smart_cities

Think, for a moment, about the way the Tile could change city life as we know it. A ballyhooed indie product that drummed up $2.6 million in crowdsourced funding and is now about to hit the market, the Tile caters to people who have gotten used to finding a misplaced cellphone by calling the number and listening for the ring. If it works for phones, why not find other objects the same way?

A little white Bluetooth-enabled square that can be attached to any item—in a wallet, inside a guitar, stuffed inside a sock—the Tile will ring whenever someone uses a smartphone app to “call” it. You can use it to find a missing sock in your house, but you can also use it to locate the wallet you left on a streetcar—with the help of every other smartphone that has the Tile app installed. A whole city’s worth of phones could potentially be enlisted to cast a wireless net, looking for whatever you’ve lost.

Tile is one product from one startup. But it’s a perfect example of how the “Internet of things” has suddenly come to life in cities. The close concentration of urban dwellers, combined with plummeting hardware costs and the overlapping layers of wireless data that accompany us—beamed from cell towers, pulsing from Wi-Fi hot spots, radiating from smartphones in our pockets—has made it easier than ever before to track, sort, manage and organize things in a city setting.

“I would call it the perfect storm,” says Mark Stern, the founder of MakeWorks, a new Toronto co-working space where entrepreneurs are busy melding web-connected sensors to pieces of hardware (an Internet-enabled hockey stick that reports back on the speed with which it’s handled, among other things).

Read: The Internet of Things: A $500-Billion Industry?

Stern points out that suddenly, deploying sensors throughout cities has become remarkably cost-effective. As a result, municipalities themselves are getting into the game. In Santander, an ancient city in the north of Spain, an ambitious project is spreading sensors across the urban landscape, transforming formerly insensate objects into little Internet nodes. Sensors on parking spaces speak to display panels at the city’s major intersections, which can guide drivers toward free spots. Similarly, a series of about 60 sensors at the city’s main entry points gauges traffic flows and volumes. Sensors in its parks and gardens measure moisture and rainfall, in a bid to make irrigation as effective as possible. And to assess environmental conditions, the city put 150 detectors for airborne particles and carbon dioxide into taxis and buses.

Santander is a test bed, the kind of flagship demonstrator that is beloved by governments and big technology companies. But the ideas on display there are already starting to spread in more prosaic ways to cities around the world. For decades, urban governments have built information systems that trafficked in huge amounts of data in-house—everything from GIS mapping systems to huge amounts of hoarded traffic stats. Today, those systems are moving off private networks and onto the Internet, where they can be combined and put to use.

In Barcelona, a system of sensors in municipal garbage bins keeps track of trash levels, letting collection crews plot optimal pickup routes. And transit agencies around the world have been tying their GPS-tracked fleets into Internet systems that can tell riders when the next car is arriving. The streetcar on which you left your Tile-equipped wallet is now an Internet-tracked thing itself.

Read: PROFIT’s 2014 Opportunity Guide

And the arrival of web-connected sensors has huge implications for the energy sector, which has bet heavily on smart meters that take live power-consumption readings and transmit them over the Internet in real time. These readings let utilities know exactly when consumers are using how much power, and are already allowing them to charge more at peak hours. (Ontario is one of the more advanced jurisdictions in North America on this front.)

  • 1
  • 2
Loading comments, please wait.