Next generation smart cities

Anthony Sayers, edge IoT ambassador, Lenovo, explains how edge computing can enable a new kind of smart city.

The next generation of smart cities will do everything from parting traffic to ensure first responders can reach the scene of accidents to reuniting people with their lost pets. It sounds like science fiction, but the technology that will make this a reality is already here, in the form of sensors in city streets and edge computing.

The first generation of smart cities could sense, but were not equipped to respond. Cognitive cities can act under their own steam, using data from thousands of sensors to make rapid-fire decisions.

The key to this will be edge computing devices on city streets, allowing decisions based on sensor data, which help to route traffic or adjust energy use. For the inhabitants of cognitive cities, edge computing will deliver measurable improvements to their everyday lives.

Why edge matters

In terms of technology, the difference between a cognitive city and a smart city is simple: the computing power moves to the streets. The edge is key because the computing power needs to be right next to where people drive, work and live. Data is arriving constantly from sensors, and the city must react to this in real time.

Operating in real-time is where cognitive cities demonstrate their unique power. In a first-generation smart city, sensors monitor water leaks or energy use.

But, in the future, cognitive cities will use this sensor data to respond, turning down heating systems to save energy on hot days, for example.

Developments in internet of things (IoT) sensors and artificial intelligence (AI) will empower urban areas to become dynamic, and edge computing offers the necessary speed and effective control in the city streets.

Real problems, edge solutions

Cognitive cities, enabled by edge computing, can help to deal with many of the big human issues inhabitants face, including sustainability.

They will help tame the emissions released by automobiles, reducing traffic and even directing autonomous vehicles through the streets in the future.

For example, cognitive cities can ensure more deliveries arrive the first time, ensuring drivers don’t have to repeat their journeys and thus curbing emissions. Location data showing when a customer is at home can be anonymously shared with delivery companies, with customer consent, so that deliveries only arrive when there is someone at home to accept them.

Edge computing will also enable truly smart parking, helping to reduce congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. Edge nodes in the streets will direct cars towards empty parking spaces in real-time.

This technology will pave the way for effective autonomous driving, delivering data points to autonomous vehicles, and will lead to a future where the roads will be designed for autonomy, with cars communicating both with edge nodes in the street and with other cars.

The huge amount of sensor data available to a cognitive city can help deal with accidents, thanks to the power of edge computing. If IT infrastructure detects a fire through smart cameras, it will trigger an alarm and alert emergency services. Data from traffic sensors means that first responders can arrive faster, with the cognitive city able to reroute other vehicles to make way if needed.

Smart cameras will also offer cognitive cities awareness of everything from traffic movements to overflowing bins, but will be designed with privacy in mind by not processing or identifying people and/or vehicles except where needed. Cognitive cities will only capture data for the purpose of delivering better services. Privacy must be the number one concern, and when citizens entrust city authorities with their data, that trust must be repaid in the form of improved services.

Over the scale of a city, with thousands or millions of inhabitants, edge computing can also offer a significant boost to sustainability.

At present, smart homes tend to detect occupancy and turn down air conditioning or heating at the moment someone leaves. But at a larger scale, the amount of energy saved by slowly turning down the air-con or heating over the hour before someone leaves could cut a huge amount of emissions.

In cognitive cities, authorities will be able to monitor activities in buildings in real-time, carefully matching energy supply to demand and helping to achieve a net-zero future.

Cognitive cities can improve lives: for people who are visually or hearing impaired, large language models can help to deliver text-to-speech and voice-to-text services in the city streets.

Edge helps to deliver such advanced and personalised services in real-time, with the responsiveness to enable visually impaired people to cross roads safely.

To deliver such services, computing power cannot be in a far-away data centre. It needs to be there, in the streets, with the people.

Serving real needs

The cognitive cities of the future will be built around human needs, both in the case of greenfield cities that are built from the ground up and brownfield ones that have technology retrofitted to existing streets.

Everything from transportation to public safety and energy efficiency will be supported in these huge infrastructure projects, with technology built around citizen engagement.

Edge computing will be the foundation stone. Nodes on the streets will deliver insights on everything from traffic to temperature and provide the information needed for these cognitive cities to think for themselves, as it were.

Tomorrow’s cognitive cities will change the way we live forever, creating safer, more sustainable, and happier streets.

This article appeared in our March 2024 print issue. You can read the magazine in full here.