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IoT: Cities of Tomorrow

The Internet of Things is made from thousands of tiny sensors that measure our world. From temperature and humidity to delivery expectancy dates on pregnant cows, there is almost nothing that can’t be measured. Some of the larger projects taking place are building smarter cities that can manage anything from streetlights to available parking spaces. The idea is to connect a plethora of systems to widely benefit the people using them. Many major cities have already started building towards this interconnected ecosystem, but there are a few places on earth that are building smart cities entirely from scratch.

Welcome to Songdo, the most intelligent city in the world.

A decade ago, a barren mudflat. Today, a city of tomorrow. Upon 600 hectares (1,500 acres) of reclaimed land, Songdo is a purpose-built city with smart technologies as part of its DNA. 40 miles outside of the South Korean capital of Seoul, Songdo is the largest private real estate development in history and the price tag to-date stands at $40 billion.

Being adjacent to Seoul, a city already regarded as one of the high-tech capitals of the world, the biggest challenge for Songdo is to deliver a significantly smarter city than people are used to. However, because the district was built from scratch, developers have had the opportunity to invest heavily in technologies that have yet to debut in conventional cities.

So what does $40 billion buy?

Garbage. Lots of it. Hidden within the city’s infrastructure is the world’s most environmentally-friendly waste disposal system. There are no garbage trucks. No wheelie bins. Instead, a vast network of underground tunnels suck rubbish directly from kitchens to waste processing centres where it’s automatically sorted, deodorised and treated.

The city has been planned around a central park, modelled on New York, with waterways modelled on the canals of Venice. This open air green space adds up to 40% of the city meaning that its citizens can commute to work on foot in less than 15 minutes. And if garbage and green space isn’t enough, almost every part of Songdo has been designed with sensors to monitor temperature, energy use and traffic flow.

Elsewhere, the world’s first carbon-neutral city is being built in Abu Dhabi. The oil-rich United Arab Emirates isn’t exactly the first place you would expect to learn lessons on zero-carbon living, but the emerging eco-city of Masdar might well serve as education for the world.

Building a city on such an inhospitable desert landscape is daring. Building one that is environmentally sustainable defies convention altogether. A city like that would need maximum technological support 24 hours a day just to survive. Luckily, Masdar has just that.

By combining 21st century engineering with traditional desert architecture, Masdar will deliver a city not only free of non-electric cars and skyscrapers, but one powered entirely by the sun.

To turn the desert’s greatest threat into Masdar’s greatest asset, developers have constructed the largest solar farm in the Middle East. A 54 acre field comprising of 87,777 solar panels will not only power Masdar, but any excess energy will be re-routed to the sprawling metropolis of Abu Dhabi.

Of course, Masdar comes with all the typical bells and whistles you’d expect from a smart city. There are no light switches or even water taps. Movement sensors control lighting and water to cut consumption of both to 51 and 55 percent respectively.

On the technological front, a brand new city offers us the chance to build some futuristic hardware. A lot of these innovations are designed with the environment in mind; charging stations for electric cars, or water-recycling systems that prevent clean drinking water being used to flush toilets. However, the greatest challenge isn’t in the innovation of the cities. It’s in filling them.

Songdo and Masdar are ghost towns. While they are technically still under construction, both cities are currently habitable, yet only a small percentage of available space is actually occupied. This means that the ultramodern innovations aren’t fully operational yet. Every sensor on every device sits largely idle, just begging to show off what a smart city is truly capable of. However, it’s the occupants who make a city what it is, what it can be.

Over time, the cities will surely start to fill up and bring with it that indescribable buzz of an urban centre. But until that happens, smart cities like Songdo and Masdar wait on us to take that next step into the future.