You fall ill with suspected Covid-19, call an autonomous ambulance and are whizzed to hospital, with traffic lights automatically turning green as you approach. On the way, the vehicle measures your vital signs and transmits them to the medical team, so they are ready for your arrival, increasing your chance of quick and effective treatment.
This scenario may sound futuristic, but in London it is potentially closer than you might think, thanks to the city’s pioneering approach to using digital information across a range of sectors from healthcare and the environment to transport and energy.
London is a pioneer of smart city technology
Digitalisation entails viewing data capture and processing in real time as a resource that is as important as water or energy. It combines sensors and video cameras with internet of things connectivity and will be the basis of smart cities.
It has led to numerous apps from 17,000 developers using Transport for London’s 89 travel feeds alone. Probably the best known is Citymapper, a journey planner launched in 2012, which provides route suggestions and calculates estimated time of arrival. It has expanded beyond London to 39 cities worldwide.
Many applications have been made possible by The London Datastore, introduced in 2010 to make some of city’s data accessible to the public. By 2019, this had grown from 50 datasets to some 700. London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, is keen for London to continue to be a pioneer of smart city technology.
In support of better health, digitalisation is helping protect people from Covid-19 in multiple ways, from monitoring / improving air quality and encouraging cycling to keeping people safe at work. The UN forecasts that by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. Cleaner air is crucial to keeping them healthy.
Digitalisation has allowed London to introduce the world’s first Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), requiring vehicles that visit the city centre to meet strict emission standards or pay a daily charge. A network of sensors monitors traffic flow and forecasts pollution levels to warn support agencies and vulnerable individuals.
Adaptive algorithms are used to adjust traffic light timings automatically, letting more vehicles flow through the road network with fewer delays. This has reduced roadside nitrogen dioxide by 44% since February 2017. Here there is the potential for more to come with active traffic flow management to reduce congestion and help improve air quality in hotspots further.
Life is also being transformed inside buildings, where we spend 90% of our time. Post-lockdown, digitalisation can play a huge role in encouraging people back to the workplace by making it as comfortable and as safe as possible.
Smart buildings learn what suits their occupants, and adapt. At Siemens, for example, we are rolling out an app called Comfy that helps building operators better manage the many systems and lets employees book a desk as they might a seat on a train. They can also navigate offices and campuses with maps, locate colleagues and personalise temperature and lighting levels.
Eventually, sensors as part of the Internet of Things will let staff view the occupancy of desks, rooms and offices in real time. And we are exploring the use of software models, or “digital twins”, to simulate the movement of people in large public buildings such as stations and airports to help avoid overcrowding.
Apps can also control access using people’s devices, such as their mobile phones, helping protect them from exposure to potential Covid-19 spreaders. In addition, software is being developed to facilitate antibody testing, temperature checking, and track and trace.
Analysis of supply chains has a role to play in keeping cities resilient, by identifying which parts are most sensitive to disruption. This helps ensure supplies of food and medication.
Reducing energy demand and therefore cutting carbon emissions is another area where progress is being made. In Manchester, Siemens has been working with the city council and universities to flatten peak demand on the power network and increase local use of renewable and low-carbon energy.
Data transparency is vital for trust
A possible barrier to the success of smart city apps is people’s resistance to sharing their personal information. However, individuals are often willing to compromise if they see a benefit, for example, avoiding a road toll if they take a less congested route.
Persuading people to share data will require transparency about why the information is being collected and how it will be used and protected.
Artificial intelligence, machine learning, virtual and augmented reality, along with advances in sensor and communications technology, will enable entrepreneurs to develop many more apps to help city dwellers stay healthy.
But to create the resilient and sustainable urban environments we need for the future, we must get better at analysing data. This requires close co-operation between businesses and the public sector. Entrepreneurs and city administrators have to work together. Only then, will we realise the full potential of digitalisation to transform cities.
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