Science and the City

Cities are a big deal. More people now live in them than don’t, and with a growing world population, the urban jungle is only going to get busier in the coming decades. But how often do we stop to think about what makes our cities work?

Cities are built using some of the most creative and revolutionary science and engineering ideas—from steel structures that scrape the sky to glass cables that help us communicate at the speed of light—but most of us are too busy to notice. Science and the City is your guidebook to that hidden world, helping you to uncover some of the remarkable technologies that keep the world’s great metropolises moving.

Laurie Winkless takes us around cities in six continents to find out how they’re dealing with the challenges of feeding, housing, powering and connecting more people than ever before. In this book, you’ll meet urban pioneers from history, along with today’s experts in everything from roads to time, and you will uncover the vital role science has played in shaping the city around you. Available October 25th from Bloomsbury.


Chapter Seven: Connect


I will begin with a mini-rant. The term Internet of Things (IoT) is bandied around a lot, but I am not a fan. It sounds like it has a specific meaning, but it really, really doesn’t. I very much view it as a cringe-inducing marketing term, and from my chats with people actually working in the sector it’s not all that popular there either. However, because we’re all being bombarded with it, and it neatly covers a lot of the tech I want to talk about, I’m going to use it anyway. But I just ask that you don’t judge me for it, OK?

Anyway. IoT broadly refers to the concept of getting everything connected, both to the internet and to each other. If an object has an on/off switch, it could potentially be connected to the internet. So far, some of these ideas have seemed a bit silly—for example, the smart fridge that texts you when its cameras see you’re out of milk—leading many to say that it’s just information for information’s sake. There is much more to it than that, as Dr Alex Bazin, Head of IoT at Fujitsu, told me: ‘ The idea at the heart of the hyperconnected era is that by using data and tech, you can have bespoke products at a mass-produced cost. A good example of this is the smartphone. No two are alike, even when they’re identical models. Apps and tools allow a user to totally personalise it.’And you don’t need me to tell you how much of an impact the smartphone has had on city living.

Within the next few years, IoT could utterly change the morning routine. The alarm that wakes you might also alert your shower and your coffee machine to turn on. Software that brings together weather information, traffic alerts, transport timetables and your calendar will be able to plan the best route to your office. For businesses, sensors that monitor buildings and vehicles could schedule their own maintenance. Crops could notify an urban farmer when they’re ready to be harvested, and bins could tell the local council when they are full. In autonomous systems, we’ll see constant flows of information using IoT—driverless cars will communicate with each other, the road and the traffic signals, all without you realising it. This might sound rather far-fetched, but the technology is already here. There are just a few gaps that still need to be bridged.

If you’re wondering how far it could go, the answer is, nobody knows. There’s very little consensus on the scale of IoT use in cities, even on a short timescale. IT analysts Gartner predicted that by 2020, 25 billion things would be connected to the internet, but Cisco upped that to 50 billion. Morgan Stanley tops the list of IoT optimists—they once predicted the number of internet.connected things to reach 75 billion by 2020, equivalent to 11 online devices for every person on Earth. Whatever the final tally, with everything transmitting data all the time, our data networks will take a hammering. Just like water and waste pipes, networks are designed for a certain capacity (called bandwidth). Once you surpass that, things get messy, so we’re going to see some big changes. Instead of today’s simple sensors, tomorrow’s will be more like miniaturised computers—they’ll be able to process data locally and only send the essential stuff to where it’s needed. Even with that, some networks just won’t be reliable enough for IoT, so other radio-based technologies, independent of Wifi, 3G and fixed-line internet, are beginning to make their mark.

As well as bandwidth, all of these systems will need something even more important: power, and it may not come from the wall-socket. In 2015, a team of computer scientists and electrical engineers from the University of Washington announced that they had used Wifi to deliver electrical power to a range of devices, and to charge batteries from over 8.5m (28ft) away.* Earlier we talked about how Wifi uses radio waves to transmit data. Using a small electrical circuit, it’s possible to convert these radio waves into electrical energy. The researchers added this circuit to a temperature sensor and placed it near a standard Wifi router that transmits radio waves. The voltage they measured appeared in bursts—it was only there when the router was sending or receiving data. So they tricked the router into transmitting junk information on other channels whenever it was not being used. This produced a small, continuous voltage that was sufficient to power tiny cameras and battery chargers. The team also demonstrated their system, called Power over Wifi (PoWiFi) in six urban homes, and showed that harvesting power had no impact on the communication performance of the router. MIT Technology Review suggests that PoWiFi could be ‘ the enabling technology that finally brings the Internet of Things to life’, and I have to say, I’m inclined to agree with them. They’re not the only ones investigating this kind of technology—Nick Chrissos from Cisco told me about the fascinating work they’re doing on delivering electrical power to streetlamps using internet cables, which he described as a ‘ step-change in the evolution of utilities’. Watch this space.

Of course, the other major issue for anything IoT-related is security. Data sharing and privacy are already in the headlines; once we get to a stage where tens of billions of objects are potentially hackable, it’ll be a whole new ballgame. I don’t mean to totally freak you out, but very few IoT products have in-built security—they’re really only as secure as your home network, which isn’t very secure at all. In recent years, a number of white-hat (i.e. friendly) hackers have shown that home thermostats, baby monitors and TVs are all easily tapped into. For now at least, there’s very little valuable data being shared on these systems, but as soon as there is (say in driverless cars) we’ll be in trouble. We’re at a critical stage in the evolution of the Internet of Things—the potential applications are unbelievably exciting, but the security concerns are real and growing. The key is to stay one step ahead, and for that we’ll need lots of programmers and computer engineers. Hint to careers counsellors / students.

* Removing the need for wires in both power and communication was a long-held dream of Nikola Tesla.

Excerpted from Science and the City: The Mechanics Behind the Metropolis by Laurie Winkless. Copyright © Laurie Winkless 2016. Published by Bloomsbury Sigma, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing. Reprinted with permission.


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