Today, it’s hard to say which ambition came first: smart cities/homes or the Internet of Things (IoT). In short, both suggest a vision of ubiquitous computing, first propelled by Mike Koniavsky. “Ubicomp” is the practice of incorporating information processing and network communication into everyday human environments for better communication and services. The term ‘IoT’ is, instead, attributed to Kevin Ashton, whose desire was to teach computers to ‘sense things’ and communicate them back in the 1990s. This Internet-based connectedness of daily-life objects is the reality of modern tech design and the premise of building a smart home or city that integrates physical, digital and human systems. This article explores how IoT can leverage the smartness of your home or city and considers the delicate repercussions this development has on our lives as users and citizens.
IoT at Home
At the home, IoT means seamless integration of algorithmic reasoning into the human’s most private space. Think doorbells that let you know who’s at your door, self-learning thermostats that optimize energy spending and cut your bills or more down-to-earth Smart TVs. These Wi-Fi-connected home devices and appliances can now be accessed and controlled remotely from your phone via an application. What’s more, these devices gather and exchange information among themselves in order to integrate your lighting, entertainment, security, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems to create a truly intelligent living ambiance.
A virtual assistant like Amazon Echo or Google Home is an omnipresent element of a smart home. These smart speakers bear the function of command hubs and help you manage your daily routine and control your smart home. Their digital ears are always on, ready to pick a voice command from your speech flow and promptly respond to your question, launch a particular playlist, accept a task, or change your home control settings. The very essence of these always-listening devices lies in their responsiveness, yet it fuels a heated public debate in terms of privacy and security.
From an environmental perspective, home control and automation bring not only user convenience but a positive change to energy consumption. For example, a smart home automatically switches to “away” mode in-sync with its owner’s GPS; a smart dishwasher or thermostat can be run depending on the availability of renewable energy and cost, etc. Such process optimization notably cuts energy waste and boosts home efficiency.
IoT on the Streets
In a 2017 Guardian interview, Kevin Ashton expressed his frustration over the fact that the IoT phenomenon is often confined to the kitchen and primarily described in terms of a refrigerator talking to your phone. Instead, we should ask ourselves how we can leverage the collective intelligence of innumerable dedicated-function objects that inhabit our cities such as vending machines, waste bins, lamp posts, public transport vehicles, etc.
As applied to the affairs of cities, IoT has the potential to reinvent them. On a large scale, the possibility to stream information from remote devices and act upon it means enhanced infrastructure, up-to-date municipal services, less road traffic and more public safety.
Though it may feel as if IoT populates the streets of its own momentum, more often than not, smart cities are a result of a joint effort between the public and private sector. For example, Panasonic-built Fujisawa is the first Japanese city where street lights illuminate only in the presence of an individual, whereas Cisco-built Songdo in South Korea showcases a city with no need for cars. The United Arab Emirates paves the way for its post-oil future and “greens” its desert by building Masdar 100 percent on renewable energy. Older cities going smart include carbon-neutral Malmo in Sweden, Amsterdam with its plastic-free canals or Oslo relying on apps for its waste retrieval and recycling.
The IoT solutions for smart cities fall under many categories, including the health of buildings, environmental monitoring, waste management, smart parking, smart health, urban bus navigation, smart grids and autonomous driving.
Think about historical buildings or outdated bridges whose health and safety can be ensured via wireless sensor networks (WSNs) that notify the responsible authorities about the structure’s state. Similar WSNs are employed in environmental monitoring as they assess the quality of air, soil and water to help you find the most “healthy” routes for your evening run. In turn, the city can respond to environmental alerts by planting trees or diverting traffic from the most problematic urban areas. Meanwhile, intelligent waste containers are upturning waste management. Imagine a waste bin that reports to garbage collectors when it must be emptied so that they can plan their route accordingly and reach their maximum efficiency.
Smart parking implies real-time information about the parking bay occupancy, streamed directly to your phone.
Smart health addresses poor hospital management in the cities. Its logic rests on wireless body area networks (WBANs) that enable remote patient monitoring which enhances hospital efficiency.
Urban bus navigation (UBN) collects data from WiFi-equipped busses regarding their occupancy and timeliness and is linked to traffic light management so that some buses could catch up with their schedules. Such UBN has already been successfully implemented in Madrid, Spain.
Smart grid technology is a two-way communication system between power utilities and consumers that enables cost-effective power generation and distribution.
Finally, autonomous driving is a long-awaited smart city trend. Powered by radar, cameras and ultrasonic sensors, the car of the future is expected to avoid car accidents, save time for the ‘driver’ and reduce air pollution.
With the expansion and the growth of IoT, you can reimagine your private and public environments. Leveraging interconnectivity of ordinary objects means savings in terms of time, money and natural resources on a personal, corporate and governmental level. However, these emerging technologies come at the price of our privacy. This issue must not stop us from living smart but encourage us to adopt conscientious ubicomp design and usage.
Written by Nikita Kotlyarov, a Software Engineer at SmartexLab.