Technologies and Data Help Make Cities Even Smarter

Vehicle-to-grid systems, smart street lighting and massive amounts of data. Those are just a few of the things that some of the world’s leading “smart cities” have in common, experts say.

Still, according to speakers on a Smart Cities panel discussion at New York Energy Week in late June, every smart city is unique, with its approach dependent on its own history and existing infrastructure. New York City, for instance, is in the midst of converting its thousands of no-longer-needed payphones into Wifi hotspots, according to New York City Chief Technology Officer Minerva Tantoco.

Meanwhile, Amsterdam, which centuries ago collected reams of data on the huge numbers of cargo ships that passed through its port, is today embracing new sets of data to encourage new energy products and services, said Ger Baron, the city’s CTO.

The concept of a smart city is a broad one, typically involving technology that improves services ranging from transportation to healthcare, from education to water and waste.

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Energy is another huge component of today’s smart city, the panelists agreed. Amsterdam is a leader in this space: the Dutch city has the world’s largest per-capita number of electric vehicles, as well as the most charging stations on a per-capita basis, Baron said. The city has up to 7,000 electric vehicles charging on an average day, he said, and has begun a vehicle-to-grid program to help manage Amsterdam’s energy usage.

And the city’s busy Schiphol Airport has hundreds or thousands of EVs in its parking lots on any given day. Airport officials are now looking to build their own vehicle-to-grid system using those parked cars, he said. “The airport is saying, ‘Potentially we have the biggest battery in the world, sitting in our parking lot.’”

In San Diego, the city has converted some 75,000 street lights to LEDs, resulting in reduced operating costs as well as carbon emissions. The city has taken a further step, said Jason Anderson, President and CEO of CleanTech San Diego: G.E. has installed about 5,000 “acorn” style street lights in downtown San Diego that have Wifi capabilities, and the city is now looking to use the Wifi for things like synchronizing the stoplights to help traffic flow better.

Smart cities are also planning for rising sea levels and other impacts of climate change. In New York, “we’re working on planning for improved drainage, sea walls, you name it,” Tantoco said. “We’re looking at all the possible technology solutions for these potential disasters.”

Smart city features can beget additional smart city features. Amsterdam, for instance, created an “energy atlas” of the city’s buildings, identifying features like each building’s energy usage, its age, its potential for solar or CHP systems, and about two dozen additional data points, Baron said. “This created market insight for a lot of companies that they couldn’t afford alone,” he said. “It enables them to develop different products and services, specialized for a certain neighborhood.”

San Diego is also capturing new data points after installing sensors within the HVAC system of one of its buildings. Cleantech San Diego then installed monitors in the lobby of that building, Anderson says, which shows visitors how energy was being used and generated, and how that use could be reduced. “Data means nothing unless you can make some sort of sense of it,” Anderson says “Unless the data is understood by the masses, it doesn’t really mean anything.

Indeed, that’s a crucial point regarding all the data that’s being generated by smart city technologies.

“You can have all the technology in the world to enable a smart city,” said Craig Cavanaugh, v.p., strategy & sales, at Omnetric Group. “I think technology is a fantastic enabler. But what makes a smart city is the ability to be aware of the data. Not just having but being aware of it, being able to analyze it. It’s about being able to act on the data.” Without that, data is just data. But with that ability to take action, cities can become truly “smart” cities.

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