Helping Cities Get Smarter

How can cities become smarter and more livable? Siemens expert Martin Powell talks about the main emerging trends for urban technologies and the crucial role of digitalization.
Feb 18, 2016 9:05 AM ET

Mr. Powell, you live and work in London. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit's annual index (2014), London is one of Europe's least livable cities. Isn’t this surprising, given that London’s infrastructure has long been a model for other big cities?

There are many published city indices, and cities rank differently depending on which one you look at. The key is to understand what is being measured. If you look at the Global City Index, London is at the top, and the Global Power City Index has London in the top 3 of every category. It has gotten there with a world-class transport network and a robust long-term plan that protects green spaces and other natural assets. All of this encourages businesses to invest in London. Of course, London can be expensive, and like many cities London has issues with poverty and affordability that affect its position on the livability index.

The reason other cities see London as a model for infrastructure is that London makes timely and sound decisions regarding infrastructure investments and finds innovative ways to build a business case and finance such investments.

To address 21st century challenges, London’s Mayor has created a “Smart London” board. How do you define a “smart city”?

A smart city optimizes its infrastructure and maximizes the efficiency of the services it provides. It uses digital connectivity between systems and data to deliver those services and respond in real time to the needs of its citizens. This can include use of ticketless systems, real-time travel information, intelligent crowd control, and helping to avoid congestion. It can also affect an entire community, with low carbon districts, clean mobility options, exemplar housing and buildings all contributing to a better life.

What are the main emerging trends in the way cities are adopting smart urban technologies? How crucial will digital technologies be for our lives in cities?

To become a smart city, you need a Smart City Plan, ensuring that infrastructures can connect, data can be used and enhancements implemented. This journey is unique for each city. The big trends we are seeing include tackling road traffic congestion through intelligent traffic management, policy incentives and technology to encourage more people to use public transport. We are also noticing smart parking solutions that can reduce congestion by up to 10 percent.

We are seeing a big push to tackle poor air quality in cities through levers such as Low Emission Zones that encourage cleaner vehicles and cleaner forms of energy generation for the city. We are also seeing a big drive in the building sector to use automation to drive down energy use and carbon emissions through more real-time control.

The use of big data and machine-to-machine learning, analytics and automation is changing the infrastructure world. At Siemens we are ensuring that our portfolio stays at an advanced state with its digital layers. With our knowledge of different sectors, our analytics know-how and use of this data in real time, we are driving the future of smart cities in a real and pragmatic way.

Several cities across the world have grown in an ill-planned, haphazard way. Many of these cities do not have adequate physical infrastructures. Can such cities benefit from digital smart urban technologies?

We are working with cities such as Ho Chi Minh on new city districts and urban mobility options to help overcome these challenges. We are working directly with the city to ensure that digital technologies are integrated into planning so it benefits immediately by reducing congestion, improving air quality and increasing energy reliability. We are working with cities such as Moscow and Shanghai that have developed in a planned way but have been overwhelmed by population growth and increasing wealth and thus more car ownership, causing enormous problems with congestion and air quality

Every region has its unique socio-economic and environmental/ecological characteristics. How does Siemens address the uniqueness of each market?

We have around 70 dedicated city directors in cities across the world to address the individual characteristics of cities. We recognize that some solutions require specific characteristics to work, and we work closely with those cities to ensure their ideas will work before big investments are made.

We have a City Performance Tool that models the impact of different technology levers on city-wide CO2 emissions, air quality and job creation. This allows a city to see the impact of its technology choices and discuss with technical experts the conditions necessary for each technology. We have already deployed this in Vienna, Munich and Nanjing and are currently working with London and Copenhagen on specific scenarios to help them realize their planned strategies. We have over 20 more cities in the pipeline and are learning a lot from the data we are gathering.

India recently launched its 100 smart cities project. In your view, how vital is this project to the growth and development of India? And what role does the use of digital technologies play here?

The Indian government has put smart cities at the heart of its economic development agenda. The country is developing rapidly, and urban population is set to grow by 400 million by 2050, a scale only seen before in China. With that kind of development, the challenge boils down to not only providing new infrastructure but also making existing infrastructure do more. Take a look at India’s electrical power needs. India is the world’s third largest electricity producer and consumer, but 300 million people, about 25 percent of its population, are still not connected to the power grid. In addition, 27 percent of the generated energy is lost in transmission or stolen. In light of that, India aims to expand its power generation capacity by 44 percent over the next five years.

However, the answer lies not just in providing greater energy generating capacity but in boosting the efficiency of existing systems. For example, in the state of Maharashstra, Siemens has developed grid control centers in eight cities. Providing network monitoring and control solutions for balancing load and supply has improved the efficiency and reliability of the grid. The new control centers have reduced technical and commercial losses by up to 15 percent. This not only slashes the power generating capacity needed but has also improved the living conditions of more than 14 million households in Maharashtra.

How radical are the structural changes that cities like London or Delhi will have to implement in order to become smarter and more livable?

When it comes to infrastructure investment, nothing needs to be radical. However, a city needs to be bold because of the unique challenges resulting from rapid urbanization and climate change. It needs to focus on optimizing existing infrastructures by embracing digital technology to keep pace with the expectations of citizens. Cities also need to prepare a compelling business case for the longer-term basic infrastructure that will be required to keep cities livable.

You have been studying the development of cities for years now. How do you see the future of cities in the year 2050?

I see us living in a unique time in history, one where our cities will drive our future quality of life. Cities will become bigger, busier and more dense. If each city commits to robust long-term plans with an Energy Masterplan and a Smart Masterplan, we can create future cities with great housing, solid connectivity, wider choices for employment and strong links to parks and green spaces.   

Delivering this is not easy, but if we look at the infrastructure choices and the role of digital technology in the future, the choices are quite simple and we should build a robust business case to move forward. It’s not easy – but it is simple.