Digitalisation, Decarbonization, Sustainability. This is the new Holy Trinity, shaping the vision and key messages of the largest technology (and not only!) companies across the world.
But while digitalization and decarbonisation are more or less well-known concepts, sustainability is yet to be explored and implemented.
In 2015 the UN General Assembly adopted the so-called Global goals for sustainable development, which are aimed to promote peace and prosperity, end poverty, protect the planet, and build a global partnership. The creation of sustainable cities and communities has been declared one of the priorities of the world organization given the increased urbanization trends and the challenges it poses to urban systems.
Smart by Nature
By its nature a sustainable city is inherently a smart city, so it relies heavily on intelligent technologies to further improve the urban environment and at the same time to help achieve the Global sustainability goals. Four main domains offer a significant optimization potential in terms of leveraging digital solutions and connecting the dots between the technology and the people.
Sustainable energy networks
Energy forms the foundation of urban life, affecting every single area of cities’ infrastructure. Making urban electrical systems more sustainable and resilient requires a shift to distributed, automated and remotely controlled energy systems. A micro-grid infrastructure in which small, independent electricity or heat networks distribute locally generated energy to nearby customers can provide a constant power supply, even if the main electricity grid faces a problem.
Siemens supplies Con Edison, the utility that powers New York City and local areas, with innovative, compact and eco-friendly plug-and-play mobile resilience power transformer that can be used for rapid emergency response. They allow Con Edison to respond to events where multiple transformers may be affected and normal spares or system redundancy may not be able to address the issues.
Data is the backbone of this optimization. In a sustainable city, smart grids measure consumption and deliver energy through a system of power generating sources, decentralized energy grids, smart buildings and electric vehicles. With the right data, the grid can make automated and informed decisions regarding distribution of energy resources.
With Big Data and an extensive network of data collection points, as well as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms, the network can continue learning about supply and demand needs, adjusting input and output in real time. In this way, energy production can be regulated as efficiently as possible, while consumption can be minimized.
Sustainable water supply
Access to clean water for all residents is one of the biggest challenges cities are facing. Although clean water is a basic human need, it is often wasted due to suboptimal or outdated water infrastructure.
Smart water networks are equipped with optimized water distribution systems, which are characterized by lower energy consumption. With the help of sensors and other technologies, leaks and other disruptions can be quickly identified or even preempted, significantly reducing water loss.
So, the Swedish water utility VA SYD relies on Siemens' SIWA LeakPlus application to detect leaks in water pipelines. This smart solution uses an AI-based algorithm to identify and classify anomalies in the pipe network. To perform reliably, SIWA LeakPlus is first “trained” with historical flow and pressure data so that it learns to separate anomalies from regular operations and assign the correct cause to each anomaly. As a result, the company has reduced its water losses by 10 percent. And this is just the beginning! By 2030, VA SYD wants to become a climate-neutral, energy-saving water utility with zero unplanned service disruptions.
Sustainable transportation systems
If energy is the backbone of a city, transport is its circulatory system. Mobility is at the heart of the urban social and economic activities, making a convenient, efficient and sustainable transport infrastructure a must.
But mobility services are a highly sensitive and vulnerable system. Therefore, against the background of the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, special attention should be paid to the transport networks of cities.
Intelligent networks that predict and respond to the effects of dangerous meteorological phenomena and other problems can ensure that outages are kept to a minimum and long-term economic resilience is not undermined. On the other hand, smart mobility systems can help reduce congestion, centralize public transport payment options and minimize the health and environmental impacts caused by emissions.
In Germany the authorities are testing an e-highway system by Siemens Mobility as part of a broader initiative for installing overhead contact lines on a total of 4,000km of motorways by the end of 2030. The move is expected to help German state meet its targets of reducing greenhouse gas emissions caused by the transport sector by 40%.
The road/rail vehicles themselves can also play a role. For example, Siemens' Mireo trains have 25 percent lower power consumption along with 95 percent recyclability. They have been also being offered with alternative propulsion such as hydrogen and batteries, increasing their added value for the operator, passengers and society.
Buildings are a crucial element of sustainable infrastructures. They consume 40% of the world's energy and offer a wide field for improvements.
Smart buildings take care of safety, productivity and comfort of their inhabitants, reducing costs for owners, increasing the well-being of occupants and directly benefiting the environment.
Studies show that more than 50% of employees will choose not to return to offices after the Covid-19 pandemic. Lower employment levels will inevitably create energy challenges for building owners. Using an optimized mix of distributed energy resources, including renewable energy from solar panels or small wind turbines, as well as energy storage solutions, the smart office generates its own electricity and optimizes consumption. Smart desk and workspace booking apps like Comfy, allow to implement intelligent space management along with a personalized and safe work experience. And the data and reports provided by Enlighted IoT sensors ensure transparency on space utilization and policy adherence – and therefore help to adapt existing measures or implement new ones.
However, none of the technologies listed above could become a game changer in the battle for a better future if they are not backed by a radical change in the way people, businesses and communities live, work and perceive sustainability. Smart cities require smart citizens, first and foremost. So, it’s up to all of us, with our personal decisions and collective actions, to think smart and act sustainably. Because every step matters!