Smart cities: big data to improve city life

Smart and sustainable

4 January 2016

Tim Dixon reports on research that demonstrates the importance of big data to improve city life

Using big data to create cities that are smart and sustainable is critical if we are to transition to a low-carbon future. Research at the University of Reading shows that integration, innovation and interdisciplinary working is vital in creating successful future cities.

We live in an urbanised world where more than 50% of the global population lives in cities, a figure that is set to grow to 66% by 2050. This growth is occurring in mega-cities, smaller and medium-sized cities in the developed and developing world. RICS' Futures programme recognised that this unprecedented urban growth presents huge opportunities: cities can act as vibrant hubs of innovation, enterprise and jobs growth and places that create economies of scale in technology deployment.

However, this development can also mean more greenhouse gas emissions are created, more resources are depleted, more energy is consumed, and larger, dense populations become increasingly vulnerable. The emergence of big data techniques can help to provide solutions to some of the most pressing urban challenges.

City model

Commercial companies have seen a growing market for the future development of smart city technologies, and the supply of big data (huge, dynamic datasets) has increased. Advocates argue that technology can enhance economic development and quality of life, and the increasing availability and integration of big data can underpin these goals. Information for decision-making at a range of scales is vital, and potentially increased by the rapid development of technologies, such as mobile devices and ubiquitous computing.

We live in an urbanised world where more than 50% of the global population lives in cities, a figure that is set to grow to 66% by 2050

The smart city concept in its purest sense, however, presents substantial challenges: focusing exclusively on the eye-catching smart technology aspects of cities distracts from following a truly sustainable path of urban development. It is vital to bear this in mind, given that the majority of the buildings and cities in the developed world are likely to still exist in 2050. Ensuring that existing cities are smart and sustainable is paramount.

The University of Reading research suggests that cities need 3 main critical and high-level factors in place to succeed.

Integrated approach: developing a clear vision (or a shared expectation of the future) for a city is fundamental, and putting people at its heart is critical to success.

Smart city thinking typically sees pervasive technologies (e.g. telecoms, transport and infrastructure systems, sensors, meters and other networks) as offering the ability to connect, integrate and analyse data to enhance their efficiency. The powerful drive for smart cities is understandable, offering as it does an estimated substantial market potential of $400bn by 2020, of which 10% could be reaped by the UK, according to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) 2013 report The smart city market: opportunities for the UK.

Data does not exist in a vacuum, and people use technologies and react and behave in the context of their social practices and learning. Placing citizens centre stage in a smart city view of the future is vital, which means:

  • understanding the data generated
  • how governance systems can be framed to protect confidentiality
  • ensuring citizens have access to appropriate technologies
  • recognising that there is no one-size-fits-all for cities.

Four key themes must be created: society, economy, environment and governance. A smart and sustainable city leverages information and communications technology (ICT) to:

  • improve the life and well-being of its citizens
  • ensure tangible economic growth for its citizens
  • establish an environmentally responsible and sustainable approach to development
  • streamline and improve physical infrastructure
  • reinforce resilience to natural and human-made disasters
  • underpin effective and well-balanced regulatory, compliance and governance mechanisms (adapted from International Telecommunications Union’s 2014 Smart sustainable cities – an analysis of definitions).

Developing long-lasting visions helps to overcome the disconnection between short-term planning horizons and long-term environmental change, and many UK and international cities are envisaging their future to 2020, 2050 and beyond: this is at the heart of the UK BIS/Government Office for Science Future of cities Foresight programme.

Cities that have the best plans in place will therefore try to attract continued investment, which also has implications for property development and investment. For example, Bristol, Glasgow and Milton Keynes are considering the best ways of using ICT to improve transport, street lighting and planning decisions; in the best instances, smartness and sustainability are intertwined.

A smart city model provides huge opportunities to create added business and economic value from the integration of big data

Innovation and interdisciplinarity in big data: cities need to recognise the benefits of big data to improve life for its citizens through improved decision-making, information and customer service, together with the challenges surrounding privacy and security. Urban innovation is a critical concept that lies at the heart of the big data revolution. ‘Ecosystems’ must be created that combine the expertise of civic society (including people and local government), business and academia. This has led to the development of urban transition laboratories or urban living laboratories, which are centres of reflexive learning and social innovation.

Interdisciplinary thinking: this must be at the heart of research and development in smart and sustainable cities (and big data solutions), and in professional practice in the built environment. Since buildings and cities are built by engineers, town planners, architects and project managers, collaboration across professions and between industry and academia is vital to develop future cities thinking.

RICS research

University of Reading research, funded by RICS Research Trust, will examine some of these issues in more detail. Clearly, a smart city model provides huge opportunities to create added business and economic value from the integration of big data, covering many areas of the built environment. This includes data relating to buildings, land use, planning, environmental data, health, economy, and energy.

As has been said, there are still concerns over confidentiality of information, and it is as yet still to be seen how the role of RICS members might fit into this changing and complex landscape. The research will examine the drivers, barriers and key trends in the development of big data in cities, how this relates to opportunities for client advice, and how RICS members can use the findings to add value to their professional work.

It will use a survey of leading UK smart cities and interviews/workshops and major city case studies in the UK, the Netherlands and Taiwan, and an important output is expected to be a generic framework for an RICS ‘big data directory’ for the built environment in cities categorised by property type/land use.

Ultimately, cities are about people. Some 34% of people in the UK do not yet own a smartphone and 16% still do not have internet access.

Despite this, and other related issues concerning fast broadband access in parts of the UK, there is still a strong potential for big data to improve people’s lives in cities. It will be essential, therefore, to understand how we can transition to a smart, sustainable and socially inclusive future.

Tim Dixon is Professor of Sustainable Futures in the Built Environment at the School of the Built Environment, University of Reading

Further information