Smart city technology has the potential to improve key quality of life factors for city residents.
Ongoing research suggests that smart city initiatives are improving quality of life (QOL) for urban residents — often in non-trivial ways. In 2018, the McKinsey Global Institute analyzed dozens of smart city applications across 50 cities and discovered that such initiatives can improve urban QOL by as much as 10-30%. McKinsey’s analysis looked at applications like predictive policing, intelligent traffic signals, smart parking, and data-driven public health interventions.
Clearly, the advantages of “smart” initiatives go beyond cost savings and efficiency improvements. When implemented strategically, emerging technologies can have a measurable impact on qualitative factors as well. Smart city technology is already starting to change lives for the better, and more change is on the way. To drive ROI against QOL metrics, municipal planners and city agencies must give them as much attention as they do factors like energy use and air quality.
Why Quality of Life Matters
Quality of life doesn’t measure just one aspect of urban living — from the time residents spend sitting in traffic, to how safe they feel walking around downtown, the metric has many dimensions. Although there is no one agreed-upon rubric for QOL, a number of organizations have used a mix of both objective and subjective factors to define the concept.
For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) proposes its WHOQOL as an international, cross-cultural assessment. This measure emphasizes health-related statistics, including safety, recreation, traffic, pollution, transportation, mobility, and community support. Similarly, a 2018 study in Journal of Cleaner Production identified four main domains that could make up QOL — societal services and structuring, environmental health, material well-being, and community.
Each year, many organizations rank the most livable cities. The U.S. News & World Report 2018 quality of life index ranked cities based on factors like affordability, job prospects, and well-being. Austin, TX topped the list, followed by Colorado Springs, CO., and Denver, CO. The crowd-sourced site Numbeo collects data on QOL factors like cost of living, pollution, crime rates, healthcare quality, and commute length. By these measures, Raleigh, NC., Madison, WI., and Dallas, TX., top the list of most livable cities.
Mercer, a global HR consultancy firm, creates a yearly QOL index, analyzing and ranking cities worldwide for factors like recreation, health, the availability of consumer goods, public services, and transportation. Topping Mercer’s list are Vienna, Austria, and Zürich, Switzerland.
And of course, it’s possible to rank the least livable cities, based on factors like median home value, poverty rate, crime, infrastructure, and education. By some stats, the least livable cities include Salt Lake City, UT. and Atlanta, GA. — largely due to elevated crime rates — along with economically depressed cities like Baltimore, MD., and Cleveland, OH.
Of course, the vast majority of cities fall somewhere in the middle — and these could very well be the cities with the most potential to improve through smart city initiatives. A positive quality of life means more than happy residents. It means attracting new residents, retaining high-value ones, and preventing “brain drain.” It likewise contributes to lower costs related to health care and utilities. Ideally, creating a high quality of life will even boost a city’s economic prospects.
Smart City Technology and QOL
Smart city initiatives establish intelligent networks of connected assets that allow cities to better understand and provide for their citizens’ wants and needs. From public services like energy delivery, transportation, and internet connectivity to infrastructure systems like parks, roadways, and housing, America’s cities are responsible for a wealth of urban “ingredients” that impact their citizenry’s quality of life.
- Security: Residents want to feel safe, and high crime can tank QOL assessments. McKinsey found that smart city technology could have a major impact on safety, lowering urban fatalities from homicide, traffic accidents, and fires by 8-10%. Already used in 90 U.S. cities, gunshot detection sensors, when configured for immediate police response, can play a major role in lowering crime. Similarly, fire fighting smart tools could incorporate sensor data, aerial videos, digital building plans, and other relevant info to enable faster, more effective rescue operations.
- Disaster Protection: Every year, cities are damaged by natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, and fires. But sensors can help protect residents before, during, and after these events, and in some cases prevent the worst effects of the disaster altogether. For example, water management system sensors can alert authorities to clogged storm drains and sewers before a large storm. Buenos Aires already has such a system in place.
- Public Transportation: An effective public transportation system can tip the scales for livability. For instance, with the right array of sensors, digital signage, and mobile interoperability, subway systems can coordinate service and provide time estimates and alerts to riders. As noted in Forbes India, for the many Indian cities with no current public transportation to speak of, new data-enabled systems could be transformative from the ground up, easing congestion and air pollution, and improving QOL for millions.
- Reduced Commute Time: Commute time is a daily part of life — and all that time in traffic adds up. Large cities, from Seoul to Los Angeles, have to move an extraordinary number of people twice a day. McKinsey found that cities with smart mobility tools could actually ease congestion and mitigate traffic, potentially cutting commute times by up to 20%. Along with intelligent traffic signals and real-time navigation alerts, simple measures like smart parking, as recently implemented in Athens, can inform motorists of open spots and help with overall congestion.
- Improved Utilities: Low utility costs, clean air and water, and effective waste management are easy to take for granted, but citizens definitely notice if there is a problem. With more pressure on these services than ever, IoT devices can offer highly effective solutions. Smart water systems can reduce consumption and leaks, while water sensors could detect dangerous substances — like toxic algae, heavy metals, and even explosives — and enable immediate response. And although Great Britain’s ambitious smart meter rollout fell behind schedule, millions have been installed, some 80% are happy with the choice, and all that utility data will help save energy and improve air quality.
- Repairs and Maintenance: Municipal repairs might not top the list of QOL measures, but they can make a difference. Unrepaired infrastructure like potholes, broken street lights, and fallen traffic signs can pose nuisances (and even dangers) — and can depress both the value and charm of a neighborhood. In this case, sensors on smart city infrastructure like bridges and streetlights could automatically send maintenance requests to a centralized repair agency. Similarly, citizens could proactively report repair issues using a city app. The residents of Trikala, Greece, have already seen these benefits in action.
- Health: The IoT could be a breakthrough for citizen health. Emergency response procedures could be streamlined: sensors within the urban landscape could detect events like car accidents and immediately dispatch the appropriate emergency services. EMS teams and hospitals could be more effective if they have faster, more complete access to relevant patient data. Smart city technology could also enhance preventative health measures. For instance, Beijing reduced air pollution by 20% in about a year by leveraging sensor data about pollution sources and traffic.
- Leisure and Culture: It’s easy to consider cultural and recreational activities as the “subjective” measures of city living. But in fact, these activities are comparatively measurable, especially with the right data collection. For instance, a NYC Park Department pilot initiative measures pedestrian usage in a Bronx park, to assess whether programming and infrastructure changes are having a positive impact. Performances, festivals, museums, and music are all crucial to QOL, and better data can help cities improve such events.
- Cost of Living: The McKinsey report found that with the right initiatives, cost of living can be reduced by between 1% and 3%. By improving the efficiency of train schedules, cities can reduce transportation costs; smart meter initiatives can reduce home energy expenditures; and smart city technology designed to address things like air quality can have a positive impact on healthcare costs. In addition, digitizing processes like land acquisition, environmental studies, and permitting could encourage faster housing construction and supply, potentially bringing down rental costs.
- Public Participation: Although a “subjective” measure of QOL, the ability to publicly participate in municipal matters can make a difference in terms of how residents view their overall experience of a city. In Santa Monica, city authorities are actually using an app to measure public opinion on everything from street furniture to new buildings. For many citizens, this represents a massive improvement over typical bureaucratic processes and likewise creates yet another valuable data source for municipal agencies.
Developing a Smart City Platform
For many of the above smart city solutions, the power of this improved data collection is that it can be made actionable. City officials and workers can view the data immediately and respond appropriately. But that raises some questions — how will the right people actually collect and view that data? Can that happen quickly enough to make a difference? For instance, if the streets are about to overflow, the flood prevention team needs mobile access to the rapidly changing information coming from an array of sewer sensors. For cities hoping to truly leverage smart city technology, it’s not enough to install sensors and collect data for historical analysis. Departments and agencies need tools that help them use all that data in real-time, while it’s still actually useful.
That means implementing software solutions designed to provide better situational awareness and, most importantly, make data actionable. With the right platform, officials can integrate all relevant sources of data, share that visibility across their team, stay on top of changes and alerts, and make better decisions. This can mean everything from better train service to more efficient workflows for repairmen to better parking availability. And in the hands of emergency services, real-time insights can save lives. Truly smart cities will address quality of life with as much care as they do cost controls, and to make a real impact on QOL, cities will need to start with actionable data and real-time situational awareness.