City 2.0: Using tech building blocks in tomorrow's urban centers

It's closer than you may think and is mostly a matter of connecting all the pieces

Science fiction writers call it Utopia, the glorious City of the Future. But short of downtown atriums being guarded by invisible walls and flying cars, City 2.0 is not as far off as you may think.

Ubiquitous wireless networks are already available in cities including Baltimore and Minneapolis, corporations such as Thomson Reuters have sustainable data centers that sell power back to the local utility, the smart energy grid is well on its way, and city-provided social networks are common. Indeed, the next steps toward the city of tomorrow are all about integrating these services cohesively, making them widely available across the entire metropolis and managing the services more efficiently.

"The reality is that the city of the future will likely have many aspects of a contained and managed ecosystem," says Rob Enderle, a consumer analyst with Enderle Group based in San Jose, Calif.

While the concept of City 2.0 is monumental, these key technology advancements are already helping pave the road to the next-generation city.

Smart grid

The smart use of energy is one of the most important goals for urban centers today. The smart grid concept centers around the idea of using electricity when it's available cheaply, rather than at peak times when it's more expensive, and allows wind and solar and other renewable sources to be integrated into the energy grid. This requires two-way communication between utility companies and the businesses and individuals who use their power. We're nowhere near a comprehensive smart grid yet, but some cities and energy companies are taking steps in that direction.

Iowa smart meters
In Des Moines, Iowa, electric meters feed building usage data over fiber networks to a server.

Today, a few cities, such as Boulder, Colo. and Houston, have pilot programs where customers can visit a Web site to see their real-time energy usage. Google is currently testing a PowerMeter project so employees can see not only how much energy they're using, but when and for what. EnerNOC, a provider of IP-based sensors and monitoring, is giving financial incentives to customers and utility companies that adjust supply and demand according to real-time data.

A good example of smart grid technology in action is at the Des Moines, Iowa state capitol grounds, where city officials have set up a smart grid that feeds to a central kiosk. It shows the power usage for each building in the capitol complex. To create the smart grid, the capitol buildings were wired with sensors that connect a fiber backbone, feed through a central server and then report usage data in real time to the kiosk.

"Today, departments have no incentive to save power from a government perspective," says State CIO John Gillispie. "We are working toward billing the individual departments for how much they use."

Gillispie is already planning on adding sensors for floor-level power monitoring, and envisions a day when sensors are added across the state and in multiple cities -- even on roadways and in cars, office buildings, schools and homes.

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