UPDATED 13:51 EDT / APRIL 23 2014

Europe leads smart city adaption, despite old world challenges

This week’s Smart City roundup features Europe’s continuous efforts to make cities smarter and more energy efficient, new and improved ways of powering one major metropolis, and growing interest in more cities to become smarter despite challenges.

smart city smart infrastructure

Europe ahead of the US in smart city adaption


Though there are many Internet of Things startups in the US, raking in seed money from crowdfunding sites, but despite the local push for business development around IoT, the US isn’t the leading country for IoT adoption.  Believe it or not, Europe is ahead of the US due to its countries’ ability to coordinate efforts across private and public sectors, as well as local governments.

“Europe has embraced the concept more than the U.S.,” said Bas Boorsma, a director at Cisco Systems who helps cities upgrade their infrastructure. “It will always require partnerships between the private sector and government, and Europe does that better.”

Instead of the financial crisis crippling Europe, it forced government officials to come up with better solutions.  Mayors in European cities are looking to save money by cutting energy and water usage, as well as improve waste management by upgrading municipal services such as waste bins with sensors that send off alerts when full, or an irrigation system that monitors parks’ soil moisture so sprinklers are used only when needed.

One of the key elements in Europe’s success in upgrading their cities is the partnership with big tech companies such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and General Electric, who have pilot projects implemented in major hubs. Taking it one city at a time, the government and participating tech companies will be able to asses if the program works, what needs to be improved, and if the people in the city are actually benefiting from smart city solutions.

Looking specifically Amsterdam, officials initially hoped to improve their city through subsidized infrastructure upgrades but saw little improvement.  Amsterdam then decided to invest in local start-ups and partner with local businesses to utilize previous investments.

“The financial crisis helped us to think differently,” said Ger Baron, Amsterdam’s chief technology officer. “We don’t subsidize anymore. We invest.”

With all the hype regarding the IoT revolution, US government officials can learn a thing or two from those running European cities on how to make a crisis work in one’s favor.

New York’s vanadium investment


While Europe leads the smart city revolution, the US continues to experiment with new technologies. In the Big Apple, American Vanadium, the only vanadium mining company in the US, announced its partnership with the New York State Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to demonstrate the CellCube vanadium redox flow energy storage system.  The demonstration will be hosted by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and the New York City Transit (NYCT) Office of Strategic Innovation and Technology, wherein three CellCube batteries will be installed at the MTA’s Energy Star Certified facility at 2 Broadway in downtown Manhattan.

big data nyc new york city sceneWhat makes CellCubes interesting is that each battery can store up to 130 kilowatt-hours.  It uses vanadium dissolved in sulfuric acid, which allows it to be charged and discharged indefinitely and may last up to 20 years.  The MTA plans on charging the CellCubes at night when the cost of electric consumption is lower, then use the charge in the morning.

Despite the promise of CellCubes, the technology hasn’t benefitted from immediately recognizable commercial use. So the Manhattan demonstration is an important one for American Vanadium, as well as New York City, in providing a use case for this innovative technology.

“The system excels at multiple hours of energy for long-duration requirements,” Bill Radvak, American Vanadium CEO, said. “It’s also very safe. It can’t light on fire. The difficulty has been commercializing it.”

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority serves a population of about 15.1 million in the 5,000-square-mile area encompassing New York City, Long Island, southeastern New York State and Connecticut.  Because of this, it is considered the largest single user of energy in the US.  If this demonstration is successful, it will open more opportunities for American Vanadium as more sectors, or even other cities look to cut back on electricity bills.

Chinese firms spearhead South African smart city


PCCW Global, the international operating division of Hong Kong-based telecommunications service provider HKT, has signed an agreement with Shanghai Zendai, an urban complex developer that specializes in commercial real estate in mainland China, to turn turn Modderfontein,  a settlement in the West Rand District Municipality within the province of Gauteng province of South Africa, into a smart city.

Modderfontein has an area of about 1600 hectares and will be developed into a new city center with nine functional areas such as a central business district, international conference and exhibition centre, entertainment centre, silver industry and retirement community, international residential community, comprehensive education district, sports centre, trade and logistic park, as well as a light industry park.

PCCW stated that the project will house around 30,000 families and create about 200,000 fixed jobs for the local community.  The project is aimed at helping enhance the social development and economic prosperity of South Africa.

HKT provides fiber-to-the-home network in about 79 percent of all Hong Kong households which supports up to 1Gbps speed.  Du Wenhui, Shanghai Zendai’s Senior Vice President, believes that PCCW and HKT are the perfect fit for transforming Modderfontein into a smart city and a business hub for Chinese firms who want to invest in South Africa.

The challenges of creating a smart city


The prospect of living in a smart city where everything can be accessed with the use of a mobile device and an internet connection is promising, but may still be a dream for some countries. The gap is not always due to the lack of funds, but because of the people. Not everyone is open to the idea of the Internet of Everything replacing their way of living. It can be a challenge to convince a farmer, whose main source of income is planting and harvesting crops, that he would be better off living in a house controlled by a smartphone app.  Yes, the farmer may be intrigued, but when the glitz of the tech world fades, the farmer will be left with the question, ‘What am I supposed to do for my daily needs?’

This is the conundrum Dholera, one of the many smart city projects in India, is facing.  Farmers are fighting against land grabs, eviction from their homes, and loss of livelihood as next-gen tech takes over local infrastructure.  Dholera aims to make India more enticing to investors but in its current state, it’s hard to imagine how the region will be transformed into the smart city India hopes for.

photo credit: Aristocrats-hat via photopin cc
photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

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