Six Notes for Smart City Futures Note 6: SUSTAINABILITY

Although "sustainability" is a term used to qualify many urban, economic, development, and social priorities, we use it here to hone in on one that is crucial to our future in the Anthropocene: environmental sustainability.

We are at a moment when the scales of our own impact on the environment are perhaps beginning to sink in. Sea levels have risen about 7 inches in the in the last 100 years: more than in the previous 2000 years combined. Artic ice caps are melting; glaciers are receding; sea levels are rising and coastal cities sinking.
Coral reefs are suffering as the oceans acidify, water temperatures rise, and industrial pollutants continue to spew. Present carbon-di-oxide levels are the highest they've been in 650,000 years, thanks in no small measure to the impact of the industrial revolution; atmospheric carbon is at its highest level yet . The globe has lost the equivalent of 1,000 football fields of forests per hour for the last 25 years. The complex impacts of our industrial and vehicular effluvia on rising environmental toxicity and therefore also human health are still being mapped. To boot, the world’s population is reaching levels which will bring about food, water, energy and other shortages in the not-too-distant future.

With these realities in the background, it is increasingly becoming clear that we need to act—to measure and monitor our continued environmental impact, manage waste, scrutinize our habits of energy consumption, understand pollution, curb emissions, develop water use solutions, and generally plan and build cities that are environmentally sensitive. Too often is “sustainability” simply rolled into other developmental or economic plans and paid short shrift. The Smart Cities we build need to realign themselves more explicitly to adapt to changing environmental pressures, to arrest damage to the environment, and to counter the effects of human activity on our natural worlds—and therefore ensure our own long term economic, developmental, social, and urban survival.

In what ways can data help us to know our environments and our environmental impacts minutely? How can we leverage it to build towards more sensitive, stable, and healthy environmental futures?

Unsplash, Fré Sonneveld

Cell phones and pigeons will tell stories of air quality..

Researchers at MIT's Senseable City Lab mapped the movements of several million people using cell phone data, and intersected this information with neighborhood air pollution measures. Covering 8.5 million New York City residents, the study reveals where and when New Yorkers are most at risk of exposure to air pollution—with major implications for environment and public health policy.

In the meantime, a Pigeon Air Patrol, a flock of 10 birds trained for racing, flew point-to-point over London, strapped with sensors to measure concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and ozone, two main gases that make urban air pollution toxic. People could track the birds on the Pigeon Air Patrol website and get pollution readings from their monitors by tweeting @PigeonAir. The goal is to use these sensing devices with people in order to track individuals’ exposure to pollutants as they move about a city – as well as gather data about urban air quality to create better forecasts.

More conventionally, air pollution data is collected from static sources such as light poles. In Barcelona, for example: "highly-energy-efficient streetlights are connected to the city's underground fibre network. They have been fitted with multiple features including CCTV (closed-circuit television), air quality monitoring sensors and WiFi, and are capable of dynamically managing the level of lighting depending on surrounding conditions to save energy (e.g., dim lights when no motion or pedestrians are detected in the street)."

Unsplash, Drew Patrick Miller

Our buildings will speak to us more…

We know already that staggering amounts of energy is wasted in our buildings via overheating, over-cooling, or climate-controlling spaces that are unused.

In a public-private collaboration in Charlotte, NC real estate developers and city officials used intelligent building technologies and existing city infrastructure to create a dashboard to display real-time data on energy use. The goal was to reduce energy use in the city's core by 20%. Four years in, the city is at 16%: data helps not only in decision-making, but in providing incontrovertible economic rationale for decision-making.

See also: North Carolina Case Study

Local Warming from MIT’s Senseable City Lab presented a "vision of architectural climate control" at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale. Here, WiFi-based location tracking allow an array of dynamic heating elements in the ceiling to target single individuals and create precise personal climates around each. positioned in a grid near the ceiling. This example of #responsive technology makes people comfortable while improving overall energy efficiency.

And incidentally, the Honeywell Smart Building Score is a first-of-its-kind global index that evaluates facilities based on the technology used to make them green, safe, and productive —three main indicators of smart buildings. 


Our soil and our plants will have to tell us when they're thirsty…

Partners in the Community Water Dialogue developed an idea to create a wireless irrigation network (entitled Project WIN) in to help growers improve irrigation efficiency. Probes measure soil tension, which acts as an index of water availability and plant stress. Such real time information allows growers to anticipate when to irrigate and for how long, keeping crops growing in optimal conditions and ensuring optimal water-use.

Our water management systems will need to go from passive to active and real-time…

In many other ways, we will need to think of how to manage water flows through the city to reduce leaks and other inefficiencies, rather than simply managing drainage and run-offs. We will need better forecast models of floods, sewage overflows, impact on residents, inflow to wastewater treatment plants etc. We will need more dynamic control of rainwater catchments, both to optimize storage and to guard against the systems being overwhelmed. In two cities with "high performance green infrastructure," (St. Louis, and New Bern, North Carolina), “Geosyntec integrated a building's rainwater catchment system with software that uses weather predictions from the Internet to know when a basin should be partly emptied to accommodate incoming stormwater.” The goal is to move toward real-time control over components of the urban environment, to achieve specific environmental goals.

The trees will get love notes on email

Melbourne wants to protect its urban trees. All of its 70,000 trees are individually geo-coded and recorded in its database. Using GIS, the trees are plotted on an interactive online map, which allows city leaders and the public to easily visualise the location, life expectancy and diversity of trees in the city. The map, which is also #opendata, has helped the city better engage the public in its sustainability efforts. The city's assignment of individual IDs to each tree was intended to allow the public to report on specific issues—but instead had an unforeseen consequence: people in Melbourne began sending fond and funny messages to the trees. Unwittingly, the effort created a context for people’s relationships with trees to express themselves, creating a form of citizen engagement while transforming the "internet of trees" into an affective environment.

IBM recognized also this potential for “an arboreal Internet of Things” to be an “enabler for global sustainability." Because a tree with a URI isn’t just a thing; it’s a living entity that changes every year with the environment. It welcomes kids who climb its boughs, birds that live in its branches, and people who experience events beside it. Open data and URIs enable people to add details to trees and streets and lampposts and guardrails and buildings and parks. These details are in a bidirectional relationship of data publishing and use that describes the attributes of peoples’ lives in a complex web, which defines exactly what a city is—life and events, past, present, and future.”

IBM also notes the value of a new sort of "root analysis": “when trees are mapped with URIs, documenting the extent of their roots and the impact of those roots on gas lines can empower cities to hold utilities accountable for cleaning up nasty methane leaks before they destroy the planet. This new kind of root cause analysis can benefit all living creatures…”

Unsplash, Bruno Abatti

We won't just sit on park benches any more..

Street lights are already being marked out as ready-made WiFi beacons. Park benches like the "Soofa" is a solar-powered seat with the capability to charge two smart phones and collect air quality or other environmental data.

Chicago’s “Array of Things” turns the urban environment into a series of sensor box nodes to collect “real-time data on the city’s environment, infrastructure, and activity for research and public use.” Dublin has a similar initiative.

We'll pay far more attention to Trash Talk

Our trash has always had stories to tell about us, our excesses, and our consumption patterns—and now there are ways to hear those stories more keenly. TrashTrack "uses hundreds of small, smart, location aware tags: a first step towards the deployment of smart-dust - networks of tiny locatable and addressable micro-eletromechanical systems. These tags are attached to different types of trash so that these items can be followed through the city’s waste management system, revealing the final journey of our everyday objects in a series of real time visualizations." The purpose? To know the “removal chain” as much as we know and are attentive to the “supply chain,” in order to better manage resources and promote behavior change.

Similarly, Monitour will track e-waste, this time globally and with visualizations in order to help curb the illegal trade of hazardous electronic waste and minimize the damage toxic electronic waste causes to health and human environments. Potentially, this can also help track and reduce the waste of essential green metals , which are otherwise being discarded as part of other e-waste.

Our sewage will become an immense source of open data: Mining our sewage for real-time information can assist in disease surveillance that helps produce epidemiological maps, and assist in infectious disease tracking and prevention. The creators of “Underworlds” at MIT, a cross-disciplinary, open-data platform for monitoring urban health patterns, shaping more inclusive public health strategies, and pushing the boundaries of urban epidemiology, describe the potential impact of such projects thus: “The implications of this platform extend beyond just disease surveillance to the development of a new type of human population census. Analyzed in tandem with demographic data, this platform can study the aggregate health of a city to the particular health of a neighborhood.” 

Unsplash, Geoffrey Arduini

Our grids might get too smart for their own good

The development of "smart grids" are fast becoming core to national energy policies.

Smart meters installed in people's homes are intended to “give customers real-time information about fluctuations in the price of electricity, which might encourage them to defer some energy-intensive tasks until supply is high or demand is low. Less of the energy produced from erratic renewable sources such as wind and solar would thus be wasted, and utilities would less frequently fire up backup generators, which are not only more expensive to operate but tend to be more polluting, too.”

There is a downside, however, to this typical and generally welcomed feedback loop: this can cause uncontrolled spikes in demand that could destabilize the power grid. Researchers are studying people’s decision-making on energy consumption further.

Unsplash, Danielle MacInnes

To draw out the contours of what the "smart city" is and could yet become, we offer six core notes by which the "expressive, cognitive, and imaginative possibilities" of the city in the age of data may be realized—six promises to guide the way to improved urban futures:

· Introduction
· Connectivity
· Inclusivity
· Responsivity
· Heritage
· Mobility
· Sustainability

Subsequent notes will be released in serialized form throughout November 2016. We invite you to join us in our quest to re-imagine the city and our shared urban futures through the data we collect.

Have an example or an idea of how data can be used to address urban dilemmas and build brighter urban futures? Share it with us on our UX Trendspotting page.

Report authors: Deepa S Reddy, Anand Vijayan, and Tushar Jain, for the Institute for Customer Experience at Human Factors International