The Smart City Expo World Congress (SCEWC) is the leading international event for smart cities, and it has been held every year in Barcelona since 2011. There was a break for a couple of years because of the pandemic, but the event returned in 2021 for its 10th anniversary. I had the opportunity to tune into the 2022 event, which was held in person in Barcelona in November and was also streamed online.
In my 2016 article on City Information Modeling, I had discussed the growing momentum of “smart city” initiatives all over the world, driven by the vision of making cities better planned, more connected, and more livable (Figure 1). More recently, this vision has been expanded to include sustainability, which is becoming extremely critical in the global effort to combat climate change.
While creating a smart city involves a lot more than just technology — aspects such as policy, politics, governance, etc. are key — there is no doubt that technology solutions such as AI, IoT, digital twins, data analytics, etc. can go a long way in enabling cities to function more efficiently. There are also many more aspects of a city that need to be “smartened” in addition to its infrastructure such as mobility, energy, utilities, safety, etc. While the SCEWC event was devoted to exploring several aspects of smart cities, there were a few sessions related to technology in infrastructure, the highlights of two of which are captured in this article.
One of the most fascinating sessions at SCEWC was on the Smart City Strategy of Madinah —also known as Medina — in Saudi Arabia (Figure 2). This is the second holiest site in Islam after Mecca, with most observant Muslims making a pilgrimage there at least once in their lifetime to visit “The Prophet's Mosque,” which is the burial site of the last Islamic prophet, Muhammad. (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medina.) Given the historical and religious significance of the city and the large number of people who visit it from all over the world, the desire to transform it into a smart city — in line with the growing “smart city” movement globally — is intended to not only improve the quality of life of its residents but also to enrich the experiences of the visitors.
Some of the details of the Madinah Smart City Strategy that were shared by its Chief Data and Innovation Officer, Abdulrahman Ibrahim, included the use of a smart city platform called Raseel to break down silos between the different services, operations and departments of the city by using standard data models so they can work together; the use of streetlighting with embedded sensors to gather data about the city and monitor aspects such as pedestrian and traffic flow, as well as air quality; the development of a simulator to model the crowds around the holy mosque and the central area of the city, which will eventually be combined with sensors deployed for crowd simulation, monitoring, and control; the launch of a City Innovation Lab in partnership with universities, experts and start-ups from around the world; and a plan — already set in motion — to build a full-scale digital twin of Madinah using satellite imagery, which will be used for urban planning, traffic management, crowd management, and urban analytics across the entire city.
There was also a physical 3D model of Madinah showcased at the SCEWC event (Figure 3), showing the mosque and the surrounding area. The area includes smart features such as canopies that automatically open during the day to let in light and close in the night to provide shade, and domes that open and close during different times of the day to refresh and recycle the air so as to provide a pleasant atmosphere for the people inside the mosque.
Las Condes is a city located in the Santiago Province of Chile (Figure 4), and at the SCEWC event, its mayor, Daniela Peñaloza Ramos, shared its journey to becoming a smart city. The initiative began in 2018 when Las Condes upgraded most of its streetlighting with energy-efficient LED lamps with smart controls. In addition to the sustainability benefits of the upgrade, the new light poles were equipped with IoT sensors to continuously collect neighborhood data for analysis.
The sensors in the streetlights were the starting point for the implementation of a city-wide wireless IoT network to serve more applications, done in partnership with a specialist IoT company, Paradox Engineering. The network includes sensors that have been added to traffic lights to monitor and control traffic, irrigation sensors in public parks to conserve water and detect leaks (Figure 5), environmental sensors to monitor air quality, and sensors for monitoring the efficient collection of household waste.
Las Condes also has 1,900 video surveillance cameras installed city-wide as part of its wireless IoT network, and not only do they record footage, they are also equipped with analytics software that automatically recognizes over 50 different types of scenarios that could be indicative of crime. The system sends out alerts to the police, allowing prompt action and thereby acting as a deterrent to criminal activity. All the residents of the city have access to the camera footage and the alerts, which enables them to feel more secure.
I found the Smart City Expo World Congress a great way to learn about the strides cities around the world are making towards improving their infrastructure and operations, so as to become smarter to operate, safer, more sustainable, and quite simply, better places to live. As a resident of a city myself with first-hand experience of what works well and what doesn’t — and what could be improved — I could relate to most of what was presented, both from a technology perspective as well as from the viewpoint of someone at the receiving end of the improvements that are being envisioned.
Also, from the session on Las Condes which showed how knowledgeable the mayor was about the IoT technology that was being implemented in the city, I was able to appreciate how critical leadership was to the “smart city” movement. Technology can only get us so far — ultimately, it takes visionary leaders who understand the technology and what it can do to push the state of the art in our cities.
Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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