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Smart city: the city of tomorrow must be sustainable and desirable

To reduce their carbon footprint, smart cities make a broad appeal to digital technology, from the Internet of Things to artificial intelligence. However, the concept of smart city must not be considered from a technological perspective alone. By Nicolas Cambolin, global director data consulting & technology services at Talan.

The current health crisis is making cities more attractive. With the widespread use of teleworking, their inhabitants have been able to experience the possibility of working from anywhere and thus fleeing areas with high urban density. This haemorrhage began before the pandemic. According to a recent study by INSEE, an increasing number of French households are settling on the outskirts of large cities. Paris is no exception, as the capital is gradually being emptied of its inhabitants in favour of its suburbs.

While the exodus from the countryside to the cities raged throughout the twentieth century, climate change is expected to lead to a worldwide reversal. According to UN Habitat, 143 million people, mainly from Africa, South Asia and Latin America, could be forced to move. Another figure that is causing debate is that large cities are responsible for 70% of global CO2 emissions (source: National Geographic).

The accumulation of health, economic and climate crises must lead cities to ask themselves questions about their sustainability but also their desirability. How can they continue to be attractive by offering better living conditions?

Large cities have already set clear targets. Copenhagen aims to become the first carbon-neutral city by 2025. Oslo wants to reduce its CO2 emissions by 95% by 2030.

 

Digital technology for decarbonisation

In this area as in others, digital technology contributes to the decarbonisation of a territory. Thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT), the smart city feeds back a large amount of data, whether it comes from connected infrastructures (street furniture, public lighting, waste, buildings, etc.), transport networks or network distributors (water, electricity, gas, telecoms). Once aggregated, their analysis enables more efficient management of energy resources.

These solutions are complementary to CO2 extraction solutions that will be deployed in large cities such as that of, for example, Climeworks, a Swiss startup, which, through a filter, blocks CO2 molecules from the ambient air to release clean air.
A Mobility as a Service (MaaS) strategy makes it possible to offer alternatives to individual cars by favouring public transport and new forms of shared or soft mobility. The advent of shuttles and then autonomous cars will also respond to urban congestion issues.

This ecosystem can also extend beyond geographical limits such as in the canton of Geneva, which borders France with the launch of the Léman Express, Europe's largest cross-border RER network inaugurated in December 2019. It provides a concrete solution for replacing the car in a basin of nearly one million inhabitants with significant cross-border daily flows.

Artificial intelligence (AI) will be used to identify, from images captured by satellites and drones, flat roofs that can accommodate photovoltaic panels or urban farms that trap CO2. Under the branch of AI, computer vision measures the surface area of eligible roofs and their sunshine.

Most of these innovative services are born from the combination of public and private data, and the local community needs to create the trusted environment to facilitate this sharing. Even if it delegates some of the processing of this data to a private operator, the local authority remains responsible. It needs to guarantee citizens the security and confidentiality of their personal data.

 

Mobilising collective intelligence

However, the smart city concept should not be considered from a technological perspective alone. Technology is only a means of serving purposes. A smart territory manages a large number of areas - mobility, energy, health, education, security, economy, etc. - whose challenges are not only technical.

Moreover, reducing the carbon footprint is not the only business of local decision-makers and public operators. A socially inclusive city must embark its citizens in this ideal. Objectives can, for example, be set at the level of a collective building, a residence or a neighbourhood. In a given area, the average volume of non-recyclable waste is X kilos per person, how can it be reduced by 25%?

More broadly, the aim is to mobilise collective intelligence by involving all stakeholders from energy distributors and mobility operators (VTCs, car pooling, car sharing, self-service bikes) and infrastructure managers (buildings, car parks). The development of a smart city programme cannot, of course, involve interchangeable copy-pasting. Rio de Janeiro, Geneva and Luxembourg do not have the same constraints and challenges. Some cities will favour the fight against pollution, others biodiversity, thermal insulation of buildings or waste management.

In its resilience strategy, the city of Paris plans to transform school classes into freshness islands and map its basements (3D mapping) in order to recover heat from sewers in winter. The effort is global. Paris, along with Quito and Rotterdam, is part of a network of around a hundred resilient cities around the world.

And at a time when nearly 70% of the world's population will be in cities in 2050, the challenge of the smart city is becoming global. Energy, transport, health and safety are therefore becoming an immediate concern in preparing for the future of living together and ensuring the jobs of today.

With the health crisis linked to COVID-19 and climate change, cities are particularly affected and part of their population is fleeing them for a time. They must speed up their digitisation to better adapt to an increasingly uncertain environment. This is a constraint but above all a great opportunity to reinvent themselves.