Data-Smart City Solutions


By Laura Adler

The Internet of Things is everywhere, with sensors and communication technologies embedded in all the materials of daily life. Today, the idea of the Internet of Things (IoT) is also everywhere: it is has become one of the most widely-discussed concepts of the digital age, driving major changes across industries from marketing to renewable energy. The total number of IoT connections is predicted to increase four-fold by 2020. As the IoT mentality gains momentum, cities are finding innovative ways to take advantage of the increasingly networked physical world.

What is the Internet of Things? IoT brings formerly inert objects into the dynamic world of information technology. It encompasses a range of technologies, from sensors that monitor environmental conditions to RFID tags that can allow users to interact with objects. In the world of IoT, everything produces data that can be gathered and analyzed. Once-passive objects become dynamic, capable of conducting remote updates and on-the-fly improvements. Fundamentally, IoT means a shift from reactive to proactive systems; from delayed problem management to automatic sense-and-respond capabilities.

Driven by the declining cost of sensors and government’s focus on improving efficiency and service, IoT is allowing cities to transition towards real-time data-driven management across urban systems, including water, energy, waste, and transportation. The most basic IoT tools have been around for years, including connected streetlights, which switch off when no one is present to conserve energy, or send automatic notifications when a light has gone out. Building on these basic lessons, cities are expanding their IoT programs to enhance complex urban infrastructure.

City Systems

Cities are expected to spend $41 trillion on IoT technologies in the next 20 years. In the pursuit of smarter, more responsive city services, local governments have partnered with startups and major technology companies to begin experimenting with IoT across all dimensions of urban life.

Energy: The smart grid is one of the most well-developed and widely recognized IoT systems. Smart grids rely on smart meters, which relay information about a building’s energy usage back to a central management system, in order to efficiently allocate resources. Smart grids can be used to identify and address outages and promote conservation through demand-based pricing. Moreover, smart grid technology is essential to the integration of sustainable energy sources into the mainstream energy grid.

In addition to benefiting cities, new devices are also bringing the benefits of energy-related IoT to consumers. Citizens can reduce their energy bills with devices like Nest, which can sense when someone is home and adjust temperatures automatically, and the smart-me, which allows users to monitor energy use, turn off unused devices, and manage the temperature in a home or office from a smartphone.

Environmental conditions: Chicago’s Array of Things and Dublin’s CityWatch are models for the deployment of citywide sensor networks. Partnering with research institutions and corporations, these cities are installing sensors on lampposts to monitor environmental conditions including temperature, noise, and air quality. The government and its partners will use the data to manage incidents, identify patterns in microclimates, and make predictions about vehicle and pedestrian congestion. Moreover, these systems feed data into open data portals, where it is available to the public, allowing citizens to take part in tracking and responding to local environmental issues.

Water: Many cities face severe problems with water, whether they experience too much or too little rain. In California, local governments are using IoT to develop innovative ways to plan and manage irrigation, facilitating extensive water conservation and more effectively allocating their scarce resources. Other areas struggle to address flooding and wastewater management during storms. Without proper planning, cities are often forced them to dump raw sewage into local waterways. With the help of IoT, local authorities are learning to prepare for storms more effectively. Using tools developed by Opti, American cities can draw together systems that monitor the weather and those that control rainwater storage to determine when to hold onto water supplies and when to make room for new rainfall. With appropriate planning, cities can reduce overflow in combined sewers and minimize the pollution of waterways.

Citizens are also taking advantage of distributed sensor networks to plan for flooding. The citizen-led Oxford Flood Network has developed a system of sensors to gather data on water level from stream and groundwater sources and anticipate flood incidents. The system relies on sensors that use ultrasonic rangefinders, positioned above local waterways, to measure changes in the water level and indicate flood risks. The network makes use of TV whitespace between channels—made available by the local telecom provider—to transmit data, making information publicly available in real time.

Waste: Although waste management is traditionally a hands-on service, IoT companies are developing two-way communication tools to reduce labor and increase the efficiency of waste management systems. Among several companies that are working on innovative approaches to trash collection and monitoring, Big Belly has emerged as a leader. The company’s sensor-enabled trash receptacles measure waste levels in public bins and compact trash to reduce overflow. The bins share the data with local authorities, allowing them to enhance efficiency by planning collection routes where and when pickup is needed. The same logic is being extended to the home, with Enevo offering home trash monitoring to facilitate efficient collection. 

Public transit: The IoT mentality has become an integral part of public transit, where many riders can now follow buses online through GPS or note the minutes until the next train. Some cities are taking the next steps in wiring their transit systems, like London, which has deployed an extensive sensor network throughout the Underground to monitor environmental conditions and detect systems in need of maintenance.

Mass transit IoT is also being adopted by regional train systems. Until recently, railways were unable to take advantage of sophisticated collision avoidance systems, like those used by airplanes and ships, because the nature of railroad tracks inevitably steered trains within inches of one another. The Rail Collision Avoidance System has made this possible by combining GPS and movement data. RCAS monitors trains in the local network and informs conductors if a train is approaching on the same track, helping the railways become even safer.

Parking: One of the most popular IoT applications is the use of sensors to track the availability of parking spaces. The search for parking in busy urban centers is frustrating for the driver, intensifies congestion on the roads, and increases pollution from circling cars. Moreover, cities lack the real-time data that would allow them to implement demand-based pricing. A number of startups, including Streetline, are trying to enhance the parking process. These companies use sensors to determine when a car is parked in a given spot. This data can be sent directly to drivers, helping to guide them more quickly to an available spot, or to cities, which can use the data to adjust pricing based on demand.

Cars and drivers: Of all the forms of transportation, driving remains the most dangerous.  Government officials are exploring ways to leverage IoT to make the roads safer by connecting the vehicle and the driver with the surrounding environment. The US Department of Transportation is testing the uses of vehicle-to-vehicle communication, enabling cars to sense and respond to possible risks on the road. Cities are also connecting to drivers within their cars: Walnut Creek, CA has implemented a system that connects with drivers’ smartphones, pushing alerts when the light changes from red to green to discourage distraction while driving.

Government support for IoT

National leaders are beginning to gauge the importance of IoT to economic development, safety, and sustainability. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron has promoted the broad implementation of IoT in the public sector by dedicating $122 million to fund research for the development of IoT applications. The European Union is also hoping to extend the use of IoT, funding research directed at developing new IoT systems for the public good. In the US, the White House supported IoT discoveries through the Smart America Challenge, which brought together government officials, academia, and private industry to explore the potential for smarter and more responsive infrastructure.   


While IoT offers unparalleled opportunities to enhance efficiency, improve public safety, and support development, it also presents several important challenges that cities will have to negotiate in order to realize these benefits.

Design and analysis together: Cities already have lots of data in their existing systems—the challenge is often that they lack the skills or the technology to use it. In order to make the Internet of Things valuable, cities must ensure that the data-gathering systems are designed together with analytics: the data that is collected should be easily understood and to put to use by the governments that collect it. In addition to enhancing the systems for data collection and analysis, governments must also focus on recruiting tech-savvy leaders who can envision and implement cutting-edge systems.

Privacy and security: Cities must take seriously their role in ensuring the privacy and security of citizen data. Unless citizens trust their governments to ensure privacy, it will become increasingly difficult for cities to get this data at all. Defense from cyberattacks is also a growing concern, particularly with regards to critical infrastructure—hacking smart meters can cost millions, but a more malicious intruder could compromise safety for residents. In order to successfully implement IoT, cities should make privacy and security a top priority.

With smart and forward-looking leadership, IoT has the potential to create a revolution in city planning and management. By embracing the potential of IoT, governments can improve service delivery, increase sustainability, and make their cities safer and more livable places for all residents.

About the Author

Laura Adler

Laura Adler is a PhD student in Sociology at Harvard. She received a Bachelors from Yale University and a Masters in City Planning from the University of California, Berkeley. Laura's research interests include urban planning and social policy in the US and abroad, with recent academic work focused on the relationship between urban governance and technology. Prior to beginning graduate study at Harvard, Laura worked for the City of New York's Department of Information Technology, where she focused on long-term technology strategy in support of the city's operations and expanding broadband access for New York City residents.



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