Singapore is creating a 'digital twin' that uses AI to learn from the original and become better than the real thing. (Photo: Getty).

The space race? So last century. Today’s technology race is in your own town

Sensors that turn the city into a ‘body’ which can detect its own workings. ‘Digital twins’ that are new improved versions of the original town. The sprint for the urban environment of the future is on, writes Mark Thomas.

In his recent book The Fourth Age, technology entrepreneur Byron Reese says we will see more change in the next 50 years than we have seen in the last 5,000.

Is this just one of those exaggerated, non-quantifiable claims that entrepreneurs sometimes make?

Well, he recalls that for 4,940 years after we invented the wheel we remained firmly affixed to the earth, and yet 60 years later we had not only achieved flight but had flown to the moon and back.

One problem with change is that it’s uneven. The United States is the only country to have had people walk on the moon and, with the former USSR and China, to have landed craft there – with China getting there only in 2013.

This same uneven pace of change is taking place among the world’s cities as they embrace, or not, the new technology underpinning Reece’s forecast. It has become the new space race: A race to make our cities more sustainable and more liveable.

At this year’s biggest global smart city event, the Smart City World Congress in Barcelona, new age moon walkers were obvious.

Barcelona is not the easiest place to get to, and late autumn is not the best time to visit. But for eight years the world’s smart city leaders and wannabes have been coming here because this city, the same size as Auckland, has become a global powerhouse for smart thinking mainly as a result of the leadership of its mayor at the time. More than 700 cities from 146 countries were represented.

Barcelona impresses with is fully automated consumption-based lighting which helps to reduce energy costs, pneumatic public rubbish bins sucking different types of waste to central processing, free electric vehicle tops-ups and its replacement of plastic cards with phones for public transport ticketing.

But the congress profiles much more than its host city. It is an arena where the next small steps and giant leaps are taking place. Taiwan’s capital city Tapei is installing a ‘neural network’. Multi-sensor street lights will be internet connected (the so-called internet of things approach) to track traffic volumes and parking space usage, check on air quality, monitor citizen safety, provide local weather and even, to help pay for it, advertising.

If Auckland Transport and the government had thought ahead and installed the same when funding the upgrade of Auckland streets lights from 2013, street flooding could be detected and acted on much quicker – as Chicago is able to do for its snow storms with its smart light network (meanwhile reducing its yearly street lighting energy costs by up to 60 percent).

In Singapore this network is extending to the whole ‘body’ with the development of what’s called a digital twin. This ‘Virtual Singapore’ creates an alternate city representing both the physical environment in digital form but also the things actually taking place in real time, such as outdoor temperatures, wind speed, congestion levels – even citizen direct inputs.

The twin is fed via artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning and, as twins do, it learns from itself and then undertakes self-improvement to be better than the real thing, which is of course the point. Thus planners can simulate their improvement ideas in much greater detail (do cycle lanes come to mind?) before physically implementing them, and better avoid ‘unforeseen’ problems.

Internet of things (IoT) devices and sensors update the twin to analyse and improve energy usage, better optimise existing locations, assess likely maintenance requirements, and generally identify more efficient ways of working.

Multiple births are becoming a thing in cities such as Dubai, Paris, Toronto, while others work on extending the family with their own digital twins. Yonsei University in South Korea found almost 30 percent of smart city services are now using IoT and big data – particularly in the transportation, energy and environment sectors.

Helsinki is using artificial intelligence to help run its bike sharing scheme, and the technology now underpins a significant part of the city’s operations. It makes decisions on office temperature levels based on grid demand, weather forecast (Helsinki has nearly three months of the year when the high reaches 20 degrees and five months when the high is below 5 degrees), energy use forecast and, happily, the AI also factors in personal preferences. That has led to 15 percent less energy use. It also optimises traffic lights and reduced delays/stops by 15-17 percent.

Helsinki’s Smart City officer likens AI to hiring a new person. It needs training, controlled computer system access and regular performance reviews!

In Moscow, a virtual operator is used to triage the 24 million calls received annually at the citywide call centre. It identifies and tracks the callers’ emotional state and adjusts in response. This has helped reduce workload by 30 percent and improve service.

Dubai won the city of the year prize at last year’s world expo for its blockchain initiatives. Blockchain is like playing a game of rugby without a referee or TMO but where all the players agree to keep track of the score. New players can also only be admitted by agreement, and infringements and penalties are similarly confirmed. Everything is recorded in case there are any disputes. The players create and, by consensus, can change the rules.

Using this online, secure but decentralised approach, Dubai has implemented 21 blockchain-based projects. Renting or buying a property is done via a blockchain where more than 500,000 title deeds are kept secure and publicly accessed. Electric vehicles are registered by blockchain, and by 2020 all of Dubai’s vehicle management including licencing and rental cars, bill payments and visa applications will be undertaken via blockchain. The efficiency benefits are expected to save $1.5 billion a year.

But smart city developments don’t all involve landing someone on the moon. In San Francisco it’s as straightforward as EV owners using the Plugshare app to let people know, if they want to, that their home EV charger is available if needed.

In the 120,000-person north Italian town of Trento, citizens use the i-Log ‘people sensing’ app. Controlled by its users, it tracks how citizens move around and interact with the city. It provides data sensed from the phone across location, light, direction, movement times and temperature as well as citizen feedback on system-generated questions – for example, which mode of transport did you use? (You don’t have to answer!). AI then calculates the purpose of the trip and uses this information for additional city planning.

There was a great deal of discussion at the congress about Mobility as a Service (MaaS), the so-called Netflix of transport currently being used in different forms in several European cities. In Helsinki, the most developed example, its 600,000 citizens can use the Whim app to book a trip using public transport, bikes, taxis and even car sharing. One app, one transaction, many options. It’s a no-brainer for public transport agencies to get in behind it as it generates greater revenue.

In cities in Europe and China, public transport apps are feeding real-time trip data into AI-driven (machine learning) systems to improve route planning.

Convergence is the buzzword as ride, car and bike-sharing businesses scale up and begin to aggregate.

Smart city techniques are also key in cities’ climate change fight. Munich aims to become self-sufficient in green energy production making Bavaria the first million-plus city in the world to be run entirely on renewable power.

The changes underway in many of the cities presenting at Barcelona are vast and they give a real sense that Reese’s 50-year projection has validity. And this is without factoring in the even bigger impact 5G, quantum computing and advanced AI will have.

In New Zealand, although city people are often happy to talk, there is still too little formal digital collaboration and sharing. It was great to see a solid Kiwi representation at the recent Australia Smart Cities Week conference and the Australia New Zealand Smart Cities Council is helping establish a New Zealand smart city officer network.

That’s a start. Barcelona’s transformation came from strong civic leadership but if New Zealand’s cities are to avoid being stranded in this new space race, it will need a higher government priority and greater public private collaboration.

The newly formed Housing and Urban Development Agency might have been a home for this but its priority appears to be more houses and the homeless, not neural networks and next generation.

Mayors and CEOs in small cities around the world have shown smarter leadership is possible without scale. But given New Zealand’s cities are well behind current, let alone emerging, international smart cities best practice a turbo charged rocket is needed.

Mark Thomas leads a smart cities enterprise based in Singapore. He was an elected member of Auckland Council for its first two terms.


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