Smart cities

Starters of change (10) Contraptions

Somewhere in western Spain: the fruit trees on the foreground have clearly visible drip irrigation

Somewhere in western Spain: the fruit trees on the foreground have clearly visible drip irrigation

Time to widen the scope: in a moment in which the border between urban and rural gets fuzzier in terms of social demands, at least in Europe, some things can start change in both spheres.

European laws (and others, but those in Europe are closer to me) institute citizen’s rights without making differences between those in rural and urban areas; citizenship, despite its etymologic link to cities, applies to everyone. But in fact the burden of transportation and communications implied differences in the aspirations of the residents of rural areas, which often saw the access to some services as almost impossible, and this was commonly accepted. During recent decades residents in rural areas have grasped better chances to access more services, first through cars, then TV, and then the internet; this has meant an evolution in their view of the urban life. It is still different to live in a small hamlet with 250 residents, half of which are over 60, but some things are now felt as rights in the same way in both kinds of territory. And the consumption habits get closer as the rural populations loses overall weight.  This is catalyzer of change on a scale that goes beyond urban or metropolitan, either for good or for bad.

Saying that cultivation fields get technician by the aim for more production can only be accepted if you speak in terms of millennia; improving crop yields has always been a goal for farmers, despite the bucolic vision some urbans have. There is a constant buzz now around the “developed countries” concerning smart cities and the future introduction of sensors, but this is also becoming common in many rural areas through improved irrigation systems. The image of circles formed by pivot irrigation are known to most of us, but drip irrigation, albeit less impressive when seen from above, is quite efficient, and the chances to mechanize recollection in some cases change many things.

Sure, urbans are not getting fans of the farm machinery websites, but it is rather the way in which farmers exchange information about their working tools, almost as any urban professional. When farmers look for ways to hack the on-board computers on their combine harvesters, as a recent article on Wired showed, change is in the air. I’m not sure how/whether this will translate to architecture and landscape, but chances are there could be an impact. And this is in fact an essay, reduced but interesting, on what comes along with smart cities; managing irrigation water and its electricity use is a limited goal, but some smart city initiatives don’t go beyond the mere management of a limited set of services…

How many dwellings are there in the city?

Many things to count (here,  the Tetuan area in Madrid)

Many things to count (here, the Tetuan area in Madrid)

This is one of the most difficult questions. As always, the absolutely accurate answer is impossible as, even when the housing industry is broken and the existing dwellings resist (i.e. Spain today), there is always a building at works somewhere adding some units, or a ruin, or a demolition.

The housing censuses were considered to be precise; but today in many countries (Spain included) they are made with a representative sample, not the entire stock. They are made taking account of the cadastre, a fiscal data which is exhaustive, but that sometime does not show exactly what you are looking for (a housing building with a single owner that rents 100 flats can be fiscally registered as a single property, or a parking slot be registered as a housing property). Sometimes a dwelling is divided in many by its owner, without any registration, and the opposite case (grouping neighboring homes) is also possible.

Even in areas with recent buildings, where the number of dwellings is defined by plans, there can be fluctuations, upside or downside: a dentist can occupy what was to be a home, and there can be someone in fact living in what was to be an office… again, the difference between the normative world and the real facts of life…

As in the rest of the examples of this week, it is always possible to get a figure; what is needed is the knowledge on how this figure was produced, as to be able to relate that to other figures and give it an operational sense. A figure by itself is usually rather unrepresentative.

How many tourists are here today?

Counting umbrellas on the sand is far from being a tested methodology...

Counting umbrellas on the sand is far from being a tested methodology…

Sure, there is a little trap in the question: in statistical terms, in Spain a tourist is a person that moves from his usual home to a different geographical point, is far from home more than 24 hours, and sleeps in a different geographical place. So, a one day trip to go eat some ribs and then coming back home for your siesta is not, technically speaking, tourism (even if some professionals sometimes count it as such).

But visiting your grandmother in her small village in the Yorkshire Moors for some days could be counted as tourism (even if you spend not a penny out of her home).

I remember a speech by a former Barcelona City Councilor, now high executive for a tourism company, in which he explained how they were baffled, in the early 1990s, to see the streets of the city bustling with Japanese tourist, while there were virtually no Japanese staying in city hotels. It seems the City Council played a detective game by following around the clock some groups of Japanese tourists, to finally discover that they were sleeping in southern France (therefore concentrating there most of their tourism expenditure) and commuting each day by bus from there. Since, Barcelona has made everything to foster Asian tourism, to become the Spanish airport with most flights to Asia.

So, as for many other issues, knowing the precise number of tourists, and their expenditure profile, is always complex and there will always be a degree of fuzziness (it is incredible how many grandmas, or friends letting you use their apartment, exist in this world…), but there are attempts. A method is to count, for a given period, the number of beds open to the public in hotels and other kinds of lodging, and to multiply it by the occupation rate. This does not include the “unregulated offer” (grandmas, friends, or house renting by ordinary citizens), but it is an attempt. The tourism expenditure (which has its own statistical niceties) is a more important affair sometimes.

How many people live in the city?

Callao- gente

Here is one of the most complex questions if you want to be precise. In fact, it is nearly impossible (and in the end, not that useful) to have a razor-thin margin on that:

–          The real number of residents changes each day in a large city, as there is always someone coming or going. The statistic use of knowing that this weekend there will be 138 (not 137, not 139) college students visiting their moms to go back to college on Monday is rather relative…

–          The official sources (census, inscription at City Hall) are published for a given day, in the best case each year. So they are accurate for… a day.

–          The real number of residents in a city can depend on the ratio of cheaters. For instance, when residing in a city can allow you the access to a parking slot for residents, or a school for your offspring, it is not unusual to see families move to a peripheral municipality, while trying to stay registered as residents in the central city. Maybe a little fraud, but hard to detect and correct (central municipalities, as all, receive money in proportion to registered residents, and on the other side sprawling municipalities derive most income from building and consumption).

–          Even if you are sure that your citizens never cheat, if they live in a metro area their realities go beyond municipal border.

Besides, beyond a certain moment, knowing the precise figure has a marginal use; the use citizens make of resources (water, electricity, transportation…) do not depend just on the number of residents, but rather on their consumption patterns, which are more complex to know, and even more to predict, and here the systematic data about recent resource use can be of help.

It is important to have a trustworthy reference figure for the city population, but even more important is to know the structure of these populations. For instance, calculating the need for schools depends more on the number of compulsory school age kids (variable, but not that much during a given year) than on the overall population, and the same goes for other issues. The problem of data falsified by residents to profit reappears, and so, again the relevance of the final figure (kids in schools) rather than the official population figure.

How much energy is the city using

The London Heat Map, an interesting initiative to adress energy in the city

Accounting the urban energy consumption raises some issues:

–          Electricity is often provided by several private companies that do not disclose detailed information. Gas delivered by pipe is in the same situation. Despite that, you can (theoretically) obtain a figure at the household level.

–          Fuels are rather complex, but for deliveries to big clients. How to count the automotive fuels, at the pump, at the owner’s address, or in the road sections where they are burnt? And the bottled gas sometimes sold in some filling stations? Or wood?

–          Renewable energy can be decentralized generation; if it is later delivered to the general grid its accounting is more complex (but you an always think of a citywide balance)

And there is another problem: efficiency. What matters is not just how much energy you use, but rather how efficient that use is. The district heating systems that are common in northern Europe often begin as isolated power stations, but gain in efficiency as they are integrated in grids, as well as a home can be more efficient if the wall insulation is upgraded. So there is not just an issue of consumption, but also of the benefit that derives.

The energy part of the Green City Index, by Siemens, gave in 2009 the highest mark to Oslo (8,71), while London was 10th (5,64) and Madrid 12th (5,52) among the 30 studied European capitals. These marks resulted from 3 quantitative criteria: energy consumption (Gj per capita), energy intensity (Mj per unit of real GDP), renewable energy consumption (% of total consumption); and a fourth qualitative element addressing energy policies.

How many cars are moving in the city?

London congestion charge

Why would you want to count the cars in the city? To be able to dimension properly your street traffic lanes, either to enlarge them or to keep them in such a state as not to increase congestion by appealing more traffic, as often is the case in enlargement projects. Usually measures are taken on a limited number of streets which have a structural role and concentrate most of the cars, without deeming relevant the traffic in smaller streets.

But there can also be a clearer incentive: to levy a tax for using the public space, a rare commodity, and so subvention public transportation. This is the policy instituted in London in 2003 with the Congestion Charge. The system works from 07.00 AM to 06.00 PM, Monday to Friday, with some holidays being exempt. There is 90% reduction for residents. The system depends on 197 cameras along the area’s border, integrating a plate reconnaissance software that allows the charging and fining; as vehicles are bulkier and follow more predictable rules when moving, the cameras are more reliable here than to count people. There are similar charging systems in Singapore and Oslo, and despite the problems that prevented a similar option to be enforced in New York, San Francisco is on the way to apply a charging system.

The system has reduced around 30% vehicles accessing central London, according to Transport for London. The company knows how many cars use the system each day, and results are published monthly on The sharp decrease in users from 2011 is due to the removal of the toll in the western extension

camaras congestion london

How to count pedestrians

Pedestrians in calle Preciados, Madrid.

Pedestrians in calle Preciados, Madrid.

Usually there are data on vehicle flows, but not on pedestrians (or on bikes, but this is another story). This does not mean there is no available methodology, but that they are rather used just in some cases. There are several systems  for footfall counting (without being exhaustive), each with advantages and problems, and their technologies evolve really fast:

  • Put someone on the street to count the pedestrians. As primitive as it may seem, it does not need a specialized personnel, but just a trustworthy one. Besides, a person recognizes much better than a machine other data (sex, age…).
  • Count on video. This has had problems by night or with bad weather. There are image recognition algorithms, but they are not always accurate. Human supervision can help.
  • Laser sensors. They avoid the bad weather issues, allow to describe the speed of the person and other elements on the public space, but their range is limited and they do not have an easy time discriminating individuals from groups.
  • Infrared systems, mainly indoors, which eliminate some video issues.

Besides, there are method problems:

  • When and how often to count? Once a year? Some days of the week? All the time?
  • Where to install the counters? In traffic networks it is common to use a high number of counters, allowing the description of citywide grids, but the experience counting footfall is often in more restricted areas.

So it is not easy to have comprehensive data on this issue, and it is even more complex to have them describe an entire city. But there are experiences, even with continuous coverage, for retail malls and business districts, so data is available to face the evolution of the buyers behavoiur.

Footfall counting is relevant as many cities want to encourage non motorized mobility and must prioritize investments; usually it is rather easy to know which streets are the busiest, but understanding their network effects is less evident. It is also relevant for cities wishing to have streets with wider sidewalks in detriment of the traffic lanes. 

Biblio (42) 192021


192021 is the name of an initiative (presented in a homonymous website) that aims to standardize urban information, oriented from the largely known TED site, the ESRI company and, taking as a sample the 19 cities that will be over 20 million during the 21st century.

For five years the idea is to study the effect of urban population growth on cities, companies and consumer, starting from themes as health, education, transportation, demography, energy, growth patterns…

In fact, accessing the website (or at least as of may 18, 2013) you can only see a short presentation, ambitious but without details. I imagine, according to what has been disclosed, that the five years work plan is in progress. Anyway, this example can introduce a subject which has been the object of a lot of buzz recently: the idea of Smart City. Beyond its role as  tool for tech companies to extend their markets (no objection there, as anyone must make a living…), there is an interesting point in the idea: if you know more about what happens in cities, you can probably help make them work better.

This raises some issues:

–          Which data is relevant? Sometimes the information obtained has no clear value for decision taking, but it must be reminded that more often than not the value of a particular data item is recognized when it is available, but not before.

–          Who must benefit from this information? Clearly, companies can find use in that information, but when it has been obtained with public funds it must serve the citizens and their quality of live (the democracy idea is hidden somewhere…). The coexistence of a plurality of people and interests in the city makes difficult to know who can benefit from that data.

–          What can be done with that new data? Probably, a more efficient management of daily issues. The whole idea of smart cities came from management, and in some time we will probably see how the instrument finally helps define its role. But it will not help define a large universal, all-encompassing model allowing precise long-term forecasts (Nassim Taleb’s black swans…)

Large data sets (and smart city is really on that league) are always on the verge of the hallucination with numbers. There is always the risk so well describe by Celine in the scene of the arrival to New York in the “Journey to the end of the night”… During this week I will try to show how a razor edge precision in urban data is a moving target, almost impossible to hit, but also that this does not prevent action, but rather asks for a specific approach (something I’m confident the 192021 guys have in mind).

Smart Cities Meeting Point 2012 Tarragona

Just minutes before we went on stage

Just arrived from Smart Cities Meeting Point 2012 in Tarragona, an interesting meeting in which I was honored to give an adress on urban planning’s relation with an interesting issue that will transform the way in which cities are managed, and, in many ways, how we understand their realities.

A didactic bilboard on water conservation by the convention venue