How IoT is helping cities become more sustainable than ever before

The climate crisis is one of the highest and most important points on the UK’s agenda right now, as the UK Government looks at how the country can recover more sustainably post-pandemic. Added to that is the challenging task of reducing the UK’s net emissions of greenhouse gases by 100%. As a result, people are looking to technology to find new ways to manage, reduce and solve all new potential issues they are likely to encounter throughout this recovery period – and this includes new, sustainable and innovative ways in which to to help with our cities build back even stronger.

When it comes to protecting the environment within cities, this requires multifaceted solutions, not least because many environmental trends are so complex that they are difficult to conceptualise. As such, collecting data is the first step towards reducing and understanding the environmental impact of human activity. This is where the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart sensors have an important role to play.

Connected and sensor-enabled technology can help cities build back better

Sensor-enabled devices have been helping to monitor the environmental impact of cities for some time, collecting details about sewers, air quality, and garbage. Recently, air pollution has been a big pain point in cities, such as London, Paris and Rome, where it is regularly cited as one of the most serious environment problem which could affect health today.

To address this, many are turning to Air Quality Eggs (AQEs), which are open-source IoT platforms for air pollution. In simple terms, this is an open system that collates citizen-contributed data on air quality. Increasingly, AQEs can be found across America, Western Europe, and East Asia, and these may eventually play a role in developing countries where there is often the most rapid urban population growth and, therefore, the highest rates of pollution.

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As well as air pollution, waste and recycling programmes in major cities need to be carefully managed in order to keep cities both clean, green and sustainable. BigBelly is a solar-powered IoT trash receptacle and garbage compactor that alerts sanitation crews when it is full. By using this device, Boston University has reduced its pickup from an average of 14 to 1.6 times a week. As a result, the programme saves both time and energy as collectors are using less rubbish bags and producing less CO2 during every pickup.

In cities affected by extreme weather and those reliant on bridges and crucial road links for transportation and mainland connections, the upkeep of infrastructure needs to be carefully monitored in order to keep businesses and people throughout the city running smoothly. Indeed, wireless IoT bridge sensors can be used to keep track of all aspects of a bridge’s health. Data is frequently collected on areas such as vibration, pressure, humidity, and temperature, and they can therefore provide early warnings of damage, saving not only a potential catastrophe, but money for local governments. The sensor data is then sent over a wireless network to a server for processing and analysis. This information allows road crews to prioritise maintenance during harsh weather conditions, which are responsible for almost a quarter of car accidents.

Resource management

Connected technologies are also helping to increase awareness and visibility into individual energy and resource usage. Smart energy meters provide city livers with transparent data on their own energy consumption, which has been shown to reduce consumption across the board. Today, connected smart thermostats can also be used to integrate with heating systems so that clear cut decisions can be made on when to turn the heating on based on fluctuating energy costs. Moreover, smart IoT water management sensors can be combined with data analytics programmes to provide consumers with increased visibility into the amount of water they use. Devices that increase visibility into usage have been proven to save money, as well as conserve growing scarce resources.

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Another example of IoT in action is in the City of London, where the local council has implemented a smart city lighting strategy to improve energy usage and help tackle light pollution in the Square Mile. Artificial night lighting is contributing to a global increase in light pollution, which has been proven to have an adverse effect on human health and sleep rhythms. The lighting strategy aims to use technology to install a variety of cost-effective LED lighting and light colours during different times of the night to balance darkness with street and commercial lighting.

Ultimately, the different projects and IoT devices outlined are really just the tip of the iceberg – and the potential for connected technologies is huge. There are still areas of environmental sustainability that are not fully understood or easily addressed, but as new technologies emerge – and are carefully applied – cities will be able to better manage their impact on the environment and the world. Moreover, as more connected devices come online, and machine learning and data processing improves, we will likely see increasingly more innovative ways that IoT will contribute to keeping cities green and more sustainable.

Written by Professor Kevin Curran, senior IEEE member and professor of cybersecurity at Ulster University

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