This article was first published by Yale Environment 360. Read the original story Here.
Last February, the Toyota Motor Company broke ground on what it calls Woven City, a built-from-scratch futuristic urban center on 175 acres in the shadow of Mount Fuji. Woven City refers specifically to the way in which the project plans on weaving together cars, robots data and computers to create a city that, according to the builders, will be highly efficient, polluting-free, and sustainable.
Toyota claims that the new city will be carbon-neutral. Toyota says that the new city will be carbon neutral. The autonomous cars will run on non-polluting, green hydrogen. Solar and wind provide other energy requirements. Woven City’s sensors will collect a variety metrics and process them with artificial Intelligence to help it run cleaner and more smoothly.
Woven City is one of a burgeoning number of “smart cities” that have been recently built or are now being planned or constructed. NEOM is a $500 billion sprawling futuristic city for a million people under construction in Saudi Arabia. Egypt is building a new smart capital near Cairo that planners say could eventually be home to 6.5 million people. Telosa, proposed by a former Walmart executive, would be a city of 50,000 in the western United States “in a place yet to be determined.” Numerous smart cities have been or are being built in China.
There’s no single concept of a smart city. The basic definition of a smart city is one that has sensors that monitor many aspects of life, including traffic, pollution, energy, and water use. In the case of the Woven City, “smart homes” will feature sensors that will monitor the occupants’ health. The backbone of these prototype communities is the Internet of Things (IoT), which allows for the interconnection of small computers embedded in everyday objects. Artificial intelligence will interpret the vast amount of data to make cities more livable and greener.
While proponents say these communities represent the future of a healthier planet, some prominent smart cities have faced serious obstacles to realizing their utopian visions. Masdar City in Abu Dhabi abandoned its smart city master plan because of financial problems that began in 2008 and continued because the cost of some aspects of the city was far more than forecast. Songdo is a completed smart city with a population of 170,000 in South Korea that has not been able to fill its buildings. It’s sometimes described as a ghost town, or, variously, as cold, impersonal, homogenous, and dully predictable.
One recent paper on smart cites grappled with ways these cities can introduce serendipity into daily life to combat their monotonous nature.
“There are a lot of good things that can come of” smart city concepts, “especially for the environmental applications,” said Shannon Mattern, a professor of anthropology at The New School for Social Research and the author of A city is not a computer. “But it really limits your [ways] of intervention to the types of things that lend themselves to quantitative measurement,” she said. “When you take messy ambiguous dimensions of human nature and try to find ways to algorithmicize them, there is always a failure there, something that slips through the cracks.” History, culture, and the spiritual aspects of life are among those aspects that critics cite as missing from — or are diminished — in smart cities.
There has been criticism of smart cities that are too disconnected from the land on which they were built. Her book Spaceship in the Desert, about Masdar City, Gökçe Günel, an anthropologist at Rice University, said both Masdar City and Neom “share the vision that the desert is an empty zone on which any kind of ideal can be projected,” she said. “That’s why I compared Masdar City to a spaceship insulated from the rest of the world.”
Leading analysts believe that smarter cities are possible despite the fact that billions of dollars have been spent on creating these futuristic, Oz-like cities.
“I hate almost every effort at building a greenfield smart city,” said Boyd Cohen, a professor at EADA, a business school in Barcelona, who is one of the pioneers of the smart city concept and a longtime climate strategist. “A smart city without people is a dumb city. A smart city is built without people, history, and culture. The developers say, ‘We are going to build this great, amazing city and people will come,’ and they don’t. People want to live in communities and have culture around them.”
Cohen suggested that an alternative to building a new city on virgin land is to integrate smart technologies into existing cities. London, Singapore, and Barcelona are some of the leading cities in the world that have adopted smart technologies to make their infrastructure more efficient and greener. London’s light poles have sensors that monitor air quality and indicate areas where it can be avoided. Because collecting trash is the most expensive part of the waste disposal process, Barcelona adopted “smart bins” that signal when they are full and ready for pick up. Technology is not always the best or only solution.
Cohen believes that cities are at the forefront of climate change and must be smarter to survive. “In 2009 [at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen] everyone thought Obama and the United Nations were going to save the world” with agreements to restrict CO2 emissions, he said. “It didn’t happen and still isn’t happening. I then turned my attention to cities. That’s the place where we will get faster action on climate change.”
Smart Cities, Smart Grids
Cohen believes that urban planning is the most important way to reduce fossil fuel consumption and pollution. Effective urban design — density, walkability, mixed use so people don’t have to drive long distances, and efficient, clean electric or hydrogen public transportation — is the foundation. “Then you layer in tech,” he said. “Technology around renewable and distributed energy. To make our buildings more efficient in energy use. If you tackle energy consumption and transportation and urban planning, you have gone a long way toward solving the climate problem.”
Smart grids are a key component of smart cities. These power grids improve the delivery of electricity by receiving data from users via the IoT. This data gives experts information about energy usage, including where and when it is used. It interprets this data with artificial intelligence in some models. But as energy sources are diversified — solar and wind from large and small sources, even individual homes, as well as traditional sources — it makes it harder for electrical systems to efficiently sense where power is needed and to allocate it. Smart grids can manage power more efficiently and avoid waste.
Smart applications are also being used in cities. Parking is the bane of urban dwellers, so smart parking has gotten a lot of attention. Santander, Spain, for example, is considered one of the world’s smartest cities because it has 20,000 parking sensors connected to the IoT. Sensors located under parking spaces can detect when they are empty and transmit that information to antennas, which beam it to a control centre. The signs direct drivers to empty spots, reducing the time spent searching for one, as well as reducing fuel consumption, automobile pollution, and traffic congestion.
In Utrecht in the Netherlands, people ride “sniffer bikes” that measure three types of particulate air pollution, as well recording their location, speed, battery voltage, temperature and humidity, road conditions, and organic gases, which are sent to a central data hub. People can choose the best route and act as sensors to provide information to city managers.
Smart applications also target water use. A smartphone app can alert residents to a leak in their plumbing, and allow them to monitor their consumption and quality.
Barcelona pioneered smart water irrigation systems in public spaces. Officials surveyed the plants in each park to determine how much water they needed. Water and humidity sensors combined with data from weather stations, rain gauges and weather stations provide information on soil and air moisture and allow water delivery. The city says it saves 25 percent on its water bill — more than 400,000 euros a year.
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Smart cities are now having trouble with the question of who has access to the data and how it will use. A Google affiliate called Sidewalk Labs had plans for a 12-acre smart city development, called Quayside, on Toronto’s lakefront. The project was met with opposition from many people, mostly because it was not trusted to manage the data. Roger McNamee (a venture capitalist) wrote a letter stating that the information technology company could not be trusted. “The smart city project on the Toronto waterfront is the most highly evolved version to date … of surveillance capitalism,” he wrote. The company will use “algorithms to nudge human behavior” in the direction “that favors its business.”
Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel L. Doctoroff said the 2020 cancellation of the project was largely a result of the pandemic and economic uncertainty in the Toronto real estate market. “It has become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan,” Doctoroff wrote last year.
It’s clear that the vision of what works as a smart city is still in the early stages, especially as technology and concepts continue to evolve. “It will take time to scale up the most sustainable models across a city, let alone the world,” said Cohen.
Jim Robbins is a veteran journalist based in Helena, Montana. A regular contributor to Yale Environment 360, he has written for the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler and numerous other publications. His most recent book is the The Wonder of Birds: What they Can Tell Us About the World, Ourself and a Better Future.
Source: Inside Climate News