Seven of the ten largest cities in the world are currently in Asia, and the number of people immigrating to cities in the region is increasing at potentially unsustainable levels. The rate of urbanisation is unprecedented, with city populations increasing from 579 million in 2000 to 778 million in 2010.
This sudden increase in urban migration puts huge pressure on these cities and several are experiencing problems because of it. China, for instance, has seen a 1000% increase in car usage in the last 25 years. This means that the level of congestion is huge and the roads are some of the most unsafe in the world, especially in their overburdened cities.
India currently has a huge problem with pollution in their urban areas, Delhi being the most polluted city in the world, having a concentration of 153µg/m3, 15 times more the WHO guidelines. It is almost at three times the level in Beijing, which has recently needed to close schools due to smog in the city. This huge level of pollution comes from a 4.3% growth rate between 2013 and 2015.
To try and solve these issues, countries in the region are looking at adopting new smart technologies. Given that many Asian cities are also growing economically and technologically in the world economy, the need and capabilities there mean Asian countries should become leaders of the smart city movement.
However, one of the big issues that they are finding is that despite a drive to create smart cities, it is incredibly difficult to retro-fit on existing infrastructures that aren't necessarily designed for new technology, especially from a data collection and analysis perspective.
For instance, Songdo is a South Korean smart city that is currently under construction and is expected to be ready by 2018 at a total cost of $35 billion. It has been designed to reduce travel time, with built in sensors on the street to monitor and manage human traffic. 40% of the city will be green space and it will have an extensive pipe system to help with recycling, where trash is removed directly from residential units.
Although the city will only house 1 million people, just 3% of the population of Tokyo, it is hoped that this can act as a petri dish for other smart cities, be they newly built of retro-fitted. By means of tested technology, methods and theories, it may be used in other cities around the world. Through building a comparatively small scale smart city, Songdo can become a testing ground for initiatives that could be implemented in considerably larger existing cities.
However, it is not only in newly built cities that smart technologies and data are being used to make an impact in the region, with Singapore being a prime example of this. Here the government begun experimenting with smart technologies in a single district of the city, the Jurong Lake District. Here they installed over 1000 sensors to monitor a range of elements and combined these with data hubs - Above Ground Boxes - to provide high speed connectivity and house the sensors.
This was combined with an automated sanitation system using video analytics and smart bins and there have even been driverless buggies used to transport people around the area in a more efficient and safer manner. In fact, the automated elements of transport are an important element for the city, as Carlo Ratti, a smart city researcher, told Wired that 'the mobility demand of a city such as Singapore could be met with 30 per cent of its existing vehicles.’ The idea therefore is to use data and the Internet of Things to allow autonomous vehicles to control much of the cities transport system.
The key to any smart city is going to be in the use of sensors and the collection of useable data, which is where the real challenges lie. The development of the Internet of Things means that the sensors used throughout cities can be inter-connected, making the management of these cities considerably easier and allowing a city of millions of people and trillions of daily actions to be controllable. This will make things like drainage, pollution control and even traffic management, automated and optimized, meaning that different elements can be initiated when needed and disengaged when not, without the need for human interaction. A key to this will be the speeds in which data can be transferred, something that Singapore has managed to solve with its Above Ground Boxes. It will be a much bigger challenge for other cities, where the existing internet connectivity isn't as good.
However, smart cities are not simply about automating processes or acting through strategically-placed sensors. It will also need to include mining existing data sources, such as GPS data from phones, social media chatter regarding the city and even sentiment analysis to establish the perception of any changes made. The amount of data that this will produce for a city of several million people will mean so robust and effective that approaches will need to be taken to its collection, in-depth machine driven mining techniques will be needed for analysis, and strong robust security will be needed for its protection.
It will be these data-driven challenges that dictate the success of smart cities, but with the growth of new smart technologies and data-driven city infrastructure in Asia, we may be closer than we think.