Challenges of Making Ancient Cities Smart

In 2009, an earthquake devastated L’Aquila, Italy, killing more than three hundred people in this historic mountain town, and displacing 70,000 more.

While rebuilding has been slow, the destruction provided an opportunity to make the urban center a test bed for smart-city innovation. The city administration created a digital transformation strategy, L’Aquila Smart City, and has held public meetings for several years. The Italian government is contributing €16.2M ($17.3M) to fund a public EV charging network, as part of Italy’s 5G trial.

One notable intervention is the Smart Tunnel, a tunnel 3.5 meters under city streets through which water, sewage, light and communications will flow. The tunnel has several advantages: undergrounding cables, ease of access for technicians and expandability.

Since 2014, the Smart Ring project has provided electric buses on demand equipped with air-quality sensors in a five-kilometer circular path around the center. A system of sensors monitors the vulnerability of structures, and the city hopes to implement augmented reality to both provide new levels of information and let people understand the city’s history and phases of reconstruction.

While the destruction provided an opportunity for the city to rethink almost all of its infrastructure, you don’t need to start with a ruin to build a smart urban city, even a beautiful, historic one. Dijon, Nantes, Paris, Hamburg and Barcelona are among the cities implementing intelligent interventions.

Smart Barcelona

Beginning in 2011, Smart City Barcelona has identified and implemented multiple opportunities for enhanced services including transportation, water quality, waste and open government. The city currently has more than 20,000 active sensors that capture temperature, air quality, and mobility data.

Sensors embedded in asphalt show available parking spaces, while smart bus stops offer device charging, free WiFi and digital resources. Stephen Zoegall, Accenture’s global cities, transport and infrastructure industry lead, notes that in historic urban centers, said: “There’s more infrastructure there than you think to begin with.” That includes plenty of dark fiber. “It’s all over the place, so you should make the best use of it.”

That said, Zoegall adds that it’s possible to push a lot of distributed technology to individual units, such as connected cars. “If you’re driving around in a connected EV, it doesn’t need too much of a helping hand from infrastructure.”

Accenture is having lots of conversations about multi-edge 5G, and Zoegall says there’s plenty that can be done with the high level of smartphone penetration. “You don’t have to rely on putting big, ugly 5G towers on historic buildings,” he says.

Solar-tech innovation

The European Commission is strongly behind digital transformation. The Horizon 2020 program has close to €1Bn available for industrial R&D, while the Digital Europe program has a €7.5Bn budget to, among other things, to help federate local data ecosystems and widen the use of digital technologies across the economy and society. A POsitive CITY transformation framework (POCITYF) is one of the projects being funded by Horizon.

POCITYF aims to create “self-sustainable, environmental-friendly and citizen-centered living environment in urban districts” in the EU. Projects include demonstrating vehicle-to-grid (V2G) and smart solar power-driven charging stations as part of an EV car-sharing system. It’s starting with two cities, Alkmaar, the Netherlands, and Évora, Portugal.

Solar power is critical for making cities greener, especially as EVs replace ICE vehicles but plopping solar panels onto historic buildings is a no-go. In Évora, POCITYF will solve this with five different building-integrated photovoltaic systems such as solar roof tiles. The plan includes siting a community solar farm on the outskirts of the city.

Hiding in plain sight

The solar roof tiles in Évora are just one example of how high-tech interventions can be disguised. In the US, Verizon and AT&T are beginning to field test small-cell 5G radios that can be placed unobtrusively on street lights, while Ubicquia is expanding its provision of smart streetlight technology, including 5G small cells, into Europe and Asia.

You don’t necessarily need to reinvent materials, however, according to Hemant Nadgir, senior vice-president of Conure Telecom Services. For example, sensors in roads to enable smart parking applications, can simply be placed under cobblestones.

There’s a significant amount of fiber even in historic districts, he says. There’s not enough to provide 5G but you can’t just start digging. “You start with the existing fiber and [determine] what’s needed to provide 5G-enbled services across the city. It’s an evolutionary process. It will take at least 10 years to get to level you need from today’s plan. As you get fiber or permits at particular locations, you start filling those coverage holes as you go along.” Battery-operated sensors don’t need cabling, and their batteries can last for three to five years, Nadgir says and one of the biggest innovations is using wireless cellular connectivity to avoid more cables.

Design locally

Zoegall has found that it’s critical to get feedback from all stakeholders, especially organizations dedicated to preserving a city’s cultural heritage. In the past, he says, technology companies used to approach smart-city services by coming up with an array of use cases.

Now, he says: “It’s completely human-centric. Everything we do is nativized to that locality.” Technologists must consider everyone who may make use of services, including tourists, commuters and residents. Zoegall says: “There’s not a cookie-cutter system. The approach is human first, not technology first.”


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