Smart cities key to Earth’s future as urbanisation balloons

In 2006 the world experienced a unique phenomenon: for the first time in human history, the number of people living in urban areas equalled the number living in rural areas.

This was due to what is often labelled as the “biggest mass-migration in history”, where the world’s population is moving en masse away from rural areas into urban areas.

Since then, this mass migration has accelerated, and as of the end of last year, there were about 4.2billion people living in urban areas – 55% of the Earth’s population.

By 2050, 67% of the world’s population, a full 6.5 billion people, will be living in cities. In other words, the population of the world’s cities will increase by 2.3 billion over the next three decades. That is a huge increase.

Naturally, this increase in population will place tremendous amount of pressure on the infrastructures of the world’s cities, with many cities already being dangerously close to complete infrastructural collapse.

The added pressure affects nearly every aspect of a city’s operational infrastructure: public transportation, water supply, power supply, sanitation, solid waste management and others.

Governments around the world are painfully aware of this massive challenge, and many are deploying technology such as the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and big data to help overcome these problems.

Singapore has become the gold standard for smart cities around the world thanks to the extensive effort the city has made in solving many of its problems, using technology.

At the heart of Singapore’s smart efforts is big data. The city collects more data than any other about pretty much everything that goes on within its boundaries. Data is collected about everything from crowd density to traffic, pollution, wind flow and even the health of its senior citizens.

The data is then analysed by artificial intelligence software to make important decisions. For example, models developed from data about the flow of wind through the city are used to determine where buildings should be built, and how they should be oriented.

Proper airflow through the city effectively reduces the amount of air-conditioning required, thereby reducing the city’s energy consumption.

Dubai is a close contender to Singapore, with a number of smart solutions being implemented, such as the Dubai Now app which allows citizens to do things like pay utility bills and fines, log faults, report violations and call taxis.

Istanbul is Europe’s largest city, the economic capital of Turkey and a major world tourist destination. The city of 15million people faces a dual public transportation problem: to effectively and efficiently transport its own citizens as well as the massive annual influx of tourists.

Their solution was to implement massive upgrades to their public transportation network, which comprises four primary modes of transport: buses, trams, subway trains and ferries. Public transportation is now cheap, clean and safe, and moves tens of millions of people annually. For example, the ferry boats alone transport 60million people annually.

Additionally, the Metro Istanbul app enables passengers to easily get from place to place. A simple search will tell you exactly which modes of transport you will need to take to get to your destination, and at what time the next transport will arrive.

But the world’s leader when it comes to public transport is China. Shanghai’s high-speed railway system has the capacity to move nearly 75million people in and out of the city daily. These people live in areas far out of the city limits, where land and housing are cheap.

A solution of this type would go a long way towards resolve the housing crises in South African cities.

Recently there has been a spate of land-grab attempts in cities around the country, where people desperate for a place to live began to occupy state- and municipality-owned land.

Johannesburg is addressing this by converting unused factories into low-cost housing, but this is a short-term solution. Soon, even those will run out.

Barcelona has also entered the smart cities race thanks to a number of smart solutions they’ve implemented over the years. One such solution is the underground garbage disposal system, which eliminates the need to physically pick up garbage from bins around the city. Instead, bins are connected to an underground chute system which “sucks in” the garbage and transports it to the nearest dump.

These are just some of the cities that are using smart solutions to solve their ongoing challenges. If these cities prove anything, it is firstly that any city can be a smart city, and secondly that every city has unique problems and will have to find unique solutions.

As a developing country with a high unemployment rates we need to empower our own citizens to find solutions to our problems as far as possible, rather than outsourcing to other countries. This will create a win-win situation where our cities will become smart cities and, in the process, numerous employment opportunities will be created.

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