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  • The next big trends for digital cities

    Written by Jeff McCann, director of the Customer Solution Centers at the Innovation Labs at Dell Technologies Ireland.

    What do we think of when we think of digital cities?  Some may think about a distant future where autonomous vehicles and drones shape our transport systems and human-machine partnerships shape how we live and work.

    The truth is that most of us, already, live in cities increasingly framed by data and technology. From clever waste management systems, such as solar-powered smart bins, to real-time information regarding public transport and air quality, digital cities have begun to emerge in recent years, including here in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is internationally recognised as a leader in smart cities and, in 2020, Belfast joined 35 cities from around the world to pioneer a new global policy roadmap for the responsible adoption of new technology as part of the World Economic Forum’s G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance.

    However, we are now faced with a unique opportunity to fuel the development of digital cities across Northern Ireland that meet the needs of today and tomorrow. Exciting new developments in 5G, AI, IoT and Edge Computing are unlocking new opportunities. And with digital cities expected to generate $20 trillion (€16.8 trillion) globally by 2026, now is the time to think about how we can harness the benefits of these technologies to build digital cities that are drivers of economic recovery and growth.

    Digitalisation & sustainability

    As we look ahead to the future of urban areas, it is clear that two major trends will shape Northern Ireland’s direction when it comes to the cities of tomorrow – digitalisation and climate change. It is at the intersection of these two trends that many of the opportunities for making our cities smarter will meet.

    For example, as organisations embrace hybrid working with many people continuing to work outside the office, the use of IoT smart sensors can help lesser populated city buildings to adjust their power consumption to the needs of the grid and match energy use to occupancy. We’re already seeing this in action with some large-scale electricity users who use IT to reduce their energy consumption when the grid is under pressure.

    Developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) can also help drive energy efficiency in most factories and production facilities. From helping to forecast energy demand and consumption, and scheduling power-intensive tasks accordingly, to providing insights to reduce the need for heating and cooling, AI is shaping the sustainable development of Industry 4.0.    

    Digital cities can also build on these improvements in energy efficiency by building homes that use technology to generate their own electricity from wind and solar and sell any excess back to the grid. Government support in Northern Ireland for microgeneration is an important component in incentivising people to avail of new technologies to create truly sustainable digital cities.

    In transport, reducing emissions need not just be a matter of reducing the number of cars on the road. Car use is high in Northern Ireland, with 70% of all journeys made by car, although public transport is more popular in larger urban spaces. Automated tolling systems, intelligent traffic lights and intelligent fleet management solutions open up the possibility of cities being able to tackle congestion and roll-out new smart public transport options. The variable speed limits visible on some motorways in Northern Ireland are examples of this kind of intelligent  automation already in action.

    An inclusive city

    The convergence of AI, IoT and Cloud technologies is also helping to ensure that a digital city can also be an inclusive one.

    With over 300,000 people in Northern Ireland aged 65 and above, smart assistive technologies can provide better support and help people live independently in their own homes for longer.

    Dell Technologies Customer Solution Centre Innovation Lab in Limerick, Ireland has been working closely with healthcare providers to apply new technologies to enable the better management of chronic illnesses such as type 1 diabetes. This could help to lead to broader changes in how healthcare is provided in digital cities – shifting focus from reactive, acute care to proactive and preventative care in the community. 

    Inclusive digital cities cannot be forged by technology alone. They need people with the tools to apply new technologies to provide care in the community.

    We’ve recently teamed up with Ireland’s HSE to launch the ‘Digital Futures in Healthcare’ diploma, a new educational programme which will provide the knowledge to adopt technologies within healthcare settings. By supporting the HSE to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by connected health and personalised health solutions, the programme can help improve the quality and convenience of healthcare in our cities.

    Laying the right foundations

    Of course, in order to bring digital cities to life in Northern Ireland, the right foundations need to be in place.

    At the very centre of that foundation must be data. From connected healthcare and traffic monitoring through to virtual citizen services, digital cities will need to process a growing bank of data at a speed not seen before.

    5G offers the potential for enhanced connectivity to enable new use cases as part of wider digital city initiatives. As many IoT sensors and connected devices are likely to be located in difficult to reach places, 5G wireless connectivity will allow for more flexible design and on-the-fly reconfiguration.

    However, next-generation AI-based solutions will demand more computational power and require data to be processed at ‘the edge’, on devices that are closer to the users of real-time AI applications. With  the International Data Corporation (IDC) predicting that there will be an 800pc increase in apps at the edge by 2024, businesses and public sector bodies will need to look at how they can unlock the value of data at the edge so it enhances the lives of those within digital cities.

    The last 19 months have shown us how quickly society can transform through necessity. Now as we move towards recovery, let’s maintain that momentum to transform the places where over 65% of Northern Ireland’s population lives – our cities. By harnessing the power of data and new technologies with a security-first approach, we can build digital cities that fuel economic growth and provide a higher quality of life for their citizens.   

    About the author

    Aoife is a Sync NI writer with a previous background working in print, online and broadcast media. She has a keen interest in all things tech related. To connect with Aoife feel free to send her an email or connect on LinkedIn.

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