Engineering efficiency: a tour of global smart cities
The most intelligent smart cities successfully integrate secure forms of information and communication technologies into municipal assets: educational facilities, law enforcement departments, utility plants and medical facilities. The goal of any smart city (or aspiring smart city) is to continually utilise technology to improve services; this is often accomplished using sensors integrated with real time monitoring systems, as well as data collected from city residents.
The foreseeable advantages of smart cities
While the prospect of a clean, green, efficient city is certainly attractive, smart cities have both advantages and disadvantages. Barcelona is a prime example of how modern technology can be integrated into city infrastructure with numerous beneficial outcomes. Barcelona’s Ministry of Justice is able to instantly connect with local prisons, police stations, lawyers and hospitals at any time. Sensors in parking lots indicate when spaces are occupied or vacant and this information is displayed in real-time and is also accessible via an app which allows drivers to book spaces in advance. Sensors on bins indicate whether they are empty or full, thus speeding up the process of trash collection. In addition, sensors in the ground at local parks ensure that grass gets just the right amount of water, leading Barcelona to anticipate a decrease of about 25 percent in water used for irrigation.
Singapore is one of the world’s best known smart cities. It gets high marks for offering nearly all government services online and providing a top notch public transportation system. However, it continues to look for ways to improve its standing and offer better services to citizens. One recent development involves rolling out ‘smart boxes’ connected to fiber optic lines to deliver real- time information on air pollutants, heavy rainfall or traffic jams to all citizens. Singapore also continues to put a premium on creating an eco-friendly atmosphere. The city has well over 2,000 certified green buildings and has put laws in place to discourage personal vehicle use.
What are the vulnerabilities of a smart city?
At the same time, a smart city is not guaranteed to be a success story. Critics rightfully note that the technology used to provide faster and better services to citizens is also vulnerable to hacking. What’s more, a hack or breakdown in one sector could easily lead to domino-effect failures in other sectors because of how interconnected utilities and services are. Privacy rights groups are also concerned that the more information a city collects, the higher the odds are of it being misused. While some simply trust the government to use personal information wisely, the truth is that local, state and federal laws are lagging far behind technology in every part of the world. This puts governments in danger of infringing on citizens’ rights or making serious errors in moral judgment simply because there is no precedent for how a particular situation should be handled.
Experts also note that the increased popularity of smart cities is leading some countries to build them from scratch, despite evidence that this may be misguided. Masdar City, which is being built in the deserts of Abu Dhabi, has attracted criticism for being highly impractical. It has been noted that cities built using the latest technology could very well be outdated by the time they are completed — resulting in time and money wasted on a settlement that is not attractive to prospective settlers.
It remains to be seen whether South Korea’s Songdo City will be lauded or lambasted in years to come. The city was constructed in a highly affordable manner and offers citizens full integration with public services. Abundant green spaces make the city a pleasant place to live and a highly modern waste management system means that Songdo needs only seven waste management employees to serve a city with 35,000 residents. However, Songdo also has its drawbacks: its ultra-modern style gives the city a plain appearance that does not take cultural aesthetics and expectations into account. As sociologists have noted, this type of “one size fits all” city can create serious problems, among them an increased crime rate and heightened class divisions.
What does the future hold for smart cities?
It’s safe to say that the popularity of smart cities is increasing exponentially. In most cases, however, governments are opting to work with existing city structures instead of building brand new cities using ultra-modern technologies. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has recently set plans in place to transform 100 Indian cities into smart cities by the year 2020. The selected cities would receive well over US $15 million towards development. Existing smart cities like Copenhagen, Vienna, Vancouver, Helsinki and Brisbane are working towards new developments to increase efficiency and make life easier and more comfortable for residents. A number of American cities, including San Francisco — New York, San Antonio, Chicago and Miami — are increasing their use of cutting edge technology to improve traffic, safety and other services. However, the idea of building a smart city from scratch refuses to die, as evidenced by the fact that Google is making plans to build its own municipalities.
Technology’s rapid developments makes it impossible to foresee exactly what smart cities will look or behave like in five or ten years. However, recent trends indicate that smart cities will become both more popular and more abundant. The world’s metropolises will inevitably continue looking for ways to use technology to create a safe, eco-friendly, efficient environment for residents. However, the fact that privacy and hacking concerns have not been addressed at length means that even the world’s smartest cities will remain vulnerable to serious disruption.
How technology kept energy flowing through the lockdowns
With the UK Government’s plan for leaving lockdown underway, organisations across the utilities sector are looking forward to returning to a semblance of normality.
The start of 2021 wasn’t what most had hoped for – after the lockdowns of 2020, the new year presented the UK with 'Lockdown 3.0'. But this time there was a difference. This was the first lockdown taking place during winter months, and for energy companies in particular, cold weather typically brought a spike in demand.
However, organisations had been through this twice before – albeit in warmer weather – and therefore many were in better positions to continue to provide excellent customer service despite the tight restrictions that were in place. With the lessons that had been learned from the previous 12 months, businesses have been in a better place with much greater understanding of how to ensure their employees can keep working.
Low temperatures = high energy use
The UK rarely sees winters as cold as the recent storm in Austin, Texas where during its coldest day, the state’s average temperature was just 11.8 degrees Fahrenheit – or -11.2 degrees Celsius. But that doesn’t mean that the months of cold British weather don’t cause their own problems. Particularly this winter with the majority of the country working from home, many would be cranking the central heating up and using more electricity for lighting during the darker days and evenings.
This rise in energy usage meant that suppliers were working harder than ever to ensure that homes were kept warm. During lockdown, completing maintenance in houses, offices, or any other site is trickier than usual, as companies have had to limit the number of workers they send to a single location. But as mentioned previously, lessons have been learned, and new technologies have been integrated by many companies to ensure that they could cope with the challenging situation.
How scheduling saved time
With the country moving in and out of lockdown in 2020, there was likely to be a backlog of jobs going into 2021 that didn’t get completed last year. Prioritising scheduling will have been necessary for many companies to ensure that this latest lockdown didn’t push them further behind.
Scheduling software is being adopted by a range of utilities companies to help speed up this process. These applications can identify a backlog of jobs in one geographical area and ensure that local teams can focus on these jobs first and move between them quicker. This is more productive than, for example, completing the tasks in order they were initially due, which could force teams to retrace their steps over the course of a week traveling to different sites and likely take longer overall.
Scheduling applications also help ensure that the right workers and resources are sent to the right jobs, reducing the number of repeat visits required to complete a repair. When it comes to compliance, having detailed schedules in place is also enabling companies to better meet strict SLAs when carrying out maintenance – this preparation ensures they have everything they legally require. Similarly, newly automated audits are speeding up this process, meaning workers can complete jobs and move onto the next site quicker.
While scheduling can of course always be carried out manually, companies that have integrated software which is designed to map out their jobs saves time, reduces the margin for error and eases the pressure on teams. Crucially, this has meant that customers haven’t been left waiting for long periods of time during the latest lockdown for essential maintenance to be carried out.
Using video to spread the workload
Another solution that has been making a positive impact on customer experience during lockdown is the increasing adoption of video-based remote assistance.
In the ‘new normal’ where limiting face-to-face contact is a priority, any technology that can reduce the number of people visiting multiple locations, and the amount of time they need to spend there, is beneficial. Video-based remote assistance is enabling gas and electricity maintenance workers to complete their jobs with less risk to themselves and others – be it workers from other organisations on-site, such as Highway Maintenance, or members of the local community.
A smaller team can attend a job, and should they require advice from a more experienced team member, they can use the video livestream to show a supervisor the situation they’re dealing with and complete the job themselves under guidance. This reduces the number of workers that need to attend a site at one time, thereby helping the business to deploy resources more widely, and maximising labour utilisation when potentially dealing with a reduced workforce during the most recent lockdown. The supervisors working remotely can assist multiple maintenance workers in one day without travelling between locations, helping to reduce any potential spread of asymptomatic illness.
What the future holds
While these technologies have been on the rise recently due to the restrictions of COVID-19, according to Gartner, the next few years will see field service management tools continue to transform the mobile worker industry.
Last year, the analyst firm predicted that by 2025, algorithms and bots will schedule over two-thirds of field service work for field service providers dependent on automated schedule optimisation, up from less than 25% in 2019. In the same time period, we will see over 50% of field service management deployments include mobile augmented-reality collaboration and knowledge-sharing tools, up from less than 10% in 2019.
As far as 2021 is concerned, solutions such as these will continue to help energy – and other utilities – companies supply all customers with a consistent service regardless of the seasons.
The latest lockdown may have been the most challenging as the stakes were higher during winter, but rapidly developing technology innovations combined with the government’s lockdown exit strategy mean that it shouldn’t be long before life returns to a semblance of normal. And with it, utilities companies will have the technology in place to boost efficiency and productivity beyond what we’ve seen before.
Marc Greggains is Director of New Business Commercial Sales at TotalMobile