The Power of Small Things: How Simple Ideas Can Make Smart Cities a Reality

Written by Sumit Gerela

Modern technology has the potential to make cities smarter and more sustainable. Smart applications can read data from multiple sensors, use location services and weather data, and even integrate with city official data to provide real-time insights that can help cities become more efficient and environmentally friendly. For example, smart applications can holistically monitor energy consumption and subsequently identify opportunities for conservation, collect information on waste generation and disposal, manage water resources, prevent pollution, and provide real-time information to residents about environmental conditions. Smart applications will help cities reduce their environmental impact and improve the quality of life for their residents. By providing users with rewards for making sustainable choices, smart applications can further incentivize people to contribute to their cities. In addition to the aforementioned benefits, these applications can also help to build trust between city officials and residents. By harnessing the power of data and technology, cities can become more efficient, environmentally friendly, and livable for their residents. The new application of this concept is SaaS: Smart Applications As Service.

Residents are the architects of their cities' future. By making sustainable choices, they can help to build smarter, more sustainable cities that promote a cleaner environment for everyone.

Smart cities are built by residents and businesses who make sustainable choices. These choices often do not require a huge investment from citizens, yet they provide long term incentives that help make cities around them smart and sustainable.


Smart Applications to Aid Waste Management in Public Parks

These apps can use location-based services to organize community events that help keep parks clean. For example, if a resident sees litter on the street, they can snap a picture from their smartphone and report it via a smart app. Other users who are nearby will receive a notification informing them about a potential clean-up task they can perform. Over time, these activities can help to provide a heat map of the most littered parks, which city officials can use to prioritize cleaning efforts and to identify the days of the week when parks are littered with the most waste. In addition to reporting litter, users can also be rewarded for making sustainable choices, such as picking up litter or recycling. These apps can also show users a map of nearby trash cans, as well as provide regionally relevant information about recycling and composting.

One related example of the application of this location-based services concept  is New York City’s Street Bump app, where residents can report potholes and other road hazards. This app allows residents to take a picture of a pothole (or other hazards) and to submit the report to the city. The city uses this information to prioritize repairs.


Smart Applications as a Gateway to Conserve Energy

With rise in smart home devices, these applications can be used to automate certain tasks. In case of an upcoming heat advisory, these apps, using the weather and location data around the user, can automate tasks such as closing blinds in order to reduce energy emissions from an air-conditioner. These simple smart actions can help make a big impact with minimal user input, which can help make cities smarter. To increase the amount of smart-app compatible and smart devices in city homes, these apps can provide discounted products (such as energy efficient thermostats) and connect residents with local city-approved contractors to help install these smart home devices.

Installing solar panels is indeed important, but it requires huge investments upfront. There are much smaller, low investment solutions available as well, such changing the lights in driveways to be solar as opposed to electric. During unforeseen weather activities, these smart applications can utilize weather and location data to inform users about important energy conservation activities. For example, if power outage is expected due to a storm, smart applications can send a notification and help users to turn off or unplug their electronics. This timely communication of information can help reduce load on the power grid and help reduce partial or complete power outages.

Smart applications and sensors dispersed throughout the city can help broadcast real time traffic information so that citizens can make smarter route choices to reduce fuel consumption, such as opting for carpool vehicles or buses for transportation. This can also help city officials identify traffic bottlenecks and inform better road infrastructure planning. This data can be further used to implement sustainable public transport based on high traffic time.


Smart Applications as a Tool to Educate Residents

An important step in making cities sustainable is to educate people and enable them make smart choices in their daily lives. These smart applications, when built in collaboration with city officials, can yield excellent educational results. Mobile applications can provide users with tips (such as turning off sprinklers in anticipation of rainy days ahead) and inform users about consumer behaviors (i.e., peak energy usage times, and how to save electricity during those peak hours). By providing users with rewards for making sustainable choices, smart mobile applications can further incentivize people to contribute to their cities. For example, an application could offer users discounts on their property taxes or utility bills if they reduce their energy consumption.

The city of Barcelona has taken the first steps at this with their smart application, Smart Citizen. Residents of Barcelona track their environmental impact through the app’s monitoring of their energy consumption, water usage, and waste production. This helps residents make more sustainable choices.

Smart applications have tremendous potential to make cities smarter and residents more aware, contributing to a self-sustainable environment. These smart applications are powerful tools, as they can read data from multiple sensors, use location services and weather data, and even integrate with official city data to provide insights that can help cities become more efficient and make it easier for people to get involved in sustainability initiatives. Smart applications can help build trustworthy relationship between city officials and residents, serving as a key mediator bridging the gap between the two groups. When residents see that city officials are using data and technology to make decisions that benefit the community, they are more likely to trust those officials and cooperate with them. This can help to create a more harmonious and productive relationship between city officials and residents, which is essential for building a sustainable future.




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To view all articles in this issue, please go to September 2023 eNewsletter. For a downloadable copy, please visit the IEEE Smart Cities Resource Center.

Sumit Gerela
Sumit Gerela is a Senior Member of IEEE. He earned his Masters in Software Engineering from San Jose State University in California after earning his Bachelors of Engineering from Thadomal Shahani Engineering College in Mumbai, India. Sumit has over a decade of experience in software engineering, throughout which he has helped launch multiple apps on the App Store for Barclays Bank UK and Upwork. He is currently a Senior Software Engineer at Apple, Inc.

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