How local initiatives are powering up rural communities
Alston, a town with slightly more than 1,000 inhabitants in the North Pennines about 30 miles from Carlisle and the Lake District, is the posterchild of smart rural Britain. Fibre-optic trenches there were dug by local farmers back in 2002 to provide state-of-the-art broadband to an area that internet service providers decided was commercially unviable.
The town hasn’t stopped there – it has also set up its own public EV charge point supported by a community share scheme that offers shareholders an interest-return from 2023 onwards. To make sure it’ll stay ahead of the curve, Alston is now seeking to establish its own 5G network.
Apart from a community success story, Alston is also representative of how rural communities are taking over the narrative from the usual urban and industrial areas when it comes to both their digital transformation and political consciousness.
The discourse about improving the standard of living for communities, for example, is strongly dominated by smart city projects. Granted, urban problems of air quality, congestion and crime loom much larger than rural ones and lend themselves more readily to a digital fix. Finding ways of harnessing the same technology to address the rural issues of depopulation, inaccessibility of services and patchy networks, however, is equally important.
The question is whether new digital and sustainability trends in the macroeconomy can lend rural Britain a higher priority than before. Is the levelling-up of the countryside going to be a positive externality of national economic development, or just a matter of rural areas having to pull themselves into the 21st century by their own bootstraps?
Can brexit lead to more rural 5G deployment?
January 2021 marked not only the end of Britain’s EU membership but also its break with the Common Agricultural Policy, which some argue was a barrier to environmental sustainability and efficiency as it rewarded and encouraged land use. This seems to be a good moment for the digitalisation of the sector with a view to increasing agricultural yields and share of GDP through automation, the extensive use of the IoT and data analysis.
Needless to say, these three, as well as other related digital technologies are predicated on connectivity, ideally on 5G in order to make it futureproof. But can the private digitalisation of farms – which account for almost 70 per cent of the UK’s land area – be the driving force to better rural connectivity?
A 2019 pilot project that set out to explore the commercial viability of 5G networks on Orkney found that none of the project’s commercial partners would run a similar project themselves without the involvement of Strathclyde University or government backing, and use cases such as the automated remote feeding and monitoring of salmon farms weren’t strong enough to drive commercial-only deployment.
The on-the-ground reality of Orkney is arguably better described by, for example, the struggle and financial burden of parents during lockdowns when trying to provide their children with the connectivity required for online learning.
Although with the current pace of technological development the maturity of 5G solutions in digital or precision agriculture may be a question of a few years, at the moment agri-tech is an unlikely candidate for ensuring state-of-the-art rural connectivity.
Patching up broadband and 4G networks
The government’s commitment to FTTP (fibre-to-the-premises) coverage seems to have more immediate relevance to rural advancement. Even more so given many homes in remote areas have become home offices – some experts even go as far as to suggest that the UK’s appeal to foreign direct investment (FDI) may be affected by poorly connected rural home offices if remote working becomes the norm post-Covid.
Understandably, the government’s £5 billion commitment to provide full fibre to all homes and premises in the UK by 2025 seems to have fallen by the wayside after the first billion of funding had been released, as investments are diverted to other aspects of economic recovery. But although supplying the country with high-capacity, reliable FTTP broadband as soon as possible could be key to fending off countries trying to usurp the UK’s role as Europe’s leading tech development hub, most of the businesses – and families – based in the countryside don’t necessarily need gigabit-capacity broadband to thrive.
In a milestone act, Ofcom at least drew the bare minimum line in March 2020. Premises which are not provided with a download speed of 10Mbps and an upload speed of 1Mbps through a broadband connection or a 4G hub can now request an upgrade to their network. All costs below £3,400 per premises are covered by the Universal Service Obligation (USO) for Broadband Scheme. (According to estimates there are about 110,000 premises where costs will exceed this threshold.)
Another major step in addressing the low ROI of rural communication network projects is the government’s Shared Rural Network Scheme, starting this year. Three of the major four mobile network providers have agreed to build and share 200 masts by 2024 as an outcome of drawn-out negotiations initiated by the government (EE has committed to upgrading and expanding its own network to hundreds of rural areas this year).
Mobile networks can also provide home broadband through 4G Wi-Fi routers, but, relying on radio waves, they are often less robust and a limitless data usage plan for them may cost considerably more than a cabled broadband offer.
Supplying rural areas with connectivity without signal dropouts and so-called “not-spots” could go a long way towards making a better case for living and working there. Decent internet connections can make distance learning, filing tax returns and contacting government offices remotely, as well as getting instant medical diagnoses, far easier.
During lockdown, we have also seen examples of how the internet enabled bakers, butchers and dairy and arable farmers to set up platforms which served as convenient one-stop shops for high quality, curated local produce.
Here we go again – the EV charge network
Mobility is one of the strongest links between smart cities and rural areas. Electric cars designed to improve air quality and decrease carbon emissions fit nicely in with the countryside’s credentials for tranquillity and fresh air. Yet public EV charge points set up by commercial players and municipalities show the same kind of asymmetries as broadband and mobile networks.
People living in rural areas stand a better chance of having a drive and off-street charging than urbanites. But range anxiety, a fear of getting stranded in a remote place with no charge points whatsoever can hit anyone no matter where they live. And the ban on new petrol and diesel car sales to take effect in 2030 means that the rate of 7,000 charge points per year we’ve had on average for the last couple of years won’t cut it. To combat the discrepancies of progress between different regions, last year the government announced its ambition that no EV driver should be more than 30 miles away from a rapid (25-99kW), publicly accessible charging point at any time.
The government foots £50m of the bill that achieving this will amount to. It remains to be seen, though, how many small towns and villages will be able to follow in Alston’s footsteps, and how they will spread geographically – not all of them will have the means to match government funding, or the extra community time and effort to invest or a business-savvy project leader (such as Alston’s Daniel Heery) to lead the charge.
But not all UK towns and villages have the means to access matching government support, the eagerness to channel community time and effort into implementing modern technologies or a businessman such as Daniel Heery with the necessary drive and business acumen to lead the charge.
by Zita Goldman
The top six things to consider when evaluating smart city platforms
There are a wealth of platforms, tools and technologies available to deliver smart city functionality. In this short guide, we highlight the main points to consider and why.
We see many smart city deployments that have been procured to solve point solutions, such as managing public transport or controlling street lights. These are fine, but create small silo solutions that duplicate functionality and are difficult to interconnect, creating more work, increasing costs and limiting future expansion.
Tip: Start with a big vision involving all departments of the city, external service providers and – most importantly – the people who will live, work and play in the city. Break the delivery into smaller bite-sized services.
Think open standards
Open standards make things work. Using established, clearly documented and supported standards prevents integration headaches.
Tip: Consider something like the FIWARE Context Broker, a Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) building block that is able to collect and combine data from multiple sources into an understandable and manageable whole.
Think secure, think modular
Many of our customers are deeply concerned about the security of their data – and rightly so. It most likely contains personally identifiable information (PII) plus financial, health, welfare and a whole host of other sensitive details. There is tension between the perceived threat of unauthorised data access on a public cloud service and the desire to take advantage of cost savings. Customers tell us they want to keep their arms around their citizens’ data.
Tip: Deploying a smart city solution in secure containers, like OpenShift, gives this flexibility while also taking advantage of public cloud providers, creating something called a ‘hybrid-cloud’. Multiple containers can be easily created, moved and collapsed, as and when needed.
Think scale up and scale out
If you’re following tip 1, you’re starting small and growing quickly. Let’s say you started with your street lamp service, being able to monitor and control lights remotely and have them behave differently based on external factors, such as switching on at night when a bus pulls up at a nearby stop.
As you connect more lights, you need to scale up the service. Perhaps you next add a connection to your public transport service. The street lamps can ‘follow’ the buses or trams around their route, switching on at designated stops, staying on until all the passengers have dispersed or switching on if a vehicle stops unexpectedly.
Scaling may be reasonably linear, with predicted spikes in demand easily catered for: major sporting events and music festivals happen on a predictable cadence. However, in a climate crisis world, more cities are experiencing an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. Being able to bring extra capacity online in seconds to support emergency services and other first responders is critical.
Tip: Your smart city platform relies on an underlying IT infrastructure of servers, routers, storage devices and cabling: a mixture of hardware and software. It’s important the two integrate easily and seamlessly so increased demand at the smart city layer can be adequately serviced by the underlying IT infrastructure.
Think resilience and support
As a city administrator, you are well aware of the challenges and hardship faced by citizens, businesses and colleagues should there be an interruption to one of your cities’ primary or secondary services or systems. For 24 hours a day, seven days per week, 365 days per year, switching it off and back on again is not an option.
Tip: Look for a vendor that has experience in providing the critical infrastructure in sectors that demand high availability and reliability because their business depends on it. Consider looking at sectors whose patterns match your own demands. Utility companies, airlines and banks are examples of sectors requiring resilience. The ability to automatically patch and repair, identifying and fixing without any interruption to service, is a model for how citizen services should operate.
Think, who else?
You don’t have to blaze a new trail if you don’t want to. There is a duty of care when spending taxpayers’ money to deliver the best value, which doesn’t necessarily mean the solution with the lowest upfront cost.
Tip: Ask your potential supplier for a list of references and introductions to customers who have deployed similar solutions to your criteria. Some examples for you to consider are the city of Montevideo, the city of Malaga and the city of Valencia.
by Leslie Hawthorn, Manager – Vertical Community Strategy, Red Hat Open Source Program Office, and Jim Craig, Product Manager, Red Hat Global Government
Header image source: - Adobe Stock
Digital twins for smart places
Current global population trends indicate that by 2050, more than 80 per cent of us will live in congested urban areas. If we simply scale our current ways of living and operating, we will face disaster. An alternative approach is to use a digital twin of a place – a replica that can be used for testing ideas before unleashing them on the real thing. The digital twin will help city leaders, planners, citizens and visitors better manage resources by gaining a clearer understanding how their actions impact the world around them.
Yet digital twins will not simply materialise – development requires nurturing and targeted “plugging in” to the surrounding environment. We must start by understanding purpose, and only then can we identify the data required to deliver that purpose. Twin development is a journey that will take time, effort and a lot of collaboration.
In partnership with Atkins, the IET recently published a whitepaper on digital twins for the built environment. The paper introduced an industry-agnostic maturity spectrum to help communicate the complex concept and explain benefits along the development journey.
The reality is that most places will currently be hovering around Elements 0 and 1. The digital interaction required for Element 2 (taking into account time and cost) is limited to district level projects at this time. However, as smart places engage with the IT required to derive digital twins from conventional places, Element 2 will become common across cityscapes.
Odd exceptions to this (like intelligent transport systems) are already using data to drive broad operational efficiency, but these tend to be single-mode, and service provider/asset focused. They are not really at Element 3, yet.
Element 4 is a step away from being truly smart. These places are starting to be thought of and even a few would consider themselves to be on a pathway to achieving this level. An example of this would be the latest 5G testbeds. This new infrastructure provides a two-way data channel and the opportunity to automate decisions based on mass data acquisition that a 5G network will enable.
Nirvana is the realisation of Element 5. Self-governing smart places ruled by principles and desired outcomes that have been agreed upon and set by citizens. When this happens, places will be interactive, sustainable, citizen-centric and outcome-focused.
What does the future hold?
An Element 5 smart place will be able to make predictions and operate autonomously – adapting city infrastructure in the event of floods, for example, by automatically redirecting traffic and turning road tunnels into storm drains. The role of the digital twin is essential to run simulations and encourage experiments of the various what-if scenarios.
Not all sunny uplands
Despite this, there are barriers to implementation. In the short term, these relate to the ownership and secure handling and management of data – especially against the backdrop of high-profile data breaches.
In smart places, the digital twin will always compete with its physical asset. The virtual replica needs to add value by supporting a reduction in overall costs, increasing efficiency and improving user experience and engagement. It can never deviate from reality or trust in the digital twin will be lost.
From a smart places perspective, the digital twin is just one aspect of a multi-faceted programme. The digital twin has to be relevant and provide value on an ongoing basis, hence it will need to grow in scope and function as the data, the outcomes and business value are defined.
Where to start?
• Embrace the concept now. All new projects should adopt a digital twin approach. Project managers should reach out to digital twin leaders and explore how they can maximise return on investment. We must then guide stakeholders to preserve the value of the innovation, not lose it to blind “value engineering”.
• Respect the journey. The creation and management of a digital twin is a journey relevant to the entire project lifecycle. We should focus on purpose at each stage, understand the benefits of each milestone and expect value to increase along the journey.
• Collaborate. Overall success will only come through collaboration between government, industry, academia and society. We must all be actively involved in the conversation and push for industry standardisation.
• Regulate. Governments must take the lead and drive national policy to create shared frameworks and ecosystems.
• Get out of silos. We must learn from each other and contribute to a common good, working collectively to meet global challenges.
• Be sustainable. Adopting a digital twin approach now will enable society to make the necessary shift to more sustainable operations.
Ultimately, digital twins provide us with an opportunity to improve the environment where we all live and work. Their form and formats are yet to be fully developed, but it’s already possible to appreciate the benefits that could be realised.
by Chris Cooper, Director, KnowNow Information Ltd, Simon Evans, Director, Digital Engineering at Atkins, Cristina Savian, Managing Director, BE-WISE and Allan Burns, Director, Telemental
Decision-making support systems and the digitalisation of the public sector
The need to bring the benefits of the digital revolution to public administrations is reflected in the large number of initiatives that are currently trying to tackle this challenge worldwide.
The main goal of the digitalisation of the public sector, however, is not about automating existing processes. It is about fostering an ambitious redesign of public administrations, which would, in turn, promote inclusion and eliminate inefficiencies.
This digital transformation, nonetheless, needs to be scaled properly to address the multi-layered actors in the public decision-making process. Digital solutions limited to the top layers of the process – mainly central public administration and governmental agencies – will prevent an efficient trickle-down effect on local governments with detrimental effects on development.
Interoperability, standards and ecosystem development at the forefront of future innovation
On the contrary, an excessive focus on bottom-up approaches would not translate into a proper link between regional administrators and central policymakers. This would also lead to the persistence of systemic asymmetries between geographical areas at different stages of the development process. A balance between these extreme options should be found in a virtuous mix of top-down digitalisation strategies – that set the basis for state-level interoperability and the definition of technological standards and best practices – and local, participatory initiatives.
Moreover, a multi-layered approach is useful to maintain high degrees of efficiency in the management of public data. Too often, data collected and used by public administrations are poorly managed, which creates suboptimal results. This applies both at the upstream phase, in which the same data are collected more than one time with no harmonisation among public databases, and the downstream phase, in which public bodies and private stakeholders cannot access useful data.
The already mentioned interoperability feature helps to overcome this problem, but it is not enough: to reach an acceptable level of efficiency in the management of public data during the digital transformation process, it is fundamental to specify state-level standards that clearly define privacy and usability issues. Apart from the benefit for citizens, this leads to a more transparent relationship between governments and technology providers.
This is the backdrop for decision-support systems (DSS) aiming at improving policy-making. The core part of WiseTown's dashboards, DSS are composed of three main parts: the knowledge base, the model management system (MMS) and the user interface.
In the public domain, and especially in the smart city sector, the knowledge base refers to the whole amount of external data collected from different sources (e.g. sensors, satellites, social media or open data) and the large number of procedural information internal to public administration. The former constitutes the backbone of the dominant smart city framework.
However, there are three relevant dimensions to consider when building a smart city knowledge base.
Firstly, in many circumstances, data collection ultimately ended up in diffused sentiments of backlash, which is detrimental to the goal of building trust between citizens and public administrators.
Secondly, data collected from passive technological instruments provides a limited picture of urban life. Hence, it is fundamental to integrate this kind of information with human inputs. Civic tech solutions in this field favour the exchange of information and feedback between citizens and local authorities, with positive effects on policy making.
Finally, a fundamental step involves building efficient data governance models that put together the apparently divergent goals of maximising privacy and security and making data accessible for local development. This is particularly relevant for raw non-personal data, which can be managed in an easier manner within the Data Commons framework.
If the knowledge base provides the fundamental input for a public DSS to work properly, model management systems define their overall effectiveness. Model management systems in the smart city context should be field-specific. In other words, each area of urban management (e.g. healthcare, green areas, economic development, security or e-government) should have a dedicated model tailored to its specific needs. With this structure, the AI component of the system would be trained in less time and show better accuracy.
User interface: a fundamental feature for successful digital solutions
Moreover, policymakers across each sector – and at each level – of public administrations would have a tailored instrument to use, depending on their needs. In turn, this leads to the third feature of the DSS: the user interface. Too often, this is an undervalued element of digital solutions for the public administrations. On the contrary, an advanced UX design is fundamental to make digital solutions easily accessible for users at different levels.
The elements that stand out in this brief description of the impact of DSS on public decision-making are human-centricity, data-driven algorithms and public data. The balance between these elements leads to sustainable innovation in the public sector. To that extent, in order to guarantee interoperability and foster the development of local technological actors, open source architectures and modules play a pivotal role.
The use of open source technologies such as FIWARE’s Context Brokers and generic enablers allow public administrations to reduce technological risk, since they can constantly improve and personalise digital solutions through an active, thriving community of developers.
For more details on urban data and how WiseTown can help public administrations to explore all the available opportunities that new technologies offer for cities and communities, visit wise.town/civic-tech.
by Francesca Nafissi, Urban Planning and Account Manager at WiseTown.
Featured image - WiseTown_DSS - Adobe Stock
Save the trees: never-ending construction in cities threatens the urban forest
City trees are important: they purify the air, reduce heat islands, help regulate the water cycle and provide immense health benefits. Yet unbridled development threatens the survival of the urban forest and the full range of ecosystem services it provides.
The magnitude of these services is closely linked to the importance of the canopy, which is the area covered by treetops. It is generally characterized by an index that relates the sector covered by the tops to the total size of an area.
A recent study of the natural canopy in the areas covering Québec City, Beaupré, l'Île d'Orléans, Lévis and other communities along the St. Lawrence River found it generates more than $1.1 billion in annual benefits.
Water supply, flood reduction, air quality improvement and carbon sequestration were among the ecosystem services — the benefits people derive from the ecosystem — that were considered. In this context, several major cities have set ambitious canopy expansion targets.
However, these objectives face several significant challenges. Residential construction and the development and renovation of infrastructure tend to reduce the urban canopy. Part of this reduction is directly related to the space occupied by the infrastructure, while another part is the result of damage to trees during installation.
As a forest engineer and professor of silviculture and urban forestry, my research investigates the stability of trees against wind in natural, urban and rural environments. I was interested in the effect of species, soil type and apparent defects on the resistance to stem breakage and uprooting.
Construction in a wooded environment brings about general changes in the trees’ growing environment. By opening the canopy, trees become exposed to stronger winds, which increases their need for water and can compromise their stability.
During construction in a wooded environment, surfaces may become impermeable. This reduces water flow into the soil and promotes water runoff. In combination, these two factors can lead to water stress and eventually trees dying a few years after construction.
Construction near existing trees can cause direct damage to the aerial part of the tree, which is quite easily visible. Damage to the root system will be much more subtle but can have more important consequences.
Roots play many roles including the accumulation of reserves, anchoring to the ground and the removal of water and nutrients. Damage to the roots will affect their ability to perform these various functions, with consequences on the general functioning of the tree.
Construction work near trees often involves excavation that damages part of the root system. Studies have found that cutting the roots can reduce resistance to uprooting — this effect may persist for several years after the initial damage.
The magnitude of the effect is related to the amount of root loss, which is a function of distance from the trunk. Although root extension may extend beyond the space below the crown, it is generally considered that the most important part is in this area. The effect of root cutting on tree stability will also depend on the configuration of the root system.
The difficulty for the tree to replenish its water reserves following root damage can lead to the closure of stomata, the pores that control gas exchange during photosynthesis. This closure can then lead to a reduction in growth. Following root destruction, the tree redirects the products of photosynthesis to rebuild the root system at the expense of the growth of the aerial part of the tree.
In some cases, the effects on growth and mortality will be limited, but severely damaged trees will take time to recover, which may make them more vulnerable to other stresses. When root loss is too great, the tree will decline over several years and eventually die. When the root system is able to rebuild itself, growth can resume its normal rhythm. Recovery is more likely when the trench is temporary and a material conducive to root development is put back in place at the end of the work.
Further studies needed
Soil compaction by machinery or the addition of soil above the original level can change the aeration of the soil and its water conditions. The diffusion of air to the roots and the diffusion of CO2 produced by root respiration will then be reduced, thus hindering their proper functioning.
However, the effect of soil enhancement will depend on the thickness and nature of the soil added. The installation of underground aeration systems has often been recommended for large soil additions but studies on their effectiveness are inconclusive.
Reducing the impacts of construction requires protective measures to be planned in advance, and close supervision of the construction site. Several standards and guides exist, but their recommendations sometimes diverge. Those measures are often based on a limited number of well-documented studies. Additional research efforts are still needed to validate them and propose new ones.
The power of cities
With increasing environmental footprints, growing urban populations and resource consumption forecasts, there is a strong argument that sustainable cities may be the best and possibly only opportunity to tackle today’s critical challenges.
Smart solutions can be a key part of this. The smart city has turned from concept to reality, as cities and companies move from small proof-of-concept projects to smart implementation at scale. New governance models and new approaches to equity and circular economies have also emerged, along with IoT, artificial intelligence, drones, self-driving cars and new forms of micromobility. New ways of processing and distributing information, such as blockchain and IOTA, have also come into the picture. Technology is and will be the backbone of smart cities, but the approach has shifted to a more complex vision, where the citizen is at the centre of everything, and the decision-making process is no longer top-down.
Cities have become socio-economic and political actors on both national and global stages, and have a major impact on the development of nations. Six hundred top cities represent 60 per cent of worldwide GDP, while the world expects to have 43 megacities (cities with more than 10 million people) by 2029. So we need to keep on exploring new paths, reinventing places and scenarios, drawing new maps of our imagination, as we know there’s no one-size-fits-all formula and we still have the opportunity to make things happen just the way we need them to be.
Smart City Expo World Congress is the annual meeting point for worldwide cities. For three days, Barcelona becomes the global hub where the city of tomorrow is realised. Leaders from the most innovative cities and organisations will come together to reveal the latest innovations addressing the biggest challenges cities face today: digital disruption, sustainability, clean and efficient mobility, open governance, and inclusive and collaborative solutions.
Industry players, policy makers, entrepreneurs and academia from around the globe will join forces to empower cities, open new paths for international collaboration, and collectivise urban innovation. Stay tuned to smartcityexpo.com.
Digital services for the public good
Over the past 20 years, digital transformation has shaped our daily activity beyond recognition. The platform economy has delivered a range of new services for people, from easy home deliveries, to on-your-doorstep mobility options and hassle-free city trips. And today, in the midst of a global pandemic, many of us find we can hold meetings, events and even conduct office jobs from the relative comfort of our own homes.
For cities, meanwhile, digital transformation brings other benefits, such as greater revenues from tourism. In many ways, city administrations are drivers of this transformation: cities power innovation ecosystems, invest in tech start-ups, support digital skills development and provide digitalised public services.
Nonetheless, digital transformation creates many challenges for cities. This is partly because existing legislation was not designed to take the new business activities of the platform economy into account, leaving gaps where current regulations are unable to rein in some of the negative impacts of digital services on public life.
What can cities do to protect local retail against unfair competition from global online retail platforms? How can the right to housing be ensured if short-term rental platforms do not comply with the rules that govern the real estate market? And what can be done to protect the rights of platform workers?
In places where the freedom for digital services does not serve the public interest, current European legislation makes it very difficult for city administrators to take effective measures against globally operating companies.
Matching our online and offline worlds
Cities, as the level of government closest to citizens, are only too keenly aware that digital transformation can create both new opportunities but also new layers of inequalities, unless the policies guiding the process are user-centric and citizen-focused.
Indeed, in a recent joint statement by 22 European cities, city representatives pointed out that cities welcome tourism as an important source of income and employment for many people, but the responsible rental of private homes can only be done if the necessary regulation is in place.
Central to this debate is enabling the flow of data between public authorities and businesses, without which the enforcement of regulations, taxation and health and safety rules cannot be applied.
More precise data – on, for instance, short-term holiday rental (STHR) – would enable city administrations to levy taxes and better serve the interests of residents, who should be their primary concern. Additionally, data can also be used to create better public policy and better services.
For example, the consequences of illegal housing rentals can include reducing the stock of houses intended for residential use, the increase of nuisances (such as noise disturbance) in city districts, and sometimes breaching other areas of public safety such as how many people can stay in one location. With access to the right data, city authorities can start to work with these companies to address these issues.
Yet the status of collaborative economy companies is often ambiguous, given that their evolution has occurred since the EU’s e-Commerce Directive was first introduced, which provides the current grounding for what are considered “information society services”.
Moreover, there is often little incentive for collaborative economy platforms to do anything about illegal activity occurring through their services. With this in mind, we need better ways for cities to flag up illegal activity, as well as placing more responsibility on service providers, such as requiring platform economy businesses to take down illegal goods and services from their sites.
In this endeavour cities are natural allies of European policymakers working towards a more digitalised society which puts people first. Cities are ready and able to work with the European Commission and European Parliament to ensure an effective EU framework that protects and empowers people and businesses, while ensuring data and new technologies are used to deliver better public policy.
Let’s ensure that what is illegal offline is also illegal online.
Eurocities wants to make cities places where everyone can enjoy a good quality of life, is able to move around safely, access quality and inclusive public services and benefit from a healthy environment. We do this by networking almost 200 larger European cities, which together represent some 130 million people across 39 countries, and by gathering evidence of how policy making impacts on people to inspire other cities and EU decision makers.
Secretary General, Eurocities
Future cities: new challenges mean we need to reimagine the look of urban landscapes
Imagining future cities has long been a favourite activity for architects, artists and designers. Technology is often central in these schemes – it appears as a dynamic and seemingly unstoppable force, providing a neat solution to society’s problems.
But our recent research has suggested that we need to significantly rethink the way we imagine future cities, and move our focus from an overarching technological vision to other priorities, such as environmental sustainability and the need to tackle social inequalities.
We need to answer questions about what can be sustained and what cannot, where cities can be located and where they cannot, and how we might travel in and between them.
The coronavirus pandemic has further reinforced this need. It has profoundly disrupted what we thought we knew about cities. It has further sharpened existing inequalities and brought about major challenges for how we physically live and work together.
The future – yesterday
The architect and influential urban planner Eugène Hénard was arguably the first to publicly discuss “future cities” in Europe during his 1910 address to the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. His vision anticipated the technological advances of the future, such as aerial transportation. This approach, prioritising technology, was also evoked in cinema in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis.
It was also mirrored by architects such as Le Corbusier in projects such as the 1924 Ville Radieuse (The Radiant City). In this work, Le Corbusier developed his concept of the city as a symmetrical, regulated, and highly centralised landscape.
Such an approach can be traced through many subsequent visions for cities, portrayed as the physical embodiment of technological prowess.
A new focus
But rather than simply focusing on technology to shape our future, we also need to look at it through social and global lenses. These alternative approaches are increasingly urgent. To provide a safe and sustainable world for present and future populations, we need to think beyond “solutionism”. This is the idea that every problem we have has a technological fix.
An identifiable shift in how future cities are being conceived, designed and delivered concerns the people involved in these processes. This ranges from localised projects to global initiatives. For example, the Every One Every Day project in Barking and Dagenham in London aims to make practical participation in neighbourhood projects inclusive and available to all residents. On a much wider scale, the New Urban Agenda global vision by the United Nations’ Habitat programme, meanwhile, calls for more inclusive and sustainable urbanisation and settlement planning.
We may want our future cities to prioritise environmental renewal. The Green Machine, a design for a future city by architect Stephane Malka, moves like a mobile oasis, replenishing desert rather than causing more environmental degradation. This future city collects water through air condensation and uses solar power to drive itself over arid landscapes.
These are ploughed and injected with a mixture of water, natural fertiliser and cereal seeds as it passes. Agricultural greenhouses along with livestock farms support the city’s inhabitants and supplement local populations. The project is scaleable and replicable in relation to the number of people needed to be accommodated.
Climate change brings with it the possibility of dramatic sea level rise. Post Carbon City-State, a project by architecture and urban design group Terreform, imagines a submerged New York. The project proposes that, rather than investing in mitigation efforts, the East and Hudson River are allowed to flood parts of Manhattan.
The new city is rebuilt in its surrounding rivers. Former streets become snaking arteries of liveable spaces, embedded with renewable energy resources, green vehicles, and productive nutrient zones. This replaces the current obsession with private car ownership towards more ecological forms of public transport.
Both these projects emphasise responses to the impacts of climate change over technological innovation for its own sake.
Alternatively, the cities of the future may prioritise equality. This is illustrated by spatial design agency 5th Studio’s Stour City, The Enabling State.
This is a future city for 60,000 inhabitants, envisioned along the River Stour and the Port of Harwich in East Anglia, England. Based around the urbanisation and intensification of existing rail and port infrastructure, it features initiatives such as waste to power generation in order to support a viable, low-impact city, with priorities including affordable housing for all.
Imagining these cities helps us understand how we want our future lives to look. But we must open up the opportunity to conceptualise these futures to a wider and more diverse set of people. By doing so, we will be better positioned to rethink the shifts required to safeguard our health, that of other species and the planet we share. This is the significance of visions for tomorrow’s world – and why we need to create new ones today.
Smart ports in smart cities: big data, IoT and AI for sustainable and resilient environments
Using the capabilities of big data, the Internet of Things (IoT) and AI, cities are creating new infrastructures to be more sustainable and resilient. In this regard, the relation between cities and ports is becoming increasingly direct, and the ports are investing to be part of the change. Here is where the smart port term starts, extending smart city developments to traditional port services for more efficient ecosystems.
As an economic drivers of cities, ports are one of Europe’s most valuable assets – with 2 million direct and indirect employees in 2018 – but the impact on the environment is significant. An example of this duality is cruise ships, which generate economic wealth for a given city but pollute five times more than road traffic. According to a report from Transport & Environment, in 2017, 203 cruise ships emitted 62kt of sulphur oxide, 155kt of nitrogen oxide, 10kt of particulate matter and more than 10mt of carbon dioxide.
HOPU, a company focused on the research and development of IoT and smart cities solutions – and a FIWARE Foundation member – empowers environmental innovation with AI, IoT and big data for environmental assessment and monitoring. HOPU simplifies available data in a unique indicator that contextualises, models and forecasts the environment for informed decision-making.
“Smart ports should monitor sulphur oxide and nitrogen oxide – brought about by burning fossil fuels – and particulate matter [PM], which is harmful to respiratory systems, and noise that affects the quality of life of claiming areas. In addition, luminosity also has a significant effect on biodiversity and citizens’ health,” said Antonio Jara, CEO at HOPU.
Innovative platform driving fast-speed innovation
Based on this need, HOPU offers an innovative platform based on AI and predictive models for ports, using high-quality enriched data. It follows the FIWARE open source approach, using the CEF Context Broker as the smart port platform’s heart.
HOPU integrates external datasets about the port such as waves, water flows and water health with high quality data about gases, PM, noise and weather parameters (wind, UV radiation and luminosity). This tool offers a service to understand emissions derived from the activities carried out through a predictive system to support decision-making.
Dashboard to identify the pollution sources by the HOPU AI. Image courtesy of HOPU
HOPU also provides high-quality data in real time to show existing emissions levels and carry out mitigation actions. HOPU manufactures IoT-based environmental monitoring devices called Smart Spots. These measure gases such as sulphur oxide and nitrogen oxide in specific areas and in real time, detect toxic substances such as alcohol and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and detect PM to identify specific nanoparticles such as dust (PM10), pollens (PM10-PM40), pollutants (PM2.5) and viruses (<PM1).
Additionally, HOPU offers high-quality data-based devices thanks to its sophisticated laboratory, which calibrates and certifies every sold device. The accuracy of the sensor measurements is improved in the laboratory by reducing cross-sensitivity, fatigue compensation and machine-learning techniques.
A sea of opportunities, literally speaking
The relevance of HOPU in ports is growing. Nowadays, the company has devices in three ports that are working to establish indicators to evaluate their environmental impact. From the Pixel project, in collaboration with Prodevelop and the Polytechnical University of Valencia, HOPU has deployed Smart Spots in Thessaloniki, Monfalcone and Bordeaux ports.
New opportunities are on the horizon for HOPU in the smart ports sector. Recently, the company was crowned the winner of the FIWARE Zone Challenge for the Algeciras Port, where more than 25 devices will be deployed in 2021. They will collect real-time contextual data to be processed and modelled by an AI to understand the impact of the different actions carried out in the bay port of Algeciras in Spain. This project aims to reduce its environmental impact and improve the air quality of this territory.
The project includes developing a customised AI to treat the data collected by the sensors, which will be fed by the data sources already available to the Algeciras Bay Port Authority (Autoridad Portuaria de la Bahía de Algeciras) and the Junta de Andalucía (Spain). This enrichment of data will use external sources about light pollution, information on water in the harbour, data from the State Meteorological Agency (Agencia Estatal de Meteorología) and Copernicus, and other available resources.
In terms of next steps, HOPU is working with Cartagena Port Authority and Cartagena City Council to explore and define the AI and indicators that contribute to the relationship between the port and the metropolitan area, improving transparency and sustainability and reducing negative impacts.
by Andrea Gómez, PhD, CMO, and Antonio Jara, CEO, both at HOPU
Sustainable cities after Covid-19: are Barcelona-style green zones the answer?
The lockdowns and restrictions introduced to control the spread of Covid-19 have resulted in huge changes to urban life. Previously bustling city centres remain empty, shunned in favour of suburban or rural areas where social distancing is easier and connections to the outdoors are abundant.
The roll out of vaccines provides hope for a partial restoration of normality in cities. However, the impact of Covid-19 could last much longer.
In particular, the pandemic has shown how damaging congestion, pollution and lack of green space can be – including how these factors have contributed to the severity of suffering for city dwellers. We have an opportunity to change city living for the better.
Barcelona offers an example of how city areas can be transformed to reduce pollution and increase access to green space.
The city pioneered the concept of superblocks, first introduced in 2016, as part of green urban planning. Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks. Traffic is restricted to major roads around the superblocks, leaving the streets inside for pedestrians and cyclists.
Recently, further plans have been announced to expand green zones in the city’s central district, Eixample. This is a major expansion of low-traffic zones, giving priority to pedestrians and cyclists to reduce pollution and provide green spaces.
The new plan will cover 21 streets and have space for 21 new pedestrian plazas at intersections. At least 80% of each street is to be shaded by trees in summer and 20% unpaved. A public competition in May 2021 will decide the final design.
The purpose of the plan is to ensure that no resident will be more than 200 metres from a green space.
There are many benefits to creating urban green spaces like these. They include an improvement in air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets, and a reduction in levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) from road traffic. Exposure to high level of NO₂ can lead to a range of respiratory problems.
Covid-19 has made the case for green urban planning even more compelling. However, these plans can come at a cost.
Barriers to green cities
A particular negative impact of green zones could be a high demand for housing, leading to subsequent rises in property prices. This can lead to gentrification and displacement of local residents and businesses. Care must be taken to make sure that homes remain affordable and urban green zones do not become rich enclaves.
The Covid-19 lockdowns highlighted the difference in living conditions faced by city dwellers. Green initiatives must work for all socio-economic groups, and must not exacerbate existing inequalities.
In addition, while city centres are the usual focus areas for greening initiatives, suburbs and other peripheral areas also need attention. The goal is to reduce carbon dependence in total – not shift it from one area to another, or one sector to another.
The plan should also include steps to make private and public transport completely green. This could include replacing carbon-producing transport system with zero-emission vehicles and providing ample infrastructure such as dedicated lanes and charging stations for electric vehicles.
Cities differ hugely in how they look, shape and operate. One size will not fit all. If other cities choose to follow Barcelona’s model, local issues must be carefully considered. Superblocks w
ork really well in a neat grid system such as in central Barcelona. But many cities do not have a well-designed grid system.
However, the principles of green, environmentally friendly, car-free or restricted-traffic neighbourhoods can be adopted in any city. Examples of schemes include low-traffic neighbourhoods in London, the 15-minute city initiative in Paris, or Manchester’s plans for a zero-carbon city centre.
While adopting such interventions, it is important to keep citizens’ daily needs in mind to avoid adding extra burdens on them. If motor traffic is to be limited, the availability of public transport must be considered, safe infrastructure for walking and cycling as well as adequate road structure for essential services or deliveries.
Significant capital investment is needed to support these plans. The Barcelona plan is projected to cost €38 million (£34 million). Much more will be required if it is to roll out to more areas. Cities in the developing world and poorer countries cannot afford such huge sums. Moreover, Covid-19 has left several cities laden with a huge amount of debt.
Green city initiatives need to be long-term – and created with the support of local people. Recognition of the benefits of green living and informed support of developments will result in positive behaviour changes by the citizens.