Sustainable Cities Collective has re-launched as Smart Cities Dive! Click here to learn more!

Smart City Tech is Not Yet Living Up To Its Promise to Solve Environmental Problems

The UK's Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) has published a new report into whether 'smart' approaches can offer cities more efficient ways to tackle entrenched environmental challenges, and likewise whether a determination to tackle these challenges can stimulate new smart thinking.
 
The report – "Getting the green light: will smart technology clean up city environments?" – found that despite the smart city concept itself being relatively new, and the environmental aspect of smart city thinking even more so, there is real potential for innovations in this area to help cities meet their contribution toward legislated environmental targets across a range of environmental challenges, including carbon emissions, air quality, recycling rates, and water management. 

However, this potential is not yet being demonstrated and there are significant barriers that need to be addressed before the potential can be realised.

Of course there are many definitions of a smart city. This report confines itself to considering initiatives and applications based upon using networked devices, both centrally- and citizen-controlled, and analysis of the data to improve the functioning and capability of cities.

It looks at whether smart approaches can find new ways to tackle entrenched environmental challenges, focusing in part on 10 British cities: Greater London, Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, Sheffield, Bradford, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester and Bristol.

It compares their recent performance relative to statutory national and local environmental targets for recycling, carbon dioxide emission reductions and air quality, finding that over the past 10 years for all of them improvements have been only marginal, and that the situation had actually got worse in the last couple of years.

E.g.: the 10 cities' performance on CO2 reduction:

10 cities performance on CO2 reduction

The problem it identifies is that cities are constrained in their efforts to meet environmental challenges by a range of factors: not simply "lack of money but lack of control over how that money is spent in their area. Also a lack of any long-term certainty over levels of funding from central government, and an overcomplicated system of local government, where key powers and responsibilities are shared across different levels and by different institutions often varying from city to city".

This is the conclusion of the Centre for Cities think tank's 'Manifesto for a More Prospers Urban Britain'. This think tank has been lobbying furiously for more devolution of powers to regional and urban areas around the UK, especially since the vote on Scottish independence.

Besides these problems, there are the following:

  1. an increase in the number of diesel vehicles causing higher levels of particulate emissions
  2. population growth leading to an increase in carbon emissions
  3. a levelling off in improvements on recycling rates;
  4. an ageing infrastructure of water pipes increasing the number of leaks;
  5. environmental quality at the local level worsening due to increased urbanisation.

Having identified the problem, the question is can smart data help to solve them?

The smart data city opportunity for improving the environment (click on the image to bring up a larger version):

The smart data city opportunity for improving the environment

The survey looks at city case studies where smart data and apps might be making a real difference. They include:

  • Milton Keynes' deployment of 1000 sensors to create a big data infrastructure that hopes to drive innovation in the areas of transport, energy and water management;
  • researchers in Hong Kong travelling commuter routes wearing sensors that gathered data on aspects of air quality, displaying it on a dashboard "in the hope that by making it public citizens can take action";
  • sensors on public transport vehicles in Belgrade that monitor a set of environmental parameters;
  • and a quality smart phone app – The AirProbe – being used by hundreds of volunteers across Europe;
  • IBM/AECOM's 'Smart Water Management System' which aggregates data from disparate sources, providing comprehensive, real-time, and system-wide views to improve detection of water leaks;
  • a Keep Britain Tidy smartphone app that lets citizens inform authorities about environmental crimes such as flytipping;
  • the Greater London Authority's 'London Dashboard' which aims to enable citizens to access data that public organisations hold and use it however they see fit. Manchester City Council is following a similar path.

Greater London Dashboard screenshot:

Greater London Dashboard screenshot

These technologies are helping to create new policy tools by enabling policymakers to incorporate citizens' collective preferences as identified from social media data and then enabling citizens to directly influence city policy choices. For example Spacehive uses crowdsourcing and community engagement to identify and deliver investment in urban public spaces.

Spacehive campaign example: Save Ancoats Dispensary:

Spacehive campaign example: save Ancoats Dispensary

Smart parking is another application: it requires the rollout of ultra-low power sensors that provide real-time status of every parking space and deliver it to an app that can be used by drivers. Such a project is being developed for the City of Westminster and Milton Keynes.

Milton Keynes is also trialling 'smart bins' which contain sensors that detect when public bins need emptying and send messages to the waste collection authority, with the intention of avoiding needless journeys.

Other areas identified by the report include the remote control of street lighting to save energy (a project in Glasgow as replace 72,000 street lamps with LEDs and senses that has cut energy use by up to 60%), automated demand response for smart grids, and forcing hybrid powered vehicles to switch to electric propulsion automatically in areas suffering from high air pollution.

Despite all of these developments, however, there is "little widespread evidence yet of smart initiatives making a significant impact on environmental problems", says the report. Cautiously it identifies a smart water meter project in Amsterdam, and a smart grid pilot in Bristol as having demonstrated slight improvements.

"Clearly this is a new field and it may be that with time smart environmental solution will become standard practice, but our research has also uncovered a series of barriers in the way and reasons why an effective market in smart environmental technology appears to be some way off" it concludes.

These barriers include:

  1. that the environment is not prioritised in smart initiatives;
  2. that smart solutions do not by themselves create a motivation to act more responsibly;
  3. that sometimes non-smart solutions are more relevant;
  4. that in fact city governance structures can actually inhibit smart solutions;
  5. funders will not invest without evidence but this cannot be forthcoming without funding;
  6. cities may like procurement skills that are relevant;
  7. there is a lack of motivation to tackle environmental externalities which undermines business models for smart environmental solutions.

The main conclusion seems to be that without significantly increased incentives for investment in this direction, the use of smart data and technology for solving environmental problems in cities will be eclipsed by the prospect of more money-making and glamorous uses ofsus the technologies concerned.
 
It cautions: "It is important not to 'oversell' the impact of smart solutions – in many cases the most effective approaches will be the blending of smart elements with traditional engineering solutions."
 
And it recommends that "more effort be put into to creating a central case study depository to enable a better understanding of where knowledge and tested best practice can be deployed elsewhere, and the better dissemination of hard evidence on what works and what doesn't".
 
Finaly, the smart city market will develop better and costs come down if there is a greater standardisation of approach to initiatives such as data portals. It calls upon the greater use of the BSI Smart Cities Framework to spread good practice.