Can Ancient Cities Become Smart?

Retrofitting a city to make it smart poses challenges, but is possible


Building smart cities is easy, we are seeing them spring up all over the world. India, for instance, has pledged to build 100 of them, and in growing urban areas, such as Dubai, smart elements are being incorporated into new buildings and infrastructure as they are constructed. This is simple because buildings or infrastructure can incorporate smart elements easily, the problem comes when you’re trying to retrofit smart technology onto existing infrastructure.

Given that people and businesses are unlikely to move purely because a smart city has been built nearby, this is arguably the biggest challenge that smart cities face. After all, businesses are based in specific cities for a reason. London, for instance, has a huge number of banks in a small area, which then have a huge number of other clusters nearby to take advantage of this. Unless there is a seismic shift (which Brexit may end up being, but regardless) they are unlikely to leave this highly positive business environment. It means that to make London a smart city, work needs to be done to retrofit what’s already there.

However, despite the challenges from retrofitting, cities like London are managing to implement smart infrastructure relatively effectively. One of the key elements to this is the progressive thinking of organizations like the TFL, who have a relatively long history of effective data use that has allowed the transport network to run efficiently. We recently spoke to Rikesh Shah, Lead Digital Partnerships Manager at Transport for London, who told us about the 600 apps created through the use of TFL’s data, something that helps the network run smoothly, transporting 1.37 billion people annually.

In some cases the old systems are just being utilized in a smart way, but redesigned completely, where possible, to increase usability, reliability, and functionality. For instance, in Barcelona there were 108 bus lines which ran seemingly randomly through the city, making it more difficult to increase journey speeds or move more people. Therefore the city cut this to 28 lines, but arranged in a grid. According to Vincent Guallart Furio, chief architect for the city council, ‘More than improving the old system with technology, we are re-designing it and then using technology to make it more usable and transparent.’

Using this kind of approach of redesigning where possible, building on the infrastructure that already exists, and using data that is already being produced to improve the city is certainly one way of creating smarter cities. However, with the speed of change and the necessity to generate more data, these relatively limited actions are only going to have a small impact.

Instead the conversion of existing infrastructure to incorporate smart elements is going to be key. In Barcelona, for instance, they have started to use lampposts as Wi-Fi access point supports in Passeig de Gràcia, which then helps in creating a more fully formed and useable network allowing data focussed smart devices to communicate. Creating the foundations upon which other technologies can be built is essential and through these kinds of initiatives, where existing infrastructure can be built on to create a smarter network upon which a more comprehensive smart city can be built.


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