This blog is an excerpt of an article that currently appears on Forbes.com
Smart cities hold the promise to potentially make urban areas more efficient, more secure, and even more, um, health conscious?
Of course, the ultimate goal of any smart city is to improve urban infrastructures while minimizing costs, foster innovation in different industries, and improve the quality of life for its citizens. But, can smart cities actually improve our health?
To find out, we start with two questions: how can Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, and systems engineering enable us to address this area and what are the business implications of these technologies and advancements?
I’ve recruited two imaginary citizens of the future, Alice and David, to see how a smart city ecosystem might address their needs.
Alice, 34, is a busy and ambitious engineer enjoying her job and working hard to progress in her field. She has a four-year-old child. Like most mothers, the quality of the food and water she provides for her child is very important. But recent lead poisoning alarms and wide outbreaks of E.coli are of increasing concern, especially since she is pregnant with a second child. Every night she sees media reports about the expanding spread of the Zika virus, and its potential impact on newborns.
Technologies of sensor networks, data collection and storage, have made it possible to have real time observations of complex engineered systems. Sensor networks have the power to employ big numbers of small, cheap, and energy efficient sensors that would collaboratively collect and process data and measure a wide range of parameters including temperature, sound, vibration, pressure, water quality, motion, pollutants, offspring care in animal farms, and many more in different industries.
Machine learning and AI techniques are used to mine the vast amount of collected data to identify the sources of issues such as lead contaminated water, or food poisoning. Drones and technologies such as hyper-spectral imaging are used to identify standing waters and potential Zika-infected mosquitos. Mobile phones that capture how humans are moving around the city offer clues on how Zika or other life-threatening diseases spread.
Through this high-tech ecosystem, the city’s infrastructure can provide the insights and information Alice needs to protect her family’s well being.
David, the other citizen of the future, has a long history of health issues in his family. Both his parents died from diabetes and hypertension. His older brother is suffering from Type 2 diabetes, and he himself has been diagnosed as high-risk or pre-diabetes. One of his big health issues is his diet. In addition to having a limited diet due to his medical condition, David lives in a “food desert” type of neighborhood with limited access to groceries. He also has to contend with numerous medical appointments.
Thankfully many of David’s challenges have been addressed by the smart city of the future, which offers mobility as a service. Urban mobility integrates different modes of transportation seamlessly. Instead of tying up large amounts of money in a car that isn’t used 95% of the time, David subscribes to a service that allows easy access to public transportation, car sharing, and bike sharing through a universal payment system accessed through an app on his cell phone. When he needs to go to the grocery store, the car pool feature on his mobility app notifies him that two of his neighbors also plan to go to the store on the same day, and would like to share a car. The fee for the car share is automatically split among the three subscribers. Yet, David sometimes chooses to outsource his shopping to a service company who delivers fresh groceries.
The mobility-as-a-service platform also addresses other medical needs including the doctor’s recommendation for daily walks. The platform simply embeds David’s doctor appointments and exercise needs into the system, and then suggests taking transportation options that require some walking to meet David’s need for exercise.
Anyone living in an urban area today can easily imagine how our current healthcare system and city infrastructures fail to embrace many of the needs and concerns of citizens. As Alice and David’s stories illustrate, a coordinated ecosystem of complex cyber-physical systems, sensor networks, and monitoring/collecting equipment can make a significant difference in people’s health and wellness.
The Innovative Technology Behind A Smart City
The fuel that makes a smart city run is data – generated by individuals as well as physical infrastructures (for example highway toll collection). Making data useful requires a backbone of systems that integrate computation, networking and physical processes, and includes sensor networks, monitoring/collecting equipment, data analytics — and humans. Many stakeholders – citizens, city authorities, government management, infrastructure and service delivery, local enterprises, not to mention, technology and application providers — must collaborate to make the smart city successful.
This is no small undertaking, but the benefits – as we see from the examples above – are far reaching. The technologies employed in the smart cities play a significant role in reducing costs associated with contamination poisoning, Zika spreading, diabetes complexities, and more.
But to get there a number of issues must be addressed, such as incentivizing individuals to be part of the data collection, and challenges associated with the privacy and security. These challenges have led to business opportunities that are just starting to take form. Take Lloyd’s of London as an example. As the “pioneers of travel,” they are interested in different ways to mitigate risks. Today they are exploring mechanisms to leverage collected data through predictive algorithms that identify and forecast future human behaviors and prescriptive models to facilitate behavioral changes. Another example is an auto-insurance company that offers discounts to drivers who install telematics devices to monitor driving habits.
The closer we get to creating smart cities, the more we discover that the possibilities are endless, and will have a direct bearing on individual health and well being – in ways we can only imagine today.