We believe that one of the most interesting ideas emerging from discussions about sustainable cities is the idea of citizen-generated apps, ones that individuals or companies have created to do interesting things or provide useful information in cities. And why is this especially interesting? Because it’s driven by users and because it harnesses the ‘internet of things’ to improve sustainability.
The ‘internet of things’ is a phrase defined as the sum total of all the pieces of equipment connected to the internet, and is rapidly increasing in size. In 2008, the number of pieces of equipment connected to the internet was roughly one for every person on earth. By 2020, this is expected to have multiplied to 50 billion pieces of equipment (source: Guenter Schulze). Big companies can’t drive all of that, which means that citizen-generated apps are going to be crucial to harnessing its power.
Quora.com, the information and knowledge sharing site, has an ongoing discussion about how the internet of things can help to make cities more sustainable. Its users have interesting ideas about how it might work, though some more reality-based than others!
According to the references provided, much of the more reality-based ideas are being pioneered by IBM, putting their accumulated technological know-how to good use. For example, they are doing some work in Rio de Janeiro to place sensors in sewers to detect when floods are imminent and provide evacuation warnings to flood-prone neighbourhoods. They are also working on traffic lights that detect when the approaching traffic is all coming from one direction, and change to green before the cars have to slow down, improving fuel economy. There are other ideas that could improve fuel economy and usage, such as groups of cars going the same speed and distance forming into mini-convoys to minimise drag and also braking, and the use of GPS devices to detect traffic problems and automatically re-route vehicles around blockages.
There are many opportunities for the internet of things to help with energy efficiency apart from vehicles, though. How about buildings that sense where the occupiers are, and adjust the light and heat accordingly? There are plenty about which already have primitive forms of this technology. And from there, it’s only a small step to street lights that turn up in intensity when someone moves into the zone surrounding that light. There are already car parks using this technology. It sounds a bit disconcerting at first, but looking on the bright side, it’s going to be difficult for muggers to hide in dark corners when that technology becomes freely available!
But some of Quora.com’s contributors gently point out the fly in the ointment: people! We’re all programmed to do things in a way that is convenient to us. And most of us won’t go out of our way to do things differently if the new way is inconvenient, or even no more convenient. To help us to understand how this might be overcome, one contributor suggests that we think of cities as living, breathing organisms, consisting of multiple parts, that is, the citizens. Using this analogy, it is then easier to understand that the city will only respond to changes that improve the lives of a large group of its citizens.
Which brings us neatly back to citizen-generated apps. These are crucial to improving the sustainability of cities in two ways. Firstly because they are created in response to a need. Perhaps only a need that one or two people share, but maybe many more. This makes some of them, at least, likely to be apps that people want and will use. The second reason is that commercial companies, and particularly the ones that own the platforms, cannot physically create enough apps to meet demand. History makes this clear. Apple’s iPhone didn’t really take off until Apple opened up the platform to the market, and the few hundred apps that it had created exploded into the thousands, if not millions, that now exist.
So here’s the challenge. To get the internet of things working to make cities more sustainable, it seems that we need to get people interested in generating apps on a small scale. Put together in the internet of things, they might just change the world.
Image credit: Kurzweil