Rise of the smart city: how urban life is about to change, big time

Thanks to new wireless networks, garbage bins can tell you when they're full and parking spots when they're empty

(Illustrations by Sean McCabe)

(Illustrations by Sean McCabe)

Think, for a moment, about the way the Tile could change city life as we know it. A ballyhooed indie product that drummed up $2.6 million in crowdsourced funding and is now about to hit the market, the Tile caters to people who have gotten used to finding a misplaced cellphone by calling the number and listening for the ring. If it works for phones, why not find other objects the same way?

A little white Bluetooth-enabled square that can be attached to any item—in a wallet, inside a guitar, stuffed inside a sock—the Tile will ring whenever someone uses a smartphone app to “call” it. You can use it to find a missing sock in your house, but you can also use it to locate the wallet you left on a streetcar—with the help of every other smartphone that has the Tile app installed. A whole city’s worth of phones could potentially be enlisted to cast a wireless net, looking for whatever you’ve lost.

Tile is one product from one startup. But it’s a perfect example of how the “Internet of things” has suddenly come to life in cities. The close concentration of urban dwellers, combined with plummeting hardware costs and the overlapping layers of wireless data that accompany us—beamed from cell towers, pulsing from Wi-Fi hot spots, radiating from smartphones in our pockets—has made it easier than ever before to track, sort, manage and organize things in a city setting.

“I would call it the perfect storm,” says Mike Stern, the founder of MakeWorks, a new Toronto co-working space where entrepreneurs are busy melding web-connected sensors to pieces of hardware (an Internet-enabled hockey stick that reports back on the speed with which it’s handled, among other things).

Stern points out that suddenly, deploying sensors throughout cities has become remarkably cost-effective. As a result, municipalities themselves are getting into the game. In Santander, an ancient city in the north of Spain, an ambitious project is spreading sensors across the urban landscape, transforming formerly insensate objects into little Internet nodes. Sensors on parking spaces speak to display panels at the city’s major intersections, which can guide drivers toward free spots. Similarly, a series of about 60 sensors at the city’s main entry points gauges traffic flows and volumes. Sensors in its parks and gardens measure moisture and rainfall, in a bid to make irrigation as effective as possible. And to assess environmental conditions, the city put 150 detectors for airborne particles and carbon dioxide into taxis and buses.

Santander is a test bed, the kind of flagship demonstrator that is beloved by governments and big technology companies. But the ideas on display there are already starting to spread in more prosaic ways to cities around the world. For decades, urban governments have built information systems that trafficked in huge amounts of data in-house—everything from GIS mapping systems to huge amounts of hoarded traffic stats. Today, those systems are moving off private networks and onto the Internet, where they can be combined and put to use.

In Barcelona, a system of sensors in municipal garbage bins keeps track of trash levels, letting collection crews plot optimal pickup routes. And transit agencies around the world have been tying their GPS-tracked fleets into Internet systems that can tell riders when the next car is arriving. The streetcar on which you left your Tile-equipped wallet is now an Internet-tracked thing itself.


And the arrival of web-connected sensors has huge implications for the energy sector, which has bet heavily on smart meters that take live power-consumption readings and transmit them over the Internet in real time. These readings let utilities know exactly when consumers are using how much power, and are already allowing them to charge more at peak hours. (Ontario is one of the more advanced jurisdictions in North America on this front.)

But smart meters will have applications beyond dinging consumers for using power at the wrong time. For one thing, they’ll be able to communicate wirelessly with household appliances and consumer electronics.

“This can be as simple as coloured lights on your dishwasher to remind you to wait until after peak hours,” says Ian Rowlands, a professor in the University of Waterloo’s faculty of the environment who’s working extensively on smart-grid technologies. It could also mean integrating with power-management apps on smartphones, which would let users mine their usage data to figure out how to save money.

Or, smart meters could skip communicating with the user completely and talk directly with other wireless power-management devices, like the Nest “smart thermostat,” which learns its users’ temperature-use patterns and adapts to them. (Nest was recently acquired by Google for $3.2 billion, which gives a sense of the potential the software giant sees in the Internet of things.)

The idea isn’t limited to power, either: Internet-enabled flow meters can measure water usage the same way. While it’s easier to store water than it is electricity, the supply isn’t unlimited, and municipalities are looking at using “smart water” distribution as a way of evening out demand.

For civic governments trying to stay on top of all of this, it can mean overload: As more and more government departments—many of them already prodigious producers of data—start moving their data to the Internet, cities are faced with the question of what to do with it all. In Rio de Janeiro, the city contracted with IBM to open a one-of-a-kind operations centre to bring together data from the city’s 30-odd agencies.

Now that citizens are pervasively linked by private networks, the kind of intelligence that leads to “smart cities” is increasingly coming from not just the private sector but also private citizens.

READ: On the Internet of Things, your body is the next thing to be networked »

It’s an idea the Santander project dubs “participatory sensing”: the people receiving information are also the ones detecting it in the first place. As Tile’s “global lost-and-found” idea illustrates, any communications network also doubles as a sensor network—at least, if you’re the company that owns it.

Take, for instance, the way Google generates the traffic predictions on its maps. Rather than watching the roads with a helicopter, it checks in on the GPS readings coming from the millions upon millions of smartphones that use its software. If enough users’ phones report that they aren’t moving at the vicinity of Highway 401, Google can identify a traffic jam. Since Google-enabled smartphones are more or less ubiquitous, it has a lot of data points to draw from.

Its users have effectively been turned into person-size Internet-enabled sensors. And as Tile’s prospective users are finding out, that’s the future of the Internet in cities: the people and the network are becoming one and the same.