Chris Shannon, CEO, Fotech Solutions, explains how the world’s fastest-growing city, Suzhou, in China, is working with Houston in the US to increase industrial innovation and investment in both cities – and what they can take from an autonomous vehicle trial in Calgary, Canada, to understand and improve essential infrastructure.

Located just 75 miles west of Shanghai, Suzhou is mostly known for its sprawling, Venetian-like canals, ornate bridges and classical botanical gardens. Today, it tops the list of the world’s fastest growing cities.

With an estimated population of 5.25 million Suzhou is growing at an annual rate of 5.57%, as more and more people leave the surrounding countryside to take up residence in the city. Earlier this year, the city signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Houston, Texas in the US to help spur industrial and innovation investment in both cities.

Globally, it’s estimated that as many as 3 million people move into cities every week. And growing migration patterns to urbanised areas shows no signs of abating. According to recent projections by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), 68% of the global population will reside in cities by the year 2050.

Public-private partnerships

With cities around the world facing an influx of new residents, the pressure is on to adapt infrastructures to accommodate for such rapid growth. But, reliant on legacy systems and limited by publicly financed budgets, many cities are just not able to self-fund the digitalisation of their infrastructures. Without private investment, municipalities cannot respond to the challenges they face.

As a result, governments have been turning to the private sector to help them prepare for, and keep pace with, the rate of change. And public-private-partnerships (PPP) — such as the one between Suzhou and Houston, which includes input from CUBIC and Chinese non-profit Jiangsu Industrial Technology Research (JITRI) — appear to be the best way forward.

Through joint ventures, private companies and municipalities are looking to technology to improve the efficiency of everything from traffic management to property development, and power supply to energy use. By replacing legacy systems and moving toward digital transformation — which will ease congestion fears, reduce the potential for economic stagnation and loss, and raise the general living standard — cities will be able to respond to the challenges faced by mass urbanisation trends.

Investment and collaboration

One such recent example of a city enlisting the help of private sector partners on a smart city project took place in Calgary, With the collaboration committed to trialling the efficacy of autonomous vehicles.

Of the multitude of factors driving smart city initiatives, traffic management is one of the most important aspects of development. When it comes to legacy infrastructure, transport is one such system in major need of a digital revamp. A major drawback of traditional traffic management networks is that they’re based on standardised timing and are programmed using historical traffic data.

And the technology in use — such as cameras, over-roadway sensors and inductive loop detectors — is no longer able to provide fast and dynamic responses to irregular events like accidents, roadworks, construction or redevelopment. So, when the pre-programmed flow is disrupted, the consequence is a ripple effect that results in delays.

In Calgary, the trial allowed citizens and automated vehicle operators to familiarise themselves with connected vehicles. For the city, it provided insight into how they might augment their highways and digitalise their public transport in the near future. During the course of the trial they analysed the movement of both pedestrians and vehicles, with a view to supporting shorter travel times and ensuring safety for emergency vehicles.

The site of the pilot test — which saw visitors shuttled between attractions including the Calgary Zoo and Telus Spark Science Centre — was an established connected vehicle test-bed on 16th Avenue N and spanned 12 intersections. As a partner on the project, alongside other stakeholders, we deployed our state-of-the-art distributed acoustic sensing (DAS) technology into the fibre optic cables installed along the entire route that the vehicle travelled.

The technology uses existing fibre optic networks to enable real-time monitoring of traffic flows, rather than relying on wireless technology. Road traffic generates acoustic and seismic data, and DAS is able to recognise and detect these signatures — turning fibre optic cables into a network of sophisticated acoustic sensors.

Chris Shannon

By augmenting fibre optic cables, the software provides city authorities with real-time data streams of their entire road systems and enables them to track traffic and public transport infrastructure — allowing them to analyse the speed and density of traffic, pinpoint congestion and identify disruptions.

The future of smart cities

While other such trials have taken place, many potential collaborations remained locked in the negotiation stage. This is often due to the competitive and complex nature of smart city projects, and the lack of clarity that surrounds private-public relationships. And when it comes to something as important as the future of transport, this becomes especially difficult.

The truth is that to adequately digitalise their infrastructures, cities are reliant on the support of private and non-profit partners to address their digitalisation agendas. What the Calgary automated vehicle trial shows us is that successful public-private-partnerships that combine the innovation of technology companies with government departments can deliver huge public-service benefits. In order to fully realise the potential of smart cities — and accelerate the much-needed digitalisation of city infrastructures in response to the challenges of mass urbanisation — going forward, such partnerships are going to be essential.

For more information see Fotech Solutions 

The author of this blog is Chris Shannon, CEO, Fotech Solutions

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