Instrumented Interconnecteds Intelligent

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By Colin Harrison
IBM Distinguished Engineer

This is the second of three posts that explore the concept of urban information networks, that is, the flows of information in cities about what is going on. I am not thinking here of social networks, which deal with personal information, but rather of information concerning the how the city is working, both in the supply and the demand for services. Please click here for the first post and return tomorrow for the third.

It’s vital  for the managers of cities to understand what the systems they manage consume in resources. Yet, for conservation to happen, it’s also crucial for the end users of services to understand how much they’re consuming.

A basic principle from Management Science  is:  if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it.  So a Smart City must have a rich set of sources or instrumentation that provides the information necessary for this operational management.  In many cases that information is already available, but generally unused.

A disturbing example of waste resulting from a lack of information comes from the construction industry.  A large city such as New York has of the order of a million buildings.  Since a building – depending on its purpose and how it was built and maintained – has a lifetime of 50 to 100 years, it follows that on average in New York some 10-20,000 buildings are torn down and re-built every year.  Imagine how much that represents in thousands of tons of old materials that are carted away and dumped at some growing distance in a landfill or in the ocean and in new materials that have to be created and transported to the building site.  How many hundreds of thousands of truck journeys on already crowded streets!  Such waste could be eliminated by creating a market for used building materials that are sold by the owners of the building being torn down, instead of paying for transportation and for landfill fees, and bought by the developers of new buildings, instead of paying for production and transportation fees.  What prevents this market being established are the lack of detailed information about what materials will be recovered from the building being torn down and a way of communicating this information to property developers and construction companies.

For the 2012 Summer Olympics in east London a different approach was adopted.  When the London Olympic Committee issued a contract for the preparation of the site for the Olympic village, it contained a requirement that 90% of the materials in the existing buildings should be re-used.  The management of this work went to consortium including an American engineering consultancy, CH2M Hill.  The consortium hired 2,000 unemployed people in east London, taught them construction Health and Safety and how to deconstruct the existing buildings.  Bricks and stone were cleaned up and prepared for use in the new construction on the Olympic site.  Steel was shipped to China – at a peak of 300 tons per day – to be recycled.  Wood and other combustible materials were converted to energy.

The result was cheaper – CH2 completed the project on time and well under budget – than dumping the old materials and buying new and resulted in 94% of the old materials being re-used as well as a further 4% being used to produce energy.  Why could not New York implement such a system?  Because today there is no information available on supply and demand of such materials and hence no market for them.  A lack of information again leads to waste.

In many cases, however, full participation by the general public is needed to restrain consumption and waste.

In Zurich, Switzerland, city leaders recognize this truth and designed a program to make people aware of their role in consumption. For the eco-district development in Zurich known as Green City Zurich, they adopted a set of principles called One Planet Living (OPL).  OPL seeks to define and encourage the adoption of a set of resource consumptions that will enable 9 billion people to fairly share the resources – water, food, energy, land among others – of the one planet we have available.  For energy, this results in an annual consumption of 2,000 kW-hours per person, or an average of roughly 250 Watts per person.

Achieving such a goal requires that the individual is aware of his or her own energy consumption, just as modern cars give us feedback on fuel consumption, and also careful management of the balance between demand and various sources of electrical energy.  When aiming to live within such constraints, it becomes very clear that careful management of personal consumption will be required.

If we now think of actual individual consumptions in existing cities, how close is each individual to this goal?  The question in most cases is unanswerable, because such information is not available unless the city or the utility has installed smart meters to measure consumption of electricity and water and so forth.

Information cannot produce new energy or other resources, but it can be a powerful mechanism for enabling cities to reduce their dependencies on many external resources such as water, energy, and food.  This is especially true when that information flows freely and is visible to many potential consumers of that information who can incorporate it in their own operational decisions.


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February 25, 2016
1:39 pm

and the best thing is nice to see man, its very cool to see this thing here.

Posted by:
January 4, 2012
12:19 pm

good one!

Posted by: tan
January 4, 2012
11:58 am

Good points Colin. There is tremendous power to be unleashed in all of the data that is emerging within cities (if captured), and from the new analytical capabilities that can flesh out trends and patterns within this data. And, I agree that the general public will be key in helping to make our city systems more sustainable. In this regard, I think consumer behavior, or behavioral economics, is another important factor to consider.

Change in the behavior of the general public will not just come from the information that is shared – the way in which it is shared and made consumable also matters greatly. We all receive bills for water and electricity with data on how much we use and what it costs; this information rarely spurs change outside of financial necessity. However, as the Smarter Water and Smarter Electricity portals in Dubuque, Iowa have demonstrated, consumers changed their perspectives of the resource and how they consumed it (at least temporarily) when they visually understood their consumption patterns and could see their consumption on a more granular level. Further, the way the data was shared and relayed to consumers also spurred behavior change – with weekly games and household comparisons encouraging pilot participants to lower their consumption levels. Without factoring in notions of consumer behavior into urban information networks, we may miss opportunities of leveraging the data that these networks create.

Posted by: Michelle Cullen
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January 5, 2012
12:02 am

[...] is working, both in the supply and the demand for services. Please click here for the first post and here for the [...]

Posted by: Urban Information Networks, Part 3: Open Data 2.0 « A Smarter Planet Blog
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