According to the folks at Bechtel, the engineering mega-corporation that builds the world’s biggest projects, something like 70 percent of all people will live in urban centers by 2050.
Today, according to the United Nations, that number is just over half of the population. To support that vast increase in urban populations, those cities must become much more efficient, more sustainable and more responsive to the demands of the people that live there.
The only way for a city to become that much more efficient that soon is to gather real-time data on what’s going on in urban infrastructures now and then analyze that data to determine well in advance how to allocate resources, plan delivery of services, and keep everyone fed, clothed and their needs attended to.
But that requires implementing the big data infrastructure to collect, distribute and deliver the data for analysis. Welcome to what may be the biggest engineering job in history.
Before I talked with Walker Kimball, general manager-Americas for Bechtel’s infrastructure business, the role of the Internet of Things hadn’t really entered my thinking in conjunction with the role of efficient cities.
When people think about smart cities, Kimball said, they also need to be thinking about smart houses. “It boils down to the smart home—then to the smart shower,” Kimball said.
His shower example is something he uses to demonstrate the role data collection can play in human behavior. He explains it by pointing out that there are lots of people who agree that everyone should use less water. But he then points out that it’s impossible to know how to use less water without knowing how much water you’re using for your everyday needs, such as your shower.
If people knew how much water they used when they took a shower, then they would have the information they’d need to use less. Kimball suggested that to get people to modify their behavior, the smart home should have a dashboard that would allow people to know how to change their activities.
“If you have a dashboard, you could understand what the baseline is,” Kimball said. “You fix what you measure. Getting things to the analytical centers gives you guidance on how you measure. It takes you from a subjective fix to an objective fix.”
Bechtel’s job is to provide the infrastructure that supports the data gathering. Kimball said that the company is doing work with Google on their fiber to the home initiative, and working with Google to discover how to provide data to city planners.
This includes data on the kinds of business that’s operating in a city, the kinds of retail, the kind of streets that people need, the kind of cars that people are interested in. “Our job is to get the data from the place where it originates to a company that can do the analytics,” he said.
Smart Cities Require IoT Data to Boost Efficiency, Sustainability
The job of delivering the data for the smart city is part of what’s behind Bechtel’s role in the Smart Cities initiative, which is headlined by the Smart Cities Week taking place in Washington. This is the first time that Smart Cities Week is taking place in the United States. Previous conferences have all taken place in European cities due to the belief by many that cities in the U.S. were less interested in efficiency.
Whether that belief is well-founded or not, Bechtel and its partners, which consist of a Who’s Who of global corporations, brought the conference to Washington. Smart Cities Week is put on by the Smart Cities Council, the chairman of which is former PC Week editor Jesse Berst.
The idea behind making a smart city work is to find out what parts of the city work best, and encouraging people to use those parts. The way to find out what works is to instrument as much as possible and that means monitoring devices that play a role in efficiency. And yes, that means an even greater expansion of the Internet of things (IoT) than we’re already seeing.
“The downside is that you have to enter into the conversation of privacy concerns,” Kimball said. Adding to the complexity, there are cultural differences relating to privacy, including how much sharing of what type of information is acceptable to people. For example, some people may object to the reporting of how much water you use for your shower and some may not.
Kimball said that, in general, people tend to accept some loss of privacy in data sharing when it helps public safety or an improvement in services, especially if there’s a way to prevent misuse of the data. But there’s still the question that has to be dealt with, “How do you deal with the Big Brother stigma,” he said.
Right now, Bechtel is involved with the planning and construction of some of those major smart city projects, including the Dubai 2020 and the Mall of the World, also in Dubai. It’s worth noting that the builders of the Mall of the World say that they’re not building a shopping mall, but instead are building a city. Perhaps this vast mall in the dessert will be the world first real Smart City.
But whether it’s a vast complex centered around a mall, or a newly built city, or an ancient city such as London or Barcelona, both of which are on lists of cities that are well on their way to becoming smart cities, the need for data is vast and the need for analysis is even greater.
But perhaps the benefits are equally great and it’s the occupants of such cities who will decide that.