When Polish architect Daniel Libeskind said “cities are the greatest creations of humanity”, little did he know that megacities would pose some of the greatest challenges to humanity. Today, China alone has 15 megacities – clusters with more than 10 million inhabitants. Worldwide, the number of megacities is expected to rise to 41 by 2030 from 31 in 2016, according to the United Nations.
While megacities are vibrant economic and cultural centers, their sheer size can seriously compromise the quality of urban life. From infrastructure to resources to mobility, umpteen challenges arise as the crowds swell. Congestion, pollution and poverty are common features of many fast-growing cities.
So how can these challenges be overcome? Big Data might have an answer.
Humans now produce more data than ever. The electronic breadcrumbs of 0s and 1s scattered daily hold patterns that reveal the contours of real life. Smartphones, for example, are a massive data source. Globally, there are about 7.7 billion mobile subscriptions – more than the human population – producing streams of information about location, purchases and interests of individuals.
Then, there are automated sensors, used everywhere from traffic and trash management to water systems. These can connect wirelessly to create an Internet of Things (IoT). With such technologies, almost every social, economic and logistical transaction can provide insights into human behavior. Like companies, governments routinely collect billions of pieces of data daily. Savvy cities are using this to gain insights into the modern urban ecology.
Since 2009, Santander on the north coast of Spain has created a network of over 12,000 sensors throughout the urban landscape to perform a staggering variety of services. In public parks, sprinklers automatically switch on when sensors determine the soil is too dry. Lights on paths and road are dim and brighten only when sensors recognize they are being used – this helped cut energy costs by 25 percent. Similarly, sensors in garbage bins inform the sanitation department when they are full, reducing pickup costs by 20 percent.
Santander is far from alone in digital innovation. Louisville in Kentucky (population 1.2 million) has been a world leader on smart cities. It opened itself up to Google Fiber and other gigabit providers in 2017, but was already named as the United States’ top digital city as far back as 2012.
More recently, it became the first smart city in the U.S. to implement the IFTTT platform, which stands for ‘If This Then That’. This simplifies everyday life by making it possible for smart homes to connect with smart city data through “applets”. For example, the lights in homes change color when readings detect a decline in air quality, warning residents not to go outside. Users can also set up air filters, so they activate at the same time.
Smaller cities are not the only Big Data success stories. With a population of 37.9 million in the Greater Tokyo area, the Shogun city is the world’s largest megacity, but it has world-beating efficiency in everything from basic infrastructure to logistics, retail, health and food services while providing a great quality of life for those who live there and visit.
At its heart is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which oversees everything from energy efficiency in buildings to zero waste policies, often using Big Data. But the running of Tokyo is not all left entirely to government dictates. Many companies are integrated into the delivery of smart services. The train and subway systems, an icon of Japanese precision, are run by both the government and private companies.
Another cutting-edge example is Fujitsu’s Spatiowl. An integrated transportation management platform deployed in Tokyo, it uses sensors, Hadoop-powered Big Data analytics and cloud technology to create detailed, real-time models of traffic and people flow. In Indonesia, toll firms are now using Spatiowl to provide drivers with real-time information on traffic congestion to encourage the use of toll roads.
Meanwhile, Copenhagen in Denmark is not only using the IoT to implement smart lighting, smart traffic management, waste management and intelligent building management, it hopes to become the smartest city by going carbon neutral by 2025. As part of its ambitious plans, Copenhagen is introducing the free exchange of data through a City Data Exchange to pave the way for large-scale testing of smart city solutions in real-life urban environments.
Big Data and advanced modeling technology offer the potential to turn megacities into “smart cities” – those interconnected digitally and where data is collected and analyzed to improve the quality of life and better serve citizens.
With Big Data, authorities and town planners can better plan and prioritize infrastructure investment and yield measurably better results. Civil engineers can also more accurately predict what’s needed to maintain assets such as bridges and roads, prolonging their lifecycle.
Is this vision realistic? The outlines of such a city can clearly be seen today, but the implementation of Big Data implies that cities must have robust information technology infrastructure and the ability to translate the insights it offers into action. Yet, many megacities, particularly in developing countries, are struggling to deliver even basic services and infrastructure, let alone worry about Big Data.
By 2050, around 85 percent of people are expected to live in cities with, by some estimates, seven in 10 living in megacities. Successful megacities will be those that find a way to use Big Data to play a vital role in ensuring efficient, effective and responsive reactions to human needs.
The Megacities institute is a non-lucrative association founded by Allianz France, Bosch and GIPA, tackling non-competitive topics about technologies changing the landscape of cities today.
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