Smart Cities World Expo, Source: Localret/flickr

Smart Cities World Expo, Source: Localret/flickr

By Julia Thayne

The best definition I ever heard for the oft-used term, “Smart City,” is this: Smart Cities quickly, efficiently match supply and demand, easing the curves of the economy, the strain on infrastructure, and the impacts on the natural environment by predicting the ebbs and flows of people’s movements. By this definition, the Smart City is the Flexible City, the city that prioritizes how humans actually function over notions of how they should, that either anticipates needs or quickly adapts to them as they become apparent through patterns.

The “data-ification” of infrastructure is leading the way towards the Flexible City. By embedding software into new and existing infrastructure, we empower it to speak. Station entries and exits tell transportation engineers how people are moving throughout the transit network. Meter read-outs tell electric utility companies how and when customers are using energy. Pollution sensors indicate to policymakers when traffic is too heavy, industry too oppressive. Designers, engineers, and businesses can use this information to tailor products and services, better matching what we need with which technologies we can create.

This “data-ification” of infrastructure not only quantifies supply of and demand for infrastructure, but also lets us tell infrastructure how to act. Engineers can remotely control the temperature, ventilation, and security of buildings through easy-to-use, web-based dashboards. Software programs can speed up or slow down trains based on number of passengers, time of day, and reliability of the system. Using the data we collect from use of infrastructure, we are able to make it more efficient, adaptable, and – dare I say it – smart!

The “data-ification” of infrastructure is essential for two reasons. First, the developed world’s infrastructure is aging and, in some cases, literally crumbling. For example, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) rated the U.S. infrastructure a D+ in 2013 [for those of you unfamiliar with the U.S. grading system, a D+ is two baby steps away from failing altogether]. This crumbling infrastructure is not only dangerous, but also costly. Another ASCE report cites that, if the United States fails to repair its infrastructure (an estimated cost of $3.6 trillion), it stands to lose $3.1 trillion in GDP and $1.1 trillion in total trade by 2020.

As Daryl Dulaney, head of Siemens’ Infrastructure & Cities sector, writes, “Inserting software into already existing infrastructure is less costly than rebuilding it altogether.” He’s right. A report by McKinsey Global Institute states that, for example, intelligent transport systems for roads, rails, airports, and ports can double or triple the use of an asset at a fraction of the cost of rebuilding those assets.

The second reason that “data-ification” of infrastructure is essential is that, in the developing world, infrastructure can lead both to economic and social goods, particularly when considered comprehensively. A 2012 UN report on economic development in Africa blames the lack of modern infrastructure for impeding the continent’s growth. Inadequate power supplies, transport connections, and communications networks deter foreign investment, and preclude the consistent exporting of Africa’s bountiful natural resources.

By contrast, installing comprehensive infrastructure in African cities, as well as in other developing nations, could mean so much more than just bricks and mortar. Transportation networks, energy, water systems, telecommunications, public works, trade and logistics, schools, hospitals and public buildings – all of these physical products not only have the capacity to promote growth, but also to strengthen social components integral to the urban fabric. This is because in much of the developing world access to clean water, steady electricity, and public transport is as much an issue of social equity and economic empowerment as it is of physical capacity.

If we’re forward-thinking, we’ll use the estimated $57 trillion by 2030 required for infrastructure projects in both the developed and developing worlds to do so much more than just build stuff. We’ll use it to generate jobs, to link systems, to educate workers, and most importantly, to connect people. Now that would be really smart.