the benefits of this all-embracing connectivity. Smartphones unlock front doors. Air-conditioning, blinds and security systems are controlled by displays all over the apartment which can also be used to access all kinds of online services. With a few clicks or touches users are able set up a videoconference with a doctor, do business with the local government or find out how best get to work. What Cisco sees as the most important application for running a smart city was shown at the World Expo in Shanghai this year. In its pavilion the firm built a command centre to keep tabs on an imaginary smart city. A huge video screen displayed everything from traffic maps and energy use to weather information and pictures from security cameras. Visitors were given a demonstration of how city managers would react to an accident on a city-centre bridge: cameras zoom in, an ambulance is dispatched, traffic is rerouted to other bridges—all automatically, within seconds. The world’s smartest city, however, may soon rise in an unexpected place: near Porto in Portugal. PlanIT Valley, designed for an eventual population of 150,000, is an ambitious attempt to “combine technology and urban development”, in the words of Steve Lewis, co-founder of Living PlanIT, the start-up behind the project, who used to work at Microsoft. His experience at the software giant proved an excellent preparation for the job. Microsoft is the very model of a platform company, providing technology to connect things (such as printers and PCs) and a foundation for the products made by others (such as browsers and media players). When he was at Microsoft in the early 2000s, Mr Lewis also oversaw the relaunch of a strategy called .Net—an early example of what geeks like to call “service-oriented architecture”. The idea is to build programs as a combination of loosely-coupled electronic services that can be redeployed elsewhere. After Mr Lewis left Microsoft in 2005, he tried to introduce the concept of re-usable components to the construction industry, which seemed ripe for it. Designs are often used only once, most buildings are not energy-efficient, the industry produces a lot of waste, and many materials are simply thrown away. All this amounts to around 30% of the cost of construction, according to a case study on Living PlanIT by the Harvard Business School. But instead of selling products to construction companies, Mr Lewis ended up applying his ideas to an entire city. Even before the first concrete is cast, PlanIT Valley has already been built—in a simulation program that also allows detailed planning of the construction. Much of the city, which is to cost about $10 billion, will rely on prefabricated parts; its foundation, for instance, will be made of concrete blocks that come with all the gear for smart infrastructures pre-installed. Eventually the entire city and its buildings will be run by an “urban operating system” that integrates all parts and combines them into all kinds of services, such as traffic management and better use of energy. Living PlanIT has a clear idea of who will live and work in its city: the employees of the companies that form its “ecosystem”, another concept taken from the software industry. The start-up has enrolled a number of partners, among them Cisco, Accenture and McLaren Electronic Systems, a sister company of the eponymous Formula One brand, which will provide sensor technologies. The idea is that these firms will operate research facilities in PlanIT Valley, jointly improve the concept, develop applications and build similar projects elsewhere. Such grand designs are possible only when building a city from scratch. But entrepreneurs like Mr Lewis and the planners of similar projects have other advantages. For a start they generally have government backing. Portugal granted the PlanIT Valley project “potential national importance” status, which among other things means cheap land and generous tax breaks. Songdo was launched by the South Korean government. And new cities are free from the constraints of having to deal with an established population, old infrastructure and bureaucracy.

Something old, something new

Making an existing city smart is a different problem altogether, as demonstrated by Amsterdam, the Netherlands’ biggest city. Amsterdam Innovation Motor (AIM), a public-private joint venture created for this purpose, is not intended to come up with some master plan but to identify interesting “smart” projects, work with local firms and other stakeholders and find ways to make projects worthwhile for everybody. So far AIM has launched a dozen projects, ranging from installing smart meters in some households to connecting ships to the electricity grid so that they no longer have to use diesel generators when berthed in the city’s port. The most ambitious effort so far is something called “Climate Street”, which aims to reduce the energy use of an entire shopping street. Most existing cities, at least in the West, will go for such a step-by-step approach, predicts Carlo Ratti, an architect and engineer who heads the SENSEable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He and his colleagues have come up with a number of smart urban projects of their own. In one, called “TrashTrack”, they asked volunteers to attach small electronic tracking devices to hundreds of pieces of rubbish to see where they would end up in order to improve waste logistics. More recently they introduced the “Copenhagen Wheel”, a bicycle wheel whose red hub can not only give the rider a boost but also measure environmental conditions, such as pollution and noise levels. Yet many such projects will need a common platform that streamlines data gathering and supports all kinds of applications, says Mr Ratti. That would also enable him to realise his ultimate vision: turning the city into a “control system” that makes use of data from a variety of sources, from mobile phones to smart meters and sensors in buildings. The data could be mined to improve public transport and security. So far Mr Ratti and his collaborators have mainly used data from mobile phones for their projects. In “WikiCity”, implemented in Rome, such data allowed people to see visualisations of how they moved through the Italian capital. However, a new mayor elected in 2008 proved much less interested in Mr Ratti’s projects than his environmentalist predecessor, so the team has gone off to Singapore. But it will be not just governments, cities and utilities that will make the world smart. Private companies will also play their part, particularly start-ups