Making our cities “smarter”

IBM is providing more and more evidence its “smarter cities” program is more than just a marketing campaign. The company already has a number of computer-services projects with cities around the world, from traffic management systems in Stockholm and London to a smart-grid electricity system in Amsterdam, to water management in Shenyang, China. An overarching goal in each is to conserve resources and reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. It is starting projects with two mid-sized cities, in the USA (Dubuque, Iowa) and in Italy (Bolzano). If details for this latter are still covered – the project will be unveiled Monday, September 21, at a ceremony in the Northern Italy city – the Iowa city is well on its way to become “smarter”.

Dubuque over the next several years will use sensors, software and Internet computing to give the city’s government and citizens the digital tools to measure, monitor and alter the way they use water, electricity and transportation.

The Dubuque effort stands out not only because it is in the United States, but also because it marks IBM’s most comprehensive approach to these digitally enhanced public services — water, electricity and transportation. “We’re trying to make Dubuque into the first integrated, smart city,” said Robert Morris, vice president of services research at IBM.

The benefits, Mr. Morris added, could well extend beyond water, electricity and transportation alone. For example, housing development and traffic management could be modeled and policies adopted for other goals like “making sure you have a walkable city.”

Dubuque, according to Mr. Morris, was selected partly because its size — 60,000 people — makes it easier to roll out projects than in a large city. The company was also familiar with Dubuque as it chose the city earlier this year as the location for a new technology services support center, which will employ up to 1,300 workers by the end of 2010.

The Iowa city also has a local government that has been moving toward using technology to conserve resources in recent years. The mayor, Roy D. Buol, ran on a “sustainability” platform when he was elected in 2005. Mr. Buol said sustainability was as much about generating jobs and growth as being green. He said he hoped the technology and know-how developed in the joint project could be used in other regions and perhaps countries.

“We want the smart-city work to be a replicable model for other cities,” Mr. Buol said.

The first phase will involve installing digital water and electricity meters in 250 homes and businesses. The smart water meters include special low-flow sensing technology from a local manufacturer, A.Y. McDonald, which will help the public works department and residences reduce water use and detect leaks. An estimated 30 percent of households use water unnecessarily because of undetected leakage in faucets and toilets.

The smart electric meters will help households track their energy use and conserve. They will be able to tap into a Web site and, for example, set household temperatures a few degrees cooler in the winter or warmer in the summer — and model the savings in energy use and monthly bills.

“You need citizen buy-in for these programs, and to do that you have to show them the benefits,” Mr. Buol said.


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