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Smart cities
Smart cities

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1 Urban infrastructure and technology

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Figure 1 Smart infrastructure

‘Infrastructure’ is the term used for the underlying physical and organisational structures and facilities that support city systems and keep a city functioning. Infrastructure includes roads, buildings, electricity grids and communication networks.

In many countries the building of infrastructure is a centralised, government-led activity that aims to solve one issue at a time, such as a network for water supply. Future infrastructure designs will gain the additional remit of anticipating long-term, global phenomena. City infrastructures will need to withstand pressures such as extra stress on the electricity grid resulting from more homes having solar panels, and increasing incidents of extreme weather resulting from climate change such as tornadoes and storm surges.

Smart cities will need to future-proof their infrastructure. They might have to build new infrastructure or retro-fit existing networks and structures. A useful definition of smart infrastructure is the one offered by the Royal Academy of Engineering: ‘Smart infrastructure responds intelligently to changes in its environment, including user demands and other infrastructure, to achieve an improved performance’ (Royal Academy of Engineering, 2012).

Data is at the heart of all smart infrastructure. A smart system uses a feedback loop of data that informs decision making. The system can monitor, measure, analyse, communicate and act, based on data collected from sensors.

Investing in smart infrastructure brings social and economic benefits such as more efficient and integrated services and greater resilience. But it comes at a cost. Songdo in South Korea, as you have seen, is a smart city built from scratch with state-of-the-art smart infrastructure including ultra-fast Wi-Fi. Sensors monitor temperature, energy use, an intelligent transport network and a waste disposal system where all household waste is sucked directly from individual kitchens through a vast underground network of tunnels to waste processing centres. It has cost more than $40 billion (World Finance, 2014).

The Royal Academy of Engineering has identified six major barriers to smart infrastructure (Royal Academy of Engineering, 2012, pp. 16–17):

  • Smart government – the need to create the right environment for investment in smart infrastructure, particularly procurement that recognises the need to invest now to save in the long term.
  • Data quality and management – the quality of data has to be known before it can be used to optimise a system.
  • Privacy – an abundance of data already exists but a lack of availability or use derives from security and privacy concerns as well as commercial considerations.
  • Investment – traditional methods of proving return on investment fail to take into account the full complexity of a ‘system of systems’.
  • Vulnerability – interconnected systems introduce more vulnerabilities, particularly in ICT systems, which could lead to a cascade of system failures.
  • Lifetime – infrastructure can be designed to last up to 100 years. If sensors are embedded into this infrastructure, will their lifetime match that of the infrastructure itself?

Cities need a co-ordinated, long-term approach to smart infrastructure design, construction and management that brings together expertise from many different partners to address these issues.