Talkative bus stops and delivery drones, it’s not hype, it’s the future

24 Apr 2017

By managing a city’s assets – public services, water supply, transport, education – via multiple integrated technology solutions, we can make them more sustainable

Jonathan Emery

Managing Director, Property, Europe

Technology, hand in hand with data, is transforming our cities at an astounding rate. Earlier this summer, Amazon announced it is stepping up its drone tests in UK airspace, bringing the retailer that bit closer to its dream of fleets of unmanned aircraft dropping packages at shoppers’ feet within 30 minutes.

Putting the science-fiction wow-factor of delivery drones to one side, there are subtler ways in which the booming tech industry is revolutionising the urban environment – and arguably having a greater impact.

Data is increasingly being weighed up as a means to address societal needs, but how can technology make places better for residents, communities and businesses? Put simply, by managing a city’s assets – public services, water supply, transport, education – via multiple integrated technology solutions, we can make them more sustainable.

This approach is broadly referred to as a smart city and is often regarded as one of the most over-hyped terms in urban development. Like Amazon’s fleet of drones, it conjures images of a futuristic utopia filled with driverless cars and virtual entertainment. The reality is more understated.

Joe Dignan, global channel partner lead at Future Cities Catapult, argues that “smart cities are not hype, but useful shorthand for the natural process of applying maturing technology and thinking to current societal challenges”.

It will come as no surprise that technology has overtaken financials as the world’s biggest and most thriving economic sector. The UK’s digital tech industries are growing 32% faster than the rest of the UK economy.

Cities are not being rebuilt but are instead becoming smart incrementally, due to the rapid uptake of digital technology such as the internet of things: networks of physical objects embedded with electronics, sensors, and network connectivity. The potential impact of this technology is enormous; globally an estimated 5m things – phones, fridges, water mains – become connected every day. Analysts predict there will be 25bn connected objects by 2020.

Wearable technologies, public access to open datasets, and collaborative data gathering projects change the role of the citizen from subject to active participant. Although this is a gradual process, Andrew Collinge, assistant director at the Greater London Authority, says this is already starting to have an effect on sustainability: “Digital technology has significantly increased our ability to collect and publish in formats that can be read by both humans and machines: datasets on the things that matter to city life – such as air quality, energy demand, travel patterns, and how citizens behave and feel.
Elephant Park, London
“This approach promotes both stronger analytical approaches and internet-of-things-based innovation, further strengthening our hand when it comes to measuring the social, economic and environmental impact of regeneration activity in London’s communities.”

The idea of delivering intelligent, seamless government services is already being trialled in Manchester. The CityVerve Project is testing services using internet-of-things technology – putting the focus on real problems and their solutions. It includes plans for “talkative” bus stops, which let bus operators know when commuters are waiting, and a network of sensors in parks and along commuter routes to encourage people to do more physical activity.

Adding sensors and data analysis to equipment like streetlamps, vehicles or our white goods at home will help deliver more personal, efficient and flexible products and services.

As we know, the proportion of the world’s urban population is ballooning and maintaining supply and conservation of urban resources is one of London’s greatest challenges.

In an age where community spirit and interaction can be wanting, data projects present a unique opportunity to facilitate community cohesion. For example, Lendlease’s regeneration of Elephant and Castle in south London is exploring how digital technology can help its residents get to know one another and gain the best possible experience from their new neighbourhood.

Neil Martin, Lendlease’s managing director of construction, explains that sharing and collaboration is the key: “Our team is looking at developing a smartphone app that allows residents to come together. We are particularly excited about the app’s ability to help the community hold events and gatherings in the new park, helping the residents form a real sense of ownership and civic pride for the space.”

Lendlease has ensured data is at the heart of its commercial regeneration project, Barangaroo – Sydney’s largest urban renewal project and one of the most significant waterfront transformations in the world. Rather than having multiple unconnected building management systems, it has overlaid a data platform to centralise monitoring and management. 1m of the buildings’ data points can be analysed in real time – to optimise operational efficiency and deliver the best possible experience for users.

Building on its experience, Lendlease is spearheading a data-centric approach at the International Quarter London development. The use of an Urban Operating System is being investigated as a means to pull data from buildings, the public realm and third parties, such as Transport for London, to monitor and enhance the health and wellbeing of office workers, residents and visitors.

We are all familiar with the modern phenomenon of stepping on to our early-morning train only to be greeted by a sea of commuters, heads down, glued intently to their smartphones. But as cities enter a new technological age, the collection and analysis of data will be key to understanding people’s interactions with buildings and infrastructure and in turn, unlock a more efficient, streamlined and, with any luck, happier city.