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Perils of the Smart City


A Deep Dive from TechWatch Edition 5

Smart City image showing various smart innovations laid out in a  grid

Despite some evidence to the contrary, the world appears to be growing ‘smarter’. The term ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) was coined in 1999, and goes on to describe the increasingly hyperconnected world that we live in. Consider the ‘smart home’, in which the lighting connects, via wifi, to the fridge freezer, which connects to the TV and the central heating. Or the ‘smart city’, in which critical infrastructure, government services, utilities and managing systems are all interconnected in a similar fashion.

Sensing, insight, action

When an environment is sensed, data is created about the environment. That data can then be collated to generate insight, which in turn, informs action. This takes place in the home, the city and in industry. All share common properties - they all sense, they all connect and they all generate data.

In the home, that may be sensing that the room is getting dark and that there are people in the house, so as to turn on the lights. In a city, this could be fusing knowledge of ongoing roadworks and an increase in traffic flow to inform a change in traffic light patterns. Regardless of the environment, it’s about filtering relevant data and turning it into actionable insight.

The result is an enormous (and growing) volume of information, coming under an increased level of artificially intelligent (AI) oversight. Robots and algorithms become more of a recurring theme as the planet (and by extension, defence and security) move towards a more data-driven normal.

The use of AI in this process is twofold. First to accelerate the process through automation, and second to uncover insights in the myriad of generated information.

This ‘smartening’ of the urban environment is, like many technological processes, mostly going to be incremental. The introduction of smarter infrastructure to existing towns, villages and cities won’t happen all at once, and will require an extensive amount of assurance to avoid causing more problems than it solves.

By 2050, the UN projects that 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas, many of them, presumably, full of smart architecture. But what benefits do these smart cities promise to bring?

Organic growth: ‘smarter’ cities

In the organic growth of the smart city, sensing, computation and connectivity is added to existing infrastructure, such as power grids, public transport, street lighting, emergency services and buildings.

Commercial manufacturers include sensor networks in their devices, and government agencies deploy environmental sensors to monitor natural events; all contributing to a deep pool of ambient data.

In the initial stages, things tend to be operationally disconnected. For example, there’s one set of sensor data for traffic, one for utilities and one for emergency services. It’s not until these datasets are combined that the benefits of a smart city can truly be realised.

All of this promises to augment many of the city’s operations; delivering services to people more efficiently and increasing environmental effectiveness. And in the cases of the emergency services, infectious disease surveillance and disaster warning systems, it offers the chance to save lives.

From the ground up

In addition to the organic growth of smart cities, there are plans to build a few from scratch.

Neom, the City in the Desert

In 2017, the Saudis announced ‘Neom’, its name a portmanteau of Greek and Arabic, on the Red Sea coast in the northwestern part of the country. Neom will supposedly feature ‘artificial clouds’ that will allow for rain in the desert, schools taught by holographic teachers, a giant artificial moon, and more.

The Kingdom pledges to throw at least $500 billion at the enterprise, and address potential vulnerabilities by focusing on cybersecurity training at its Neom academy. According to a spokesman, the training mainly plans to focus on the “human component of security breaches”.

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