Mega Smarts for Megacities

As urban populations grow, cities need to build smarter, more resilient, and more sustainable infrastructure.

Mega Smart Infrastructure for Megacities of the Future

The view outside your window can change the way you look at the world. For most of the population of North America, Latin America, and Europe, the scene outside the kitchen window is urban. Half the people in Asia—and nearly 60% in Africa—still look out on a rural world, but that view may soon change.1,2

Urbanization produces prosperity for nations and for individuals. Cities account for 80% of the world’s gross domestic product,3 and there is a strong link between urbanization and wealth. Despite persistent problems of economic inequality, predominantly urban countries are richer. Their populations enjoy a higher standard of living, with more access to electricity, better water quality and sanitation, and lower levels of child malnutrition.4

Of course, growing cities require investment of all kinds, but especially in infrastructure: water, sanitation, electricity, roadways, and mass transportation. Unfortunately, investment is not yet up to an optimal level. The Global Infrastructure Hub estimates that $15 trillion in investment for infrastructure is needed to keep pace with current trends.5 The challenges of a changing climate may make that number even higher. It isn’t just fast-growing urban centers that need help. As the World Economic Forum puts it, “Infrastructure systems remain among the least digitally transformed in the entire global economy. Many modern infrastructure assets have been designed, built, operated, and maintained in much the same way for decades, despite enormous strides in innovation across sectors.”6 Fortunately, those same strides mean that, with investment, urban areas are going to have smaller climate impacts and, at the same time, be easier to live in.

An infographic with the definition of various types of cities and their population sizes.

Driving Smarter

Cities need numerous infrastructure improvements, but one of the most important ones is smart-city innovation. Despite the high-tech name, a smart city is based on a simple concept: using digital technology to improve urban life. The concept itself is simple, but its execution is more complex. It requires extensive digital infrastructure, and while some of that is already in place, cities will also need new technologies such as AI, the Internet of Things, and 5G. Deploying those technologies will require digital solutions made possible by advanced fluoropolymers such as Teflon™: cables capable of expanded data flow, widely distributed sensors, and high-speed computer chips by the barrelful.

While cities have digital work to do, the benefits are considerable. Consider congestion, one of the main drawbacks of urban life, and spare a thought for commuters in Bogotá, Colombia. They lose 272 hours per year to traffic—but traffic isn’t limited to any one region. Boston drivers spend 164 hours per year sitting in traffic.

Drivers in Dallas, Texas, however, have a different experience. Smart traffic systems analyze data from state and county agencies, law enforcement, and fire departments in order to optimize traffic in real time. By changing one-way lanes, rerouting traffic away from accidents, retiming traffic lights, and altering high-occupancy-vehicle lane pricing, the smart traffic system helps save Dallas drivers nearly 90 hours in traffic per year compared to drivers in Boston.7

Smart traffic technology can also help cities maintain themselves. In cars, sensors that depend on Teflon™ for fast, reliable data connections, will start to communicate with smart traffic systems to provide even better data. Buses in Pittsburgh carry sensors that transmit signals on traffic conditions. They also have a side benefit: helping assess Pittsburgh’s hundreds of bridges. As Jesse Berst, founder and chair of the Smart Cities Council, says, the buses “have vibration sensors, so as they go over a bridge, they notice and pick up if there’s a difference in vibration. That is then analyzed, and experts know to go inspect that bridge, to avoid collapse.”

Lighting Smarter

Traffic isn’t the only place cities are getting smarter. Cities are finding new ways to use light to reduce emissions and help with operations. The simple step of installing LED bulbs in streetlights can cut energy use and emissions dramatically even as it reduces, “for a typical city, the energy bill by millions of dollars every year,” according to Berst. The next step is to make those streetlights smart by adding in smart communications nodes that dim the bulbs when no one is present, alert maintenance when bulbs are out, and flash them to lead emergency personnel to where they are needed.

1 “Long-term impact of current trends in the economic, social and environmental areas on the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals.” United Nations Economic and Social Council, Report of the Secretary-General. United Nations, 3 May 2019.
2 Key Facts.” World Urbanization Project: 2018 Revision. United Nations, 16 May 2018.
3 Ibid.
4 Ritchie, Hannah et al. “Urbanization.” Our World in Data, September 2018.
5 “Global Infrastructure Outlook.” Global Infrastructure Outlook, June 2018.
6 George, Anita et al. “The World is Facing a $15 Trillion Infrastructure Gap by 2040. Here’s How to Bridge It.” World Economic Forum, 11 April 2019.
7“INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard.” INRIX, February 2019.