SALT LAKE CITY — In the slightly baffling sequel to Marty McFly’s first trip back to the future, McFly travels to the year 2015 and encounters self-drying clothes, self-tying laces and flying cars.
While Nike did debut a pair of $720 self-tying shoes the next year, 2015 came and went looking much different than studio executives and scriptwriters imagined it in the '80s.
While cities of flying cars and robot overlords may be a far cry from the present day, smart cities are not. Recently, the Consumer Technology Association announced that smart cities would be a new area of focus during the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show where businesses from around the globe come to show off their latest and greatest consumer tech.
Technology debuted at CES is often a good indication of where the tech world is headed, and the Consumer Technology Association’s decision to dedicate a marketplace to smart cities may well be a harbinger of the future.
What is a smart city?
The breadth of technology that’s been implemented under the smart city label makes it difficult to define.
“A smart city is a city that has developed some technological infrastructure that enables it to collect, aggregate and analyze real-time data and has made a concerted effort to use that data to improve the lives of its residents,” the National League of Cities said.
As the Internet of Things constantly evolves, so do the devices that are connected to it. A smart city would take advantage of this ever-growing network of IoT devices by creating a city that integrates information and communication technology to manage everything from the city’s schools and libraries to their hospitals and power plants.
Every time the Utah Department of Transportation uses movement analytics to determine when, where and why people are driving and then uses that data to make changes to roadways and infrastructure, they’re building a smart city.
The National League of Cities recently released a new report featuring five cities that are using different approaches to implement smart city initiatives that help towns connect disparate utility, infrastructure and public service grids by aggregating real-time data to more effectively manage programs and services and gauge their impact.
In smart cities of the future, smart transportation systems would use sensors to detect congestion and bottlenecks in traffic patterns and rely on cameras to enforce speed and traffic infractions. Self-driving cars would shuttle people in and out of the city, giving rides and making deliveries, and apps would coordinate with smart parking meters to let drivers know where there’s available parking.
Sensors around town would detect the amount of garbage in cans to help sanitation workers maximize efficiency while simultaneously monitoring devices to identify leaks or changes in water pressure in waterways. Solar panels would monitor how much energy they’re providing and let maintenance workers know when they need work.
In a smart city, smart buildings could detect fires and place calls to the fire department in an emergency, while cameras and drones could monitor activity in places not frequented often by police or law enforcement.
So what could go wrong?
While it’s one thing to tout the integration of smart technologies on a citywide scale, the practice isn’t as simple. There’s very little to dislike about a smart city — for both citizens and criminals.
In light of recent cyberattacks, there are always real security dangers for a huge network of devices linked together via the internet. Imagine a hack that turned every city light green. The damage would be incalculable and would leave the city vulnerable to more attacks during the aftermath.
As cities become smarter, they need to prioritize data security, encrypt information and regularly monitor sensors, according to TechCrunch. Software vetting and rigorous testing practices will become increasingly important as cities become more connected.
Will Utah become a smart state?
In September 2015, the White House announced a new smart cities initiative that promised to invest over $160 million in federal research and leverage more than 25 new technology collaborations to help local communities fight traffic congestion and crime, foster economic growth, manage the effects of a changing climate and improve the delivery of city services.
“As Utah continues to connect a wider variety of things to its networks, the Department of Technology Services will need to provide the necessary bandwidth, data and analytics services and internet interfaces to help optimize the use and sharing of these new smart-network components,” Utah.gov reads.
Utah has implemented specific smart state projects, including IoT technologies for an intelligent transportation system designed to improve traffic flow and reduce accidents by analyzing movement data. The program allows UDOT to actively manage traffic signal systems in real time and help traffic flow efficiently. Ontime.utah.gov also provides users with real-time information about nearby bus stops, Trax and Frontrunner schedules, etc. based on location information.
“The Department of Transportation is one of the areas where we really lead out by having a lot of things that automate the transportation processes and make transportation flow smoother,” said Dave Fletcher, eGovernment director at the Department of Technology Services. “The city’s DOT has been able to substantially reduce the percentage of vehicle stops at red lights, and of course we’ve got an integrated transportation system and automated sensors in the roads.”
According to Fletcher, Utah snow plows also have GPS devices that track the plows’ location and provide that location to citizens so they can know which roads have been cleared during winter blizzards.
Health care has also been revolutionized by devices that allow doctors to connect with patients remotely, and the Utah Education and Telehealth Network provides that connectivity to many inaccessible health care services. Sensors and smart devices can monitor health care from a macro level, like air quality, and integrate it at a micro level, like an individual's personal health, Fletcher said.
“I think that’s something we want to do is bring it down to an individual-citizen level,” Fletcher said. “We’re trying to provide more detailed information, and I think one of the areas that (we) can really integrate more is with artificial intelligence so that the data can be brought down to that individual level."
“We’re starting to provide fairly broad services on devices … (With Amazon Echo), we’re releasing a service this month that will give people the chance to ask where the best fishing is, so we track that data throughout the state and people will be able to ask how the fishing is in Flaming Gorge or anywhere else across the state."
While the future of smart cities is a nebulous arena, innovators are preparing to debut smart city technologies at the largest consumer tech show in the world next year, and government officials are delegating funds to push the movement forward.
“I think we’re already doing a lot of the things that would be considered smart technologies,” Fletcher said. "We’ve been following it for a long time now."