From Smart Cities To Smart Pilots: Excerpt From The Robot & Automation Almanac 2019

Fred van Beuningen

Dec 11, 2018

This excerpt is from the Robot & Automation Almanac – 2019: The Futurist Institute. Click here to order your copy.

Technologists have promoted “smart cities” as utopias where webs of sensors, artificial intelligence, and robots will cure the woes of urban life. The only problem: no such cities exist yet. What is the state of the smart city, and how will it evolve in 2019?

These questions matter because 600 cities already account for 60 percent of global GDP according to McKinsey. Moreover, the UN predicts that 66 percent of the world population will be urban by 2050, up from 54 percent today. Smart cities will be habitats for most of humanity. Investments we make now will influence global quality of life for decades.

In 2016, Statista counted 252 smart city projects worldwide. A few of these examples can help us a) understand imminent changes in city living, and b) model how automation and robotics will affect urban development.

Smart city pilots in Dallas and Seoul demonstrate that improved energy efficiency and waste management are within reach of any city. Amsterdam illustrates how cities might connect smart energy and waste management projects to create looped use cycles. Finally, pilots in Helsinki and Toronto suggest how one loop of interconnected smart systems could scale into a “smart city” deserving of that moniker.

In 2019, I expect public and private entities to integrate isolated, departmental services into interconnected, looped processes. The cities that do so will turn smart pilots into smart cities.

Isolated Intelligence: Lighting in Dallas

In March 2017, the nonprofit Dallas Innovation Alliance (DIA) established the “Living Lab,” a four-block corridor where 30 organizations could prototype a smart city. DIA launched nine projects focused on lighting, water use, connectivity, parking, and other city needs. The project was collaborative in mindset but not in implementation.

The standout project was intelligent LED lighting, which reduced energy use by 35 percent during a 12-month pilot. Applied citywide to 85,00 lights, DIA calculates that intelligent lighting would save $90 million over the life of the LED bulbs. How? DIA says that the lights were managed by “…intelligent nodes, which allow for remote lighting management, outage alerts, and operational efficiencies.”

Lighting, argues Navigant Research’s Eric Woods, are the “backbone” of smart cities because they can host myriad systems. For instance, the Dutch company Sustainder adds cameras as well as sensors for movement, weather, carbon dioxide, and sound to its intelligent lighting system. To a Sustainder lamppost, a city could add a Danish-designed Leapcraft sensor, which monitors pollutants and particles. A series of such lampposts could ingest data for intelligent parking, public safety, traffic management, Wi-Fi provision, and more.

If DIA connected intelligent lighting to the eight other projects, they didn’t mention it. Living Lab’s lighting system, though efficient, is isolated. Dallas has smart pilots, but not a smart city. That’s wasteful, as the next sections will argue.

Seoul’s Garbage Problem

Seoul, the world’s second largest metropolitan area by population, had a severe litter problem. The city’s trash bins, insufficient in size and quantity, overflowed regularly, says a case study by the Smart Cities Council. Recycling was rarely practiced. Even if city goers tried to use the bins, the Public Cleanliness Department could not collect the trash frequently enough. What does waste in Seoul have to do with lighting in Dallas?

In 2014, Seoul installed 85 smart trash bins made by Ecube Labs. The Public Cleanliness Department monitored the fill levels and optimized collection routes to prevent overflow.

These 85 bins eliminated overflows with a 66 percent reduction in collection frequency, 83 percent reduction in collection costs, and 46 percent increase in recycling diversion rates. Smart technology succeeded, just as it did in Dallas.

Yet once again, the bins are an isolated system independent from other city services. Although waste no longer overflows, it still goes to landfills. After all of Seoul’s effort to collect waste, is there not a better use?

Making Light of Waste

Dallas and Seoul each have a smart project that works. 252 cities do too, but we don’t call them “smart cities,” per se. The smart city is not the result of one good project or even the culmination of spreading nine good projects from four blocks to 50. Rather, a “smart city” loops systems and resources into each other, forming one network. At that, Amsterdam excels.

The Amsterdam Smart City Project launched in 2009 with an unusual starting point. The city invested in power, connectivity, and data on behalf of the founding partners, then welcomed “bottom-up innovation,” say researchers at the University of Palermo. The result was more than 20 pilot projects and collaborations with 72 partners in the first three years. Whereas most smart pilots have a panoply of short-term goals, Amsterdam focused on one: reduce carbon emissions 40 percent by 2025 (compared to 1900 levels) and 75 percent by 2040.

Amsterdam’s landmark project is to turn waste and sewage into sustainable power. In 2017, the Palermo team reported that Amsterdam’s waste-fed power plant produced 560 GWh of electricity per year, more than enough to power the tram and underground, town hall, and public lighting. The waste also generates 548,000 GJ of heat for homes and businesses.

Meanwhile, Amsterdam’s purification system separates drinking water from sewage sludge, which produces 11,000,000 m3 of biogas when fed into an incinerator. In turn, the biogas provides electricity and heat for water purification.

The circularity of this system is a model for other smart cities, including Dallas and Seoul. A smart waste collection system like Seoul’s could fuel a waste incinerator like Amsterdam’s to power a lighting system like Dallas’s. In 2019, such a loop is realistic – and merely a starting point.

Circular Automation and Robotics

The Dallas, Seoul, and Amsterdam examples propose that a smart city, using intelligent sensors and data systems, could collect waste, convert it to sustainable energy, and thereby power efficient lighting systems, which form a backbone for the smart city. Those steps, until recently, demanded manual processes and people to perform them. Now, thanks to advances in mobility and robotics, we can and should automate the circle in 2019.

The question is not if we can do this, but how we should do it. Compare Seoul’s waste solution to one Helsinki implemented in its Kalasatama smart city district. There, residents separate their waste into mixed, bio, paper, and cardboard bins, then the system “whooshes” the trash at 70 km per hour through subterranean tunnels. It reaches a central collection station, where trucks collect the waste for further handling. That results in 80 to 90 percent less garbage truck traffic.

Now, compare Seoul and Helsinki to Sidewalk Labs, a pilot in Toronto that plans to create subterranean tunnels in which robots transport mail and garbage via underground tunnels. Which of the three options is the most scalable for a city?

Seoul could use autonomous garbage trucks to gain efficiencies immediately without digging tunnels. Helsinki’s tunnels might be slower to implement, but they automate collection without robots, saving resources for robotic processes in, say, a waste power plant. Sidewalk Labs makes dual use of the tunnel network (and eliminates noisy delivery drones overhead), but it demands upfront investment in robots.

Perhaps the choice of waste delivery will depend on the city’s resources, talent base, and geography. The important thing is to automate trash delivery to a power plant, which, in turn, electrifies the delivery system and the intelligent lighting above. That lighting system might also monitor weather and foot traffic if it’s made by Sustainder, and monitor pollutants and particulate matter if we attach a Leapcraft sensor. If we build upon basic loops, we might see the first “smart city” in 2019.

From Smart Pilots to Smart Cities

The world’s 252 smart pilots must integrate siloed projects into circular systems. No metropolitan area deserves the title “smart city” until it is interconnected that way. Semi-intelligent cities can and should make that leap in 2019.

The energy-waste cycle, the focus of this chapter, shows how existing, proven technologies would form a circular system. It also demonstrates the interdisciplinary nature of smart city automation and robotics. Innovators in disparate fields – like energy generation, waste management, and autonomous vehicles – must form partnerships. No single private or public entity can build the circular smart city alone.

For 2019, I have a pitch for smart city innovators. From proven smart city pilots, let’s create one loop. From one loop, let’s create entire smart cities.