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Surveying for Smart Cities

The global rush to make everything smarter is, slowly but surely, creeping into our lives. Think about it - how many of us own an Alexa or Google Home? You've seen adverts for smart home systems, where simply opening the front door triggers the lights to come on, the kettle to start boiling, and the curtains to open.

And yet, the idea that we’re living in smart cities seems a little out of reach. Most of us won’t believe we are until we’re exiting our homes and stepping directly into a driverless car that will, without incident, drop us off on the doorstep of our workplace.

The reality is that smart cities simply aren’t going to be as futuristic as we think. Forget flying taxis and hyperloop train links (sorry, Elon) – smart cities are already in development, and they’re far more functional than we realise.

I’m going to be looking at how exactly smart cities work, if they’re viable here in the UK, and the place of surveying amidst all this development.

What is a smart city?

The term ‘smart city’ has been buzzing around for years now. It sounds trendy and cool – after all, we live in the digital age of machine learning and VR. We can only expect our surroundings to get exponentially smarter, right?

However, many of us associate ‘smart cities’ with science-fiction-esque landscapes full of towering skyscrapers, shiny new developments, and a glittering, leafy green oasis placed smack-bang in the city centre. There’s a common theme here, and that is the concept of ‘newness’.

In reality, a smart city is one that can utilise existing data in a more efficient way. The Techopedia definition says it best:

Smart cities rely on the adoption of autonomous and electric technology in order to facilitate:

  • reduced pollution
  • enhanced quality and performance of urban services

Urban services being (of course) energy, transportation, and utilities – all already existing concepts.

Smart city planning already exists, though it’s in its infantile stages here in the UK. Look further afield, and you can see the developments already taking place in countries where integrating smart-city initiatives has become an everyday part of city planning and development.

So, how can we reconcile what we already have with what we want to achieve?

Urban cities produce huge quantities of data. However, much of this data is wasted simply because it has nowhere to go. The primary objective in the development and implementation of smart city initiatives is putting seemingly useless data to work.

Perhaps the most comprehensive example of smart city technology working alongside existing infrastructure and data collection techniques is the Alibaba City Brain network in Hangzhou, China.

Launched in 2016, the City Brain programme (which is still in Phase 1, mind you) collects data from hundreds of thousands of different sources and aggregates it into a cloud computing system that helps city officials make decisions at a faster rate.

The City Brain pulls traffic and weather data, CCTV footage, and pedestrian flow information to regulate traffic signals at over 100 different intersections. It also integrates with medical databases by tracking ambulances, for example, and turning every light in an emergency vehicle’s path from red to green.

It’s even allowed the city’s traffic police to work more efficiently. When an accident occurs, the City Brain can narrow down the location and provide CCTV footage. It reportedly identifies accidents within a second and allows police to arrive at the site in 5 minutes.

Impressive, right? Implementing something like this in the UK may seem out of reach – for now, at least. However, existing technology can be tweaked to work as part of the Internet of Things (IoT), and already the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is embracing using sensor technology to harness data that can help improve it.

How is surveying involved in the development of smart cities?

Inner city surveying involves a number of different disciplines; each of which can help city planners look at integrating smarter technologies and solutions into their proposed developments.

Take Singapore’s ongoing “Virtual Singapore” project for example, in which the government-backed “Smart Nation” programme looks to create a 3D national map. The creation of this map has so far included the adoption and development of several world-leading surveying, mapping, and GIS technologies.

Singapore proves a challenging environment for any type of surveying to take place, with its cramped urban corridors, endless tree-lined streets, and temperamental weather conditions. A variety of surveying techniques were used to complete phase one of the project, including:

  • Imagery capture
  • Lidar
  • Drone capture
  • Mobile laser scanning
  • Vehicle-based capture and processing

According to Guy Perry, former executive director of Asia-Pacific at AECOM, the project is responsible for a 3D national map of such detail and resolution that it is “at a level of integration and scale that no one else has done yet”.

This data will be crucial in the furtherment of Singapore as a smart city. It’s obvious that without surveying, this type of innovation simply could not occur.

So, what next?

As we look to the future, the question of data sharing will continue to dominate the surveying sphere. If this data is collected from members of the public, who; then; does it belong to?

In Kuala Lumpur – where the City Brain initiative is being tested – much of the data collected is available on an open platform. This gives organisations and individuals the opportunity to leverage public data and drive further innovations, like apps and services.

Culturally, the UK values privacy. The idea of sharing so much public data is terrifying, and – if the national response to GDPR is anything to go by – an invitation to panic. However, by sharing so-called ‘big data’ and making it available to independent innovators and city planners alike, we move slowly but surely towards a smarter, more connected world.

Look at it this way – the Hangzhou City Brain has decreased waiting time by 15.3% in pilot areas.

In the Xiaoshan District, ambulance response and transport times are 50% faster due to the smart traffic light control technology.

Residents of the city can now pay for more than 60 public, vehicle, and healthcare services with Alipay on their smartphones.

Each time they use this kind of service, they contribute to the huge cloud of data being collected and fed back into the system. Every step away from tradition creates a smarter, brighter future.

With surveyors at the forefront of the smart city movement, we could be looking at the next wave of global change.