Smart cities: making urban centers in Asia more sustainable

Smart cities are the future of Asia's urban development

All across Asia, smart cities are booming. In Southeast Asia, for instance, IoT is driving Singapore’s “digital government, digital economy and digital society” strategies. Meanwhile, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City are transforming and creating entire smart districts. However, no region is adopting smart cities with as much ambition as China. In recent years, China has seen unprecedented levels of interest and investment in smart cities as it strives to meet ambitious carbon and clean-energy targets and accommodate its massive (and still growing) urban populations. Technology, economics and lifestyles are all pushing this innovation to create a greener, more responsive and more comfortable urban landscape, one in which energy is a key component.

How cities become smart

A smart city is an urban area where buildings and public spaces can be said to have “senses.” In a smart city, these senses are digital; the information comes through Internet of Things (IoT) sensors that collect data from buildings, people and the environment. This continuous flow of data is sent to shared platforms, usually backed by AI, where information is linked and analyzed for people or automated processes to respond to dynamically. The result is an urban space that can make data-based decisions to create more efficient, convenient and sustainable urban environments.

Smart cities work through mapping the information already generated by the built environment and the people within them. Taking the example of energy, at any instance, energy workers are mapping all the points of consumption and production. Through consumption patterns, people are generating information about where and when they use energy. By plugging this information into a shared data environment, cities can respond to and predict energy demands while balancing the stress load on the grid. When events such as power outages and price spikes occur, there is more context to understand why and to act to prevent them in the future. As more of these systems are mapped and more data plugged in, smart cities build a more thorough understanding of how energy is used, makes predictions more accurate and unlocks our potential to respond.

This data map is the backbone of a dynamic smart infrastructure that updates and learns as it runs. It takes information and data out of fractured environments and makes it transparent and accessible. Then the data needs to turn information into action. In the past, there were financial barriers blocking access to this technology. In recent years, this tech is becoming more and more affordable to the point where private businesses and citizens are using IoT and AI in their everyday life.

Smart buildings

Smart buildings are the building blocks of smart cities

AI integration with smart cities is the most powerful way to take data and to act upon it. It starts with plugging in individual buildings and systems. AI is being plugged into systems from HVAC to inter-seasonal geothermal storage to cut down on wasted energy, which saves money and reduces the carbon footprint of buildings. All data from any energy-using system is sent to the same platform, which can begin to predict electricity demands from month to month and season to season and act upon it. From there, building managers can plug in different variables within the platform, such as predicting heating, cooling and lighting needs, and the AI platform can take control of those systems to respond in a way that saves money and energy.

These platforms can even go a step further and model what it would look like to install solar panels and energy storage or upgrading to machines and devices that are more efficient. AI smart city platforms are decentralizing the way energy is used (or being generated) and giving control to the end-users to start making smarter, data-driven decisions.

In a smart city, this is just as true for individuals as governments and businesses.

Smart people

Smart cities depend on interaction from the people who live in them

People, just as much as buildings, are an integral part of smart cities. They generate data from the way they travel, consume and communicate. Just like buildings, this data is collected and used to make decisions and predictions, but on top of IoT sensors, it is also gathered by mobile devices. China, in particular, is leveraging this data due to the widespread use of mobile phones and the high levels of interaction within the physical framework of the city. These digital tools can be used to monitor, track and respond to the energy demands of individuals and give them more power to make a positive impact.

In smart cities, an individual may be able to set trackable personal preferences for heating, cooling and lighting, to which smart buildings can react. If someone drives an electric vehicle, the smart city data infrastructure may notify him or her when the ideal time to charge is to avoid price and load spikes. At the city-level, smart cities are collecting vast amounts of data from people based on how they consume energy at home and in the office, and all of this feeds into AI and machine learning platforms, which can optimize energy use cut down on emissions. At the individual level, people are given the power to use energy smarter and reduce their carbon footprint.

People are ultimately the meter by which smart cities measure themselves. The whole point of smart cities is to create an urban environment that is more human-centered and can flexibly adapt to those who live in it, giving every person a choice to live a greener and more comfortable lifestyle.

When? Now.

Asia’s push towards smart cities is accelerating as technology like AI and IoT become cheaper. In China, both public and private interests are pushing this transformation to happen. Governments, businesses and individuals are all investing in smart city technology and a concerted effort at the urban planning level to integrate it. Smarter cities attract more business and investment and create a higher quality of life for their inhabitants, and government policies across Asia are getting the memo. The door is open in China for any company or property manager looking to join the smart-city movement. However, it is not only a governmental endeavor. A smart city depends on citizens responding to it, using it and demanding these connected services. In China, the answer is yes to all three.

At Tera, we are responding to China’s smart city needs with decentralized energy, smart buildings and smart data tools.