Future of the Environment

How smart urban areas can benefit everyone

Image shows a cityscape at light with beams of what could illustrate smart technology strobing across smart cities.

Smart cities could make our lives much more efficient. Image: Unsplash/Hugh Han

Simon Wilson
CTO, UK & Ireland, Aruba
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  • The promise of our urban areas being transformed into fully smart cities, towns or villages has been a long time coming.
  • Universities, stadiums and large public venues have been quick to offer their visitors truly smart experiences, providing a blueprint for urban areas.
  • The stage is set for city authorities and planners to create smart urban areas at scale that offer the high-tech experiences that residents and visitors crave.

The promise of our urban areas being transformed into fully smart cities, towns or villages has been a long time coming. Many areas still lag behind in providing what many consider the bare basics of digital infrastructure, such as wireless connectivity.

Our urban areas, however, needn't do this blindly. Universities, stadiums and other large public venues have made major strides in the past few years to offer their visitors truly smart experiences. In many ways, these are analogous to our urban areas, offering town and city planners a blueprint for how to implement their own smart infrastructures.

These technologies offer several benefits. Here are some examples of how urban areas could implement them from those who have laid the right foundations and are already building their own smart hubs.

Tech has the potential to reinvigorate deserted high streets

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many local areas have found their high streets struggling. According to a report by Power to Change, a record 16% of shops on British high streets stand empty in the United Kingdom. The opportunities offered through smart technologies, however, are numerous and plenty. Their implementation may be the lifeline these places need to reinvigorate and rejuvenate.

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Enhancing the experience of visitors and residents

The benefits of smart cities to the experience of visitors and residents are probably the most obvious. Take planning a journey through the use of smart Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and alerts – via contextual apps – residents and visitors can be kept up-to-date on the availability of parking spots or of park-and-ride to their town or city centres.

Similarly, these principles can be extended to provide other contextual information via location services. Smart sensors can recognise an individual's location in real-time and, perhaps, highlight a local event due to take place or link local traffic, weather, air quality or pollen count data, etc.

Location services have long been used by the likes of sports stadiums and music venues to enhance fan experiences. Back in 2019, Tottenham Hotspur Football Club partnered with Aruba to develop a mobile app ahead of the launch of its new stadium. The app uses nearly 700 BLE Beacons to offer wayfinding to seats or friends in different sections, catering information, toilet locations and the latest news and statistics.

To further develop and push the boundaries of location services, Aruba recently announced our Open Locate initiative; a new industry standard we’ve developed for sharing location data from indoor APs to mobile devices. With this infrastructure, user devices are better able to support applications such as wayfinding. The goal of this technology is to bring the accuracy of GPS indoors, linking with familiar apps, such as Google or Apple Maps, wherever Wi-Fi is available.

Have you read?

Smart cities: improving local working conditions

Focusing on the experience of citizens and tourists is great, but what about those working behind the scenes? One of the lessons from the pandemic is that the employee experience is as important as any customer or user – and by employees, we mean general staff and IT teams.

With digitisation at the top of every organization’s agenda, IT staff are in demand, and job satisfaction is, therefore, a vital benchmark. Highly skilled engineers do not want to be performing tedious tasks that waste their time and resources and lower their job satisfaction.

Smart cities should, therefore, look to develop self-sustaining networks, as the Texas Rangers Baseball Club did to free up the time of busy and stretched IT teams. As the club’s Vice President of Information Technology, Michael Bullock, explained: “With highly skilled engineers performing fewer tedious tasks, we're not only using our resources more wisely, but we're also demonstrating that we value their skills by putting them to work on more mission-critical projects.”

With smart cities, there is also a need to make staff mobile and enable them to take to the streets so they can better serve the public. IoT sensors can be put in place in locations, such as parks or public toilets, and used to alert local authorities of issues as and when they happen. Having an omnipresent network allows employees to maintain their connection to the network while roaming around public buildings and the wider area, making them more effective and efficient.

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The added value of data

Perhaps the greatest benefit to smart cities is the data it produces. Working with the University and City of Cambridge, Aruba rolled out 4,500 access points across the city to give students, residents, and visitors access to blanket Wi-Fi coverage. For local authorities, this completely transforms how they meet the needs of their residents and visitors. It allows them to proactively see how their cities are used and plan their investment accordingly. They may find, for example, that residents are avoiding a particular street and discover that this is due to pothole damage or a burst water main.

Additionally, it also opens up opportunities for added revenue. Going back to Tottenham Hotspur, with the use of its app, the club can make the experience of every fan different based on location. With similar smart infrastructure, local authorities can replicate this and work with local businesses or advertisers to tailor the experience of every resident and visitor towards their interests, better catering to their needs.

Lessons for the future of smart cities

As expectations of connectivity grow exponentially, our urban areas, like so many other areas of our lives, must innovate to keep up. Whether it's local businesses, visitors, residents, or local authorities, smartening up our urban areas to provide a rich, safe, and friction-free experience will be a boon to all. Fortunately, there are many great examples that can act as blueprints to city authorities and planners so that they can offer the smart experiences that residents and visitors crave.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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