Like it or not, cities are the habitat of the future. The problem is that many have grown too large, too overcrowded and too polluted, with little (green) space or quality of life left. Now more than ever we need to address this and find solutions to improve mankind’s main living environment. Events such as the Smart City Expo World Congress bring the world together to do just that.

Since the industrial revolution, and in particular the advent of trains and especially the motor car, cities have been growing and expanding, spilling out from their historic centres to consume huge tracts of natural and arable land until entire regions are plastered over in concrete, tar and stone. Their centres a forest of towering concrete, stone, steel and glass, and their suburbs, industrial estates, business parks and commercial centres an endless expanse of urban sprawl. Congestion, pollution and a lack of time and space mark these living areas, which are home to most of us on this planet, and it takes a lot of energy simply to maintain law and order, keep such urban centres in good working order and combat social and economic alienation. Urban squalor and deterioration are therefore very real problems, both in developed countries and the Third World, suffering from mass immigration and migration inflows as they respectively do.

The time has come for this cycle to be broken, and now, as we enter a fully digital world, seems the ideal moment; since cities are about to be transformed by new technologies and updated to be able to cope with them, the time seems ripe to change the urban paradigm while modernising its infrastructure. In fact, the two go hand in hand, as the latest technologies have an important contribution to make in creating greener, more attractive and interactive living zones that are also healthier and more efficient in their use of energy and space. Several large cities have already taken a lead in this regard, and major international events such as the Smart City Expo World Congress provide a forum where their experiences can be shared and multidisciplinary experts and enthusiasts can come together and exchange knowledge, challenges and solutions.

The congress, which this year will be held from 13-15 November at the Fira in Barcelona, wishes to harness the dynamism and leadership role of cities and their expertise as hubs of innovation, economic power and technology – and it wants to do so not just to promote growth and prosperity, and bring urban centres up-to-date with the latest technologies, but also with a view to driving development so that they also improve the living environment and quality of life for all their inhabitants – not to mention becoming more ecologically sustainable, for so far cities have always been a huge drain on resources and producers of pollution. Far more than simply an intellectual exchange, the Smart City Expo World Congress brings together experts from many different fields while also connecting them with the business world, authorities and the general public.

The 2018 congress in Barcelona will concentrate on five key issues facing cities: digital transformation, urban mobility, governance and finance, as well as the notion of inclusive and sharing cities. Keynote speakers from around the world will be contributing their knowledge, panels will be discussing issues in open forums with the opportunity for attendees to participate and pose questions, and exhibitors will be showcasing their new technologies and innovative solutions under a wider topical umbrella that also includes smart mobility, the international integrated water cycle show, the circular economy European summit and the sharing cities summit. It will be an inspiring three days, during which case studies from leaders in the field will also be featured. We examine the most important ones here.


Some of the world’s most advanced smart cities tend to be smaller, and while their pioneering example is invaluable we do tend to look towards the major global cities for signs of progress on a more imposing scale. New York is naturally central to this, and its Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation (MOTI) is working hard to make this metropolis ‘smart’. At the heart of it all is the desire to use resources such as water and energy more efficiently, reduce waste and pollution, improve recycling, add new green spaces and generally improve both the environmental credentials of the city and the quality of life it offers. Here are some of the main measures they are tackling.

Smart Lighting

Huge efficiency gains can be made in street and building lighting by introducing the latest energy-saving LED lights fitted with sensor-driven automated (=smart) systems that turn them on when it gets dark and switch them off when there is natural light. The Accelerated Conservation and Efficiency (ACE) programme was launched in 2013 to speed up the switchover, and so far over 650 publicly owned buildings have been updated – saving almost $1 million a year in energy bills and about 1,000 tons in greenhouse gas emissions.

Smart Water Metering

The NYC Department of Environmental Protection is in the process of implementing a city-wide Automated Meter Reading (AMR) system to help reduce wastage and water bills, which by the way are more accurate too. Over 800,000 properties are being updated in this way, and since it allows users to monitor their consumption and provides immediate information about leaks, the expectation is that wastage will be greatly reduced. So far, the leak notification system alone has saved a staggering $73 million in damage and unnecessary water consumption.

Smart Waste Management

The world’s largest sanitation system collects over 10,000 tons of trash per day, so to improve its effectiveness the city has introduced the so-called BigBelly smart trash can, whose sensors inform the sanitation department once it is nearing full capacity so that collection routes can be planned less frequently and more efficiently. This is also aided by the fact that BigBelly contains a solar powered trash compactor that enables it to carry up to five times as much waste before it is full. Sensor-based monitoring of systems and the relating of this information form the basis of the interconnected, ‘Smart’ city. An air quality monitoring system introduced some years ago, for instance showed that cheap heating oil being used in only one per cent of the buildings was producing more pollution than all the city’s cars combined. Once identified in this way, it made it possible to target the problem and provide incentives for conversion from oil to gas heating, which has to date reduced sulphur dioxide emissions by 70 per cent. They prove that New York has begun to apply the smart city principle to tackle urban problems and improve liveability in the Big Apple.


London is following suit, having created its own Smart Technology Plan, which aims to reduce traffic congestion and the 50 hours per year the average Londoner spends stuck on congested streets. This is estimated to cost the local economy up to £2 billion a year, so the mayor set up a Smart City Board that involves techies, public officials, businesses, transport and logistics experts, and citizens in the search for solutions. Soon it will be implementing its own systems to monitor the flows of traffic and in so doing gain a better understanding of how the existing infrastructure and its use can be optimised.

Companies such as Siemens, Intel and UCI are teaming up with centres of learning like the Imperial College in London to develop new processes that will improve the management of traffic, lighting, energy usage, waste and information flows. This, it is hoped, will lead to smart solutions designed to optimise road usage, resource consumption and even parking efficiencies by informing drivers of where to find available places so less time is spent driving around in circles. The Heathrow Pod, introduced in 2011, is an effective, zero-emission rapid transit system that is a blueprint for the future. Just in reducing bus trips, the route now produces over 100 tons of carbon dioxide less per year.

London is also working on Datastore, which links its inhabitants to events across the city as well as all manner of information, from crime rates to property prices. In return, the data collected in the network will also tell city authorities which parts of town are growing fastest, need the most attention or are experiencing specific challenges. London is well on the way to becoming one of the leading smart cities of Europe.


Europe’s other global metropolis and business centre could not be far behind, and it isn’t, for Paris faces many of the same problems of crowding, congestion and rocketing property prices. To help overcome this, firms like Vincent Callebaut Architectures are promoting the development of modern apartments with positive energy output. These multi-use structures are meant to be spread across the city in a way that offers space-saving solutions while also effectively absorbing the surrounding pollution. Such initiatives form part of an action plan launched in the wake of the Climate Plan Paris, as part of which the city wants to have reduced its greenhouse emissions to a fraction of today’s by 2050.

Smart buildings constructed with the latest energy-efficient materials and fitted with solar panels, water catchment systems, movable sections and vegetation cover form part of the plan, as well as the extension of natural green zones, the reduction and better management of traffic, and encouragement of the public to become more environmentally friendly in their consumption habits. Increasingly, the drive is to make Paris a greener city with more natural vegetation and harnessing of modern technology while respecting its rich cultural and architectural heritage. The self-sustaining, energy-producing towers are therefore designed to not clash with classical Paris but to blend in with it. There are also plans to turn current brownfields into parks and gardens, including so-called ‘air parks’ like those created in the formerly abandoned raised walkways of New York.


Pollution and congestion are perhaps worst of all in Asia, and Tokyo combines both a huge metropolis of 20 million inhabitants and leading-edge technology with which to combat its ills. Recent reports have emphasised both the need for smart city conversion and the commercial opportunities they present for tech-savvy companies – of which there are many in Japan and its surroundings. The area therefore seems to be on the cusp of a big surge forward in this direction, and the local authorities have already delineated their priority list, which includes reducing greenhouse gasses as well as energy and water waste, improving air quality, waste management and urban mobility, not to mention wellbeing.

Tokyo wants to build on its lead as the ‘greenest city in Asia’, having already established strict new building regulations aimed at reducing the urban impact on the environment. These include measures designed to combat the ‘heat island’ phenomenon and to greatly improve efficient resource usage. It forms part of the city’s plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 25% by 2020, and while ambitious, Tokyo seems well under way. Businesses and the owners of real estate in the city centre are simply faced with tight caps and continuously reduced caps on maximum permitted emission levels, and are induced to find innovative solutions. In a country so rich in technological expertise, this is not as ominous as it sounds, and to help harness some of this know-how, Europe has sought to collaborate with Japan to fast-track the process through joint cooperation and development. It’s true, when it comes to finding solutions to tricky problems, two heads are usually better than one!