This High-Tech City Is Showing the Rest of the World What the Future Looks Like
In the city of the future, you will never idle at an empty intersection waiting for a green light. When you run over a pothole on your street, you'll notify the city through a mobile app on your phone. You won't need to wait for a bus or subway, because the same city app will tell you exactly when the next one is arriving.
This is the promise of technology: that the efficient collection and centralized processing of data from citizens can improve city life. In the past two years, Glasgow, Scotland, has become the proving ground for that promise.
When Glasgow won a 24 million pound ($36 million) award from the UK Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK) in 2013 to improve the city, all of that money was earmarked for technology. Two years later, most of the grant money has been put toward a number of new apps, services and tracking systems to make the city safer, more energy efficient and higher functioning.
Whether or not these things actually improve the lives of Glasgow's citizens or systemic city problems, like crime and waste, has yet to be determined. But a number of large-scale projects have started to achieve the stated goal of making the city "safer, smarter and more sustainable."
Data overload. At the heart of the Future City Glasgow initiative is the central hub — the CCTV monitoring system collects information from residents and businesses around the city to monitor everything from safety to energy waste. While some people living in Glasgow were initially wary of the Big Brother shadings of such massive data collection, Future City Glasgow project program director Gary Walker told the Guardian in April that people are starting to see how the data can help.
"Change can be challenging — especially when you are driving something that appears to contradict everything you've had drummed into you for years," Walker said then. "As awareness of the hub grows, and we now have 400 datasets, people are more open — no pun intended — to the opportunities that shared data can offer their own organizations and the city as a whole."
The hub enables the city to gather and monitor information in real-time, from energy levels in individual buildings to areas of the city where crime is occurring. CCTV workers can see data from traffic sensors placed under the surface of city roads and control traffic lights to reduce congestion.
It, in turn, enables citizens to directly communicate with government operations and officials online via mobile apps like MyGlasgow and Glasgow Cycling. Residents can log in to MyGlasgow and submit complaints about potholes the moment they see them (or the moment after they've failed to see them). This kind of instant communication eliminates layers of bureaucracy that would otherwise exist when trying to make repairs to infrastructure in any city.
Bike, don't drive. As cities continue to look for more environmentally-friendly transportation alternatives, many — including Glasgow — are investing in infrastructure to support cyclists. The Glasgow Cycling app is growing the city's bike network by crowdsourcing information from its riders. Any resident can download the app and submit cycling routes with details of distance traveled, time taken and average speed on the route.
Riders can rank routes on a 1-to-5 scale, helping future bikers decide which path is best for their level of experience and type of ride. The app also includes a map for riders to locate bike parking around the city, shops for last-minute repairs and cycling organizations.
By getting riders to submit their own information, the app is helping the city's bike community grow as a social network that connects riders both on and offline. With information about broken down or unsafe routes, the city knows where to spend money to fix them for its riders.
Cycling Scotland, an organization that works to make biking more accessible for everyone in the country, be that through events, races or supporting the improvement of infrastructure in individual towns and cities, has taken notice of Glasgow's efforts. Chief Executive Keith Irving thinks the app could be used as a model if it ends up working well for the city.
"All councils should be increasing monitoring of cycling levels, and, more importantly, identifying where maintenance, missing links and improved infrastructure could be made to encourage more people to cycle," Irving told Mic. "We hope [the app] will be successful, and could feature as a best practice to be copied across the country."
The city is already starting to notice an impact. There are 1,211 people using the cycling app, and they've logged 1,393 routes so far. While it wasn't introduced until after the grant, bike rides into Glasgow's city center have risen by 207% since 2007, from 3,012 to 9,255 per day, according to the Glasgow City Council.
At this point, the systems Glasgow has implemented with the funding are still in the testing phase. The apps and data hub are starting to connect citizens with technology more than ever before, changing the way they use energy, get around the city and interact with one another. The city is monitoring the progress of the various Future City Glasgow projects both internally through its government and externally through market research company Bright Blue Research, formerly MRUK.
To be sure, not all of the project's initiatives will be resounding successes. But with the wealth of data being collected, Glasgow can learn and help lead the way toward a future of increasingly smart cities.