Imagine a city in which buildings alert you when they need repair, there is Wi-Fi on every street corner, sensors tell the garbage trucks where, when and how often to collect, and where data is analyzed in a way that tells us which streets are more likely to be crime hotspots based upon traffic and movement. These are just a few examples of the things we could hope to see in a connected “smart city.”
Smart cities, however, do not exist in a vacuum. At the heart of smart cities are smart institutions of higher education. These institutions prepare students to live, work and innovate in a smart city. They can also act as testing grounds for new ideas, projects and experiments. By seeking out certain opportunities, universities can play a pivotal role in the success of any smart city.
What Are Smart Cities?
The term smart city describes communities that integrate technology, research and data in unique and useful ways in order to boost economic growth, efficiency, sustainability, and quality of life. Sometimes this can be as simple as offering hot spots and online tools to help users to easily pay utility bills, find restaurants or look up transportation schedules. It could also mean installing sensors and monitoring systems to gather data on everything from rainfall to traffic patterns to crime in order to improve the quality of life for residents.
The smart city idea has caught the attention of the U.S. government. A year ago, President Barack Obama’s Administration announced a $160 million “Smart Cities Initiative.” It included grants and investments to help communities, in partnership with universities and industries, find new solutions to safety, energy, climate preparedness, health and more.
Smart city technology is a growing trend. According to the analyst firm Statista, we will see 3.33 billion connected devices in smart cities by 2018, and technology research firm Gartner predicts that roughly two thirds of devices will be consumer-owned items. As the population grows, so does the ability to collect more data and the city to become smarter, in theory.
Like anything, cities will require an “internet of things” strategy backed by not just smart technology, but smart people. That’s where higher education comes in. Here are some ways higher education institutions can become involved in creating smart cities.
Create a digital campus. The Collabco white paper, “From digital student to smart citizen,” discusses how urbanization and the growth of smart cities are driving the digitization of higher education. According to the authors, “Higher education institutions are intertwined with the future of our cities, it’s imperative that they digitize too. Only by doing so, can they continue to provide a highly skilled, digitally-savvy workforce, world leading research, technological innovation and business support that makes them so central to success – not just of the city, but of the wider global economy.“
Digital campuses offer apps and technology to help students get their work done, stay on track and stay connected to their campus. For example, the university could offer a student portal that allows students to access all relevant content such as schedules, online classrooms, social media, news and even laundry or bus schedules all in one web site or app. Just like smart cities connect infrastructure systems or other services, a university can do the same for students.
Students have come to expect digitization. By offering a digital campus, colleges and universities will be able to attract and retain more students, keep them engaged, and help prepare them to live and work in a digital world.
Become a testing ground for smart city projects. One example of this is mentioned in the above mentioned white paper. In a joint initiative with Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Chicago placed 20 sensor nodes on the campuses of the University of Chicago and Northeastern Illinois University to measure sound, light, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, vibration and air quality. Now the program is expanding more widely throughout the city. The uses for the data could potentially include informing decisions on traffic controls, air quality and flooding issues, among others.
Colleges and universities are essentially mini cities. They may have their own transportation systems, housing developments and perhaps even their own electricity and water systems. Therefore they are perfect testing grounds for larger-scale initiatives. Universities should take advantage of these opportunities. This will help the cities and provide students with valuable skills.
Create a smart ecosystem with the city. Universities produce a creative and highly skilled workforce and they provide a way to test smart city technology. This can lead to City leaders employing the students who have been part of the testing in jobs that make cities smarter. The symbiotic relationship is a win for both cities and universities. A forward-thinking, technology-centered city can provide exciting projects and courses for universities. Students can work on these projects to make smart cities even smarter. This improves the reputation of the university which will attract new students.
The rise of smart cities brings many new opportunities for higher education, and the students they serve. Universities must work in close collaboration with city leaders and businesses to develop and test new smart city technologies, turn ideas into prototypes and unlock and analyze urban data for the good of citizens. The result will be a city that is attractive to work and live in and is driven by a strong knowledge economy. Universities that offer their students a 21st Century digital experience will graduate individuals who become smart citizens.