MCS provides smart building solutions and integrated data analysis from sensors and other sources that enables facility and workplace managers to manage costs, resources and space more effectively; optimizing the user experience and proactively anticipating needs and issues. Here the company looks at the rise of the smart city.

It’s a familiar story: young people moving away from rural towns and making a life for themselves in the big city. While city dwellers increasingly seek to escape for some ‘small town chic’, the rate of urbanisation continues to skyrocket. The global percentage of people living in urban areas is now 53%, and as high as 81% in North America. But it’s not just houses that are needed; public services also suffer. The big question on the lips of city planners and local authorities is how to develop an infrastructure capable of supporting this influx.
Those shouting loudest are proclaiming a new age of ‘smart cities’: efficient networks of digitised devices that automate much of a city’s infrastructure, generating massive amounts of data. Perhaps the most prominent voice comes from Dubai. Sheikh Mohammed, Prime Minister of the UAE and ruler of its second city, launched the Dubai Smart Cities Projects in March 2014 with the explicit intention to become a global pioneer in smart city technology. As a rapidly developing economy, the UAE is a fascinating test case: with car ownership rising by over 8% each year and energy use by more than 5%, rapid and radical solutions were perhaps required to reinforce the country’s still fledgling infrastructure.
It’s a lofty goal, but Dubai has already gone a long way towards delivering on it. The city has seen all of its 408 traffic lights linked wirelessly to a central network, allowing for intelligent traffic management to cut down on congestion. Elsewhere 250,000 smart energy meters will be installed in homes by 2018, tying into a ‘smart grid’ which manages surges and fluctuations by actively distributing power where it’s needed. With the goal that the city should “live with [the citizen] through his smart phone,” residents can see live traffic updates, manage their own utilities and access 95% of government services through their phones, all with one unified account. The copious ‘big data’ collected from these schemes doesn’t go to waste either. A new Open Data Law further allows anonymous data to be shared with researchers and businesses, incentivising other ‘big data’ processing projects, while 1% of every government department’s budget is reserved for research and development.
Nor do these advances stop at the city limits. As well as similar technologies being applied in Abu Dhabi, an entirely new city is being constructed from the ground up just outside the capital. Designed by famed architect Norman Foster’s firm, Masdar City aims to become a leading global hub for clean industries and Internet of Things (IoT) technology. Ironically it borrows much of its smartest technology from ancient civilisations: the raised foundations and narrow streets are old Egyptian tricks, keeping the city cool in the middle of a desert. But the modern developments are almost as exciting. A 54 acre field of solar panels feeds energy in from the desert, and the city aims to recycle 80% of its water usage. And don’t bother looking for light switches. 100% of the lighting and taps throughout the city operate on motion sensors, saving on wasted water and electricity.
The project has not come without setbacks, however. The global financial crisis significantly slowed construction, and forced the abandonment of the first city-wide Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system, a network of guided but self-operated cars. With a reported 5% of the city completed and the date of completion pushed to 2030, its current occupants are the 300 students at the Institute of Science and Technology, well below the envisaged 60,000 commuters expected to work in its planned cleantech industries. Critics question the country’s commitment to green principles, too, believing this to be little more than a vanity project designed to boost the UAE’s popular image. Whatever the case, Masdar is showing us that when creating a smart city from scratch, convincing investors could be the biggest barrier.
You don’t have to look too far from the Middle East for serious competition. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has launched a $15bn development fund for cities expected to house 40% of the population by 2030, with $7.1bn explicitly dedicated to creating a hundred smart cities. This has taken the form of a gradual rollout, with an initial 20 cities with the best proposals for applying smart technology funded first, and the rest given advice on how to hone their plans. This allows local government, planning agencies and the citizenry to collaborate on plans and decide where the money would be best spent: whether to retrofit existing technologies and buildings, build new smart houses, or create entirely new systems.
While the battle rages for smart tech primacy, a quieter revolution is happening in many of the world’s major cities. Barcelona is well established as a smart city flagship, with its CityOS software regulating traffic to the extent that it can free up routes for emergency services, helping to save time and lives. ’Smart policing’ in Mesa, Arizona has been correlated with a 25% reduction in crime. Stockholm was forward-thinking enough to pledge complete fibre optic coverage in 1996, and is a world leader in energy efficient smart buildings and the implementation of e-services. At the join between Crossrail and the planned HS2 line in Greater London, developers have carte blanche to build efficient houses, manage traffic and intelligently link public transport services. To the west in the city of Bristol, wheelchair users can use a local GPS service to plan a route through the city that avoids bumps and steep inclines.
The range of potential applications and different levels of implementation show what smart buildings can offer to any urban area. With the penetration of smart devices now extremely high across the western world, it makes logistical sense as well as being cheaper in the long term for local government to turn to e-services. In the current climate money is always a barrier, but it might not be long until ‘smart cities’ become smart towns and smart villages the world over.