Operating systems such as Windows and Android already run computers, smartphones and tablets — so why not sprawling metropolises?
That's the thinking behind the “urban operating system” (UOS), which uses sensors and software to monitor and analyze the main functions of cities, including traffic levels, power consumption and water usage. The possibilities for this burgeoning technology seem endless: Vehicles instantly rerouted around accidents; office windows automatically tinted at the first hint of sunshine; and excess solar energy diverted to batteries for storage.
Even residents' health could be monitored. Wireless sensors, either placed in homes or worn, could track vital signs such as heart rates and insulin levels to immediately detect medical emergencies.
Steve Lewis, CEO of Living PlanIT, a Portugal-based developer of smart cities that coined the term “urban operating system,” likens the technology to the human nervous system. “It senses what's going on around it and acts to support various functions” and maximize resources, he says.
Steve Lewis is CEO of Living PlanIT, the Portugal-based developer of PlanIT Valley, a futuristic city envisioned for northern Portugal with a projected 220,000 residents. (Living PlanIT SA)
Living PlanIT, which also has offices in Britain and the United States, is working on the software with Microsoft, where Lewis previously was an executive, Cisco and other partners. Living PlanIT is designing a futuristic city in northern Portugal called PlanIT Valley, to be run by a UOS upon its completion, projected for 2017. To be built on uninhabited land, PlanIT Valley is slated to be the third-largest city in Portugal, after Lisbon and Porto, and was designated a “Project of National Interest” by the Portuguese government. Lewis says all construction permits and land rights are in place.
Similar to the software “apps” for Apple's iPhone, apps designed by third parties could supplement the urban software with additional tools and services, Lewis says. “The city becomes a platform that allows new forms of innovation to meet the needs of the citizens,” he says. While much of a UOS can be automated, human intervention is sometimes required to analyze the data, Lewis explains.
In Porto, on Portugal's northern coast, Living PlanIT is testing the traffic-related components of its UOS software with the University of Porto. A wider test is under way in the South London district of Greenwich with financial backing from the U.K. government, Lewis says.
Living PlanIT, meanwhile, will add operating systems to cities it is developing in China, and to Almere, an Amsterdam suburb to be reinvented as a “smart society” with help from IBM, Cisco and Royal Philips Electronics, Lewis says. And in South Korea, Songdo, a smart city under construction from scratch along the Incheon waterfront, will be run by similar technology that its designers describe as the city's “brain.”
Half a world away, in Rio de Janerio, Brazil, a citywide operations center designed by IBM functions similarly to an urban operating system. Mayor Eduardo Paes sought IBM's help after mudslides and flash floods in the city of 12 million people killed dozens in April 2010 and left Paes without a central command center to oversee the crisis.
The $14 million center, which opened in late 2010 and was expanded a year later, analyzes and shares data about traffic and weather conditions, infrastructure needs, crowds and security among 30 government agencies, including public safety and law enforcement. For example, data about a broken water main and corresponding flood is immediately routed to all relevant departments, says Colin Harrison, distinguished engineer with IBM's Smarter Cities program. If police officers detected the break, they could transmit information about it to public works officials and, if necessary, the transit system could reroute buses.
“It just helps everybody to have a common version of the truth,” Harrison says. “This is really all about helping people to make decisions.”
The center already has been used for crowd control during the annual Carnival festival, serving as a test run for the 2014 World Cup, to be held in Rio and other Brazilian cities, and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. IBM has created similar centers elsewhere, but the one in sprawling Rio is the largest.
While the Rio surveillance is on par with security measures in the United States, urban innovations elsewhere have raised privacy concerns, particularly in China, where some planned cities will deploy ubiquitous wireless sensors, purportedly to monitor traffic and weather, that could be co-opted to spy on citizens.
As with any technology, challenges abound. For IBM, Rio presents information-gathering hurdles in the form of the city's mountainous topography, dense population and poverty. And it's still too early to gauge whether the software that Living PlanIT envisions will perform as planned. Computer users have long encountered error messages and system crashes, prompting the view in some circles that a UOS won't fare much better.
— David Hatch
Ehrenhalt, Alan , The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City , Knopf, 2012. A leading urbanist examines how inner cities, once relegated to the poor, are morphing into high-rent districts, while suburbs are attracting more low-income families.
Glaeser, Edward , Triumph of the City , Penguin Press, 2011. In this contrarian book, a Harvard economics professor argues that cities are generally healthier and greener than most people realize and provide gateways to job opportunities.
Jacobs, Jane , The Death and Life of Great American Cities , Random House, 1993. First published in 1961, Jacobs' critique of urban development was hailed by The New York Times as “perhaps the most influential single work in the history of town planning.”
Kasarda, John, and Greg Lindsay , Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next , Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. A business professor (Kasarda) and a journalist document the rise of planned cities built around airports.
Benfield, Kaid , “Is There a Downside to ‘Intelligent Cities’ or ‘Smart Cities’?” The Atlantic, March 8, 2011, www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/03/is-there-a-downside-to-intelligent-cities-or-smart-cities/72068/. The director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council argues that futuristic technology won't solve most urban ills.
Knight, Helen , “The green city that has a brain,” New Scientist, Oct. 11, 2010, www.newscientist.com/article/mg20827814.800-the-green-city-that-has-a-brain.html (subscription required). PlanIT Valley, a futuristic city in northern Portugal, will be run by an “urban operating system” that will serve as its “brain.”
Lindsay, Greg , “Cisco's Big Bet on New Songdo: Creating Cities From Scratch,” Fast Company, Feb. 1, 2010, www.fastcompany.com/magazine/142/the-new-new-urbanism.html?page=0%2C4. Cisco focuses on building state-of-the-art new metropolises around the globe while IBM pursues a different strategy: retrofitting existing cities.
Norton, Leslie P. , “Dawn of the Smart City,” Barron's, Oct. 3, 2011, http://online.barrons.com/article/SB50001424052748704783104576599051649765770.html. Norton argues that the market for smart cities is set to explode as urban areas undergo major makeovers.
Savodnik, Peter , “Masdar City, Castle in the Sand,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Dec. 8, 2011, www.businessweek.com/magazine/masdar-city-castle-in-the-sand-12082011.html. A planned utopia rising in the desert near Abu Dhabi must overcome not only the global economic downturn but also relentless sandstorms.
Singer, Natasha , “Mission Control, Built for Cities,” The New York Times, March 3, 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/03/04/business/ibm-takes-smarter-cities-concept-to-rio-de-janeiro.html?_r=1&scp=5&sq=smart%20cities&st=Search. IBM has implemented a citywide system in sprawling Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, that allows 30 agencies to share data and run the metropolis more efficiently.
Reports and Studies
“Is Your City Smart Enough?,” Ovum, 2011, www.cisco.com/web/strategy/docs/Is_your_city_smart_enough-Ovum_Analyst_Insights.pdf. This Cisco-sponsored report by a London-based technology research firm outlines the motivations for building smart cities, such as pollution and congestion control, and highlights major projects under development.
“Smarter Cities Series: A Foundation for Understanding IBM Smarter Cities,” IBM, 2011, www.redbooks.ibm.com/redpapers/pdfs/redp4733.pdf. IBM details its strategy for using technology to help cities overcome challenges ranging from limited availability of water to inefficient use of electricity in buildings.
Alusi, Annissa, et al., “Sustainable Cities: Oxymoron or the Shape of the Future?,” Harvard Business School, 2011, www.hbs.edu/research/pdf/11-062.pdf. Scholars at Harvard University's Business School delineate the goals and challenges of eight major smart-city projects under development around the world.
On the Web
“Designing Healthy Communities,” Media Policy Center, 2012, www.designinghealthycommunities.org. A four-part public television series investigates links between environmental conditions and diseases such as asthma, diabetes and obesity and spotlights cities that are designing healthier, more sustainable environments.
“Smarter Cities,” Natural Resources Defense Council, http://smartercities.nrdc.org. The Web portal features news on smart growth initiatives in the United States and across the globe.