How Cities Can Get to New Levels of Efficiency: Embrace the Internet of Things

On a 15-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 75 in Dallas, an experiment is underway that demonstrates the role the Internet of Things (IoT) will play in smart cities of the future. The idea is to more effectively manage the movement of people through this busy corridor by integrating multiple modes of transportation: automobiles, buses, light rail and even walking. It’s accomplished by combining data from a large number of sensors along the roadway and rail system as well as smart phone Global Positioning Systems and real-time data about road closures, maintenance work and weather.

Dallas Skyline – Flickr © Lars Plougmann

All of this data is analyzed in real time and made available to travelers via the Dallas-Fort Worth 511 service. Using this service, travelers can determine the best route from point A to B, whether by car, rail, bus or some combination. With an estimated cost of about $8 million, the project is expected to save some $80 million in reduced travel time, fuel consumption and emissions, not to mention simply improving quality of life for residents. That’s a sound investment.

When you think about it, $8 million is a relatively small investment for a project of this magnitude. The reason it’s not far more is because much of the infrastructure required to deliver on the project is already in place, including many of the sensors.

Which gets to a point about the IoT that may not be well understood: it’s not an entirely new phenomenon. We’ve been using sensors and other measuring devices for decades in a multitude of industries.

Which gets to a point about the IoT that may not be well understood: it’s not an entirely new phenomenon. We’ve been using sensors and other measuring devices for decades in a multitude of industries. What is new with IoT technology is the scope of the effort, and the idea that we can instrument just about anything with increasingly inexpensive sensors and can then collect its data using wireless technology.

The possibilities the IoT has for cities are tremendous. As we see it, the convergence of inexpensive sensors, pervasive communication and the power of cloud-based analytics is enabling large scale operations to re-examine and fine-tune their businesses like never before.  The result is a new level of optimization that is occurring across a wide variety of mature and developing industries.  In addition to the example of Dallas above, one can envision the application of the technology in numerous areas including water, gas and electrical infrastructure and buildings of all sorts.

With IoT technology, water utilities can proactively manage leaks, as sensors send alerts to where they’re losing water. They can also effectively deal with periods when there is too much water by more effectively managing storm water with a series of automated sensors and pumps. The IoT can also help cities manage water consumption in parks and gardens.

Gas and electrical utilities were pioneers in the kind of monitoring technology that is now fundamental to the IoT. But the technology will only grow in importance as our traditional energy grid makes room for more renewable energy sources. With networkable thermostats and meters, utilities are already implementing more effective demand response programs that encourage consumers to use less energy during peak demand times, as well as energy efficiency programs that encourage less use year-round.

As IoT technology makes the grid ever “smarter,” utilities will be able to effectively integrate renewable sources, including customer generated energy, producing the most cost-effective solutions whenever possible.

We’re already seeing cities take great strides in planning and executing highly efficient buildings, using a powerful combination of smart design and a heavy dose of IoT technology.

Finally, every sort of building, whether owned by the city or not, will benefit from IoT technology. We’re already seeing cities take great strides in planning and executing highly efficient buildings, using a powerful combination of smart design and a heavy dose of IoT technology.

One great example of this is the Edge, an office building in Amsterdam that some are calling “the smartest building in the world.” With exterior walls covered in solar panels and some 28,000 sensors to monitor and control everything from heating and lighting to parking spaces, the building earned the highest sustainability score ever awarded by the British rating agency BREEAM: 98.4 percent.

Oh, sure, you’re thinking, but what does such a building cost? Well, the building’s main tenant is the consulting firm, Deloitte. While the price tab was definitely higher than for a traditional building, Deloitte determined it will recoup its investment in just 10 years through substantially reduced energy costs.

That’s the kind of return that IoT technology can deliver for cities in a variety of ways. I know because I’ve seen it first-hand in my work with Schneider-Electric, which is one of the automation solution providers that is making it happen. IoT is a movement, even a revolution that must be embraced for the benefit of cities and society as a whole.