Smart Cities: How far have we come?

Technology's steady march forward is changing our cities, with clear benefits arising in some places more than others.

September 05, 2019

Visions for futuristic cities where life-improving technologies proliferate have been around since the dawn of science fiction. Yet flying cars and buildings up in the clouds – typical scenes from The Jetsons – are nowhere in sight.

Still, mankind deserves some credit for its accomplishments, from driverless cars to carbon-neutral buildings. And given the increasing pace of urbanization, the need for efficient and sustainable urban areas – so-called smart cities – has never been more urgent.

“In this digital age, governments, urban planners and businesses see an opportunity to use technologies –from artificial intelligence to sensors – to enhance where communities live, work and play,” says Jeremy Kelly, lead director of JLL’s Cities Research Programme.

A smart city, by definition, uses technology and data to improve the life of its residents, drive efficiency for the government, and create a fertile environment for growing businesses.

So just how smart are smart cities at this point in the 21st century? Let’s take a look at progress in four key areas:

1. Autonomous vehicles

Driverless vehicles have been hailed as key to smart cities. Among their promises are enhanced mobility and improved air quality. Researchers from the University of Cambridge found that well-managed driverless cars working together improves traffic flow by 35 percent, while another study showed electric driverless vehicles could cut greenhouse gas emission by 80 percent by 2050.

They could also alleviate the demand for parking spaces and improve last-mile connectivity.

Where are we now?

California’s Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service pilot program in Silicon Valley has been allowing start-ups such as Autox Technologies, and Zoox, as well as Google’s Waymo, to provide driverless taxi services.

In Asia, Singapore built a test park to trial self-driving buses. The Chinese city of Guangzhou went a step further, recently granting licenses to five Chinese companies to allow autonomous vehicles on selected streets.

However, while experts agree while the technology exists and some cities already operating autonomous shuttles, a city of driverless cars remain a long way off

An autonomous vehicle out for a test drive in China. Giulia Marchi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

2. Carbon Neutrality

The International Energy Agency estimates that building and construction sectors contribute 40 percent of a city’s carbon emissions. Yet the rapid pace of urbanisation means an increasing need for more housing and commercial real estate.

The United Nations expects 68 percent of the world’s population to live in cities by 2050. A city with energy-saving buildings would help mitigate against climate change for a more sustainable future.

Where are we now?

Mayors from 19 cities around the world such as Paris, Copenhagen, Tokyo and Sydney pledged that buildings in their cities will adhere to carbon-neutral standards by 2050. In fact, the Danish capital has put together a comprehensive plan to put it in pole position to be the first carbon neutral capital by 2025.

Meanwhile, Melbourne is aiming for zero carbon emissions by next year; its city operations are already certified carbon neutral since 2012 through investing in offsetting projects.

3. Workplace productivity

Artificial intelligence is another key technology for smart cities, offering the ability to optimise traffic and transportation, enhance safety, and boost sustainability efforts.

But companies, too, are tapping AI for the office. Part of the aim is to provide employees the breathing space to work on more meaningful, innovative tasks. This could also create happier, more comfortable and engaging environments. Ultimately, these benefit the bottom line.

Where are we now?

This is one place where gains are moving fairly quickly. Buildings and offices already use AI and sensors to monitor and adjust the temperature and lighting.

Companies such as software firm Autodesk and environmental solution provider Bee’an take it a step further. The former uses algorithms to design an office that matches workers to their preferred working conditions, while the latter’s new headquarters in the UAE deploys AI across all touch points, from procurement, to providing a digital concierge for every employee and visitor. 

Photo by Sergei Bobylev\TASS via Getty Images

4. Inclusive community spaces  

Data-gathering sensors and analytics provide the type of deeper insights that will help city planners create spaces that are more inclusive for the elderly and physically handicapped.

Through smart homes enhanced with remote monitoring, as well as assistive technologies like wearables, citizens that are more vulnerable can enjoy better quality of life and speedier response times for medical emergencies.  

Where are we now?

Barcelona offers a home telecare programme with nearly 100,000 users to check on its senior citizens and the disabled. Melbourne has installed beacon wayfinding technology in six rail stations in the city to help the vision impaired make their way around crowded stations by feeding information to an app called Blindsquare.

In Japan, which has the world’s oldest population, citizens in the Tokyo suburb of Tama can download a free app that could help locate people with dementia who have lost their way or gone missing.