Smart cities may be a key natural disaster resource

Cities around the world now have smart features — and some more than others. The world is also becoming more urban in general. In 1800, only three percent of people lived in urban areas. In the 1950s, around 29 percent lived in cities. Today, over 50 percent of the population lives in cities. The UN predicts that by the year 2050 68 percent of the population will live in urban centers.

So many buildings so close together and millions of people living in close proximity brings some issues when natural disasters arise. An earthquake might devastate the structure of a city and leave thousands missing and buried in the rubble. A flood doesn’t just strand a few random homeowners on rooftops, but instead stops traffic for millions. The solution to these issues may lie in the structure of a smart city and the preventive and responsive measures available because of modern technology.

There are many ways in which smart cities can help citizens and leadership prepare for and stay organized during natural disasters, and get resources to those in need.

1. Tracking the Environment

One of the key parts of a smart city is monitoring of the environment. Behind the scenes, city managers monitor elements such as pollution levels, water runoff and even sewage system overflows. Following a natural disaster, getting these essential functions back up and running is a vital part of keeping a city habitable.

An unfixed overflowing sewage system quickly results in disease and filth in the city. This one element alone makes a city healthier with or without a natural disaster. Crews can quickly be dispatched to problem areas, as the entire system monitors which areas of the city are functioning at full capacity and which need attention.

Copenhagen is known as one of the most advanced smart cities. They utilize an IT infrastructure to track elements such as their storm drains. If a drain becomes clogged, a signal alerts the sanitation department, which then removes the debris before it clogs the storm drains and causes flooding during the next heavy rain.

2. Better Tracking of Infrastructure

Another way smart cities can prevent loss of life during natural disasters is through tracking infrastructure. In older cities, many buildings are in disrepair. If an earthquake, hurricane or tornado hits those buildings, the loss of life, plus the financial hit, is often catastrophic.

In a smart city, sensors identify any buildings not up to code. These systems can then initiate repairs before disaster strikes. Preemptive repairs can help a city recover from a crisis faster and better withstand the force of natural elements.

3. Reducing Response Times

Several cities now utilize One Concern to assess damages and dispatch response crews via artificial intelligence. Cities using this system include Los Angeles and San Francisco. Rather than only monitoring one element of the town, the infrastructure monitors multiple services and collects data on a block-by-block level. Many times, local fire departments work with infrastructure data after a disaster, such as an earthquake.

The system showed an 85% accuracy for damage prediction within 15 minutes. Assessing the situation this quickly allows the city to get help where it’s most needed without delays.

Los Angeles increases the response time of emergency vehicles through work with the fire department and One Concern technology. In a megacity, response times are occasionally slow. The new smart features used with this system allow responders to get help where it’s needed much faster, reducing response time and saving lives.

4. Tapping Into Information

One of the most significant advantages of a smart city is the connectivity of its citizens. Apps such as Lantern Live allow users to look up information during a disaster. For example, if you need gasoline, you can look up which gas stations near you are still operating. You can also check power outage maps and find someplace to go to get warm or charge your electronic devices.

Users also have the opportunity to mark themselves safe via social media such as Facebook, so family and friends outside the immediate area know not to worry even when outside communication is a challenge.

5. Protecting Bridges and Dams

Not all disasters are from earthquakes and similar act-of-God events. There are times when bridges, dams and other city infrastructure fails. In a new and revamped building, developers should embed strain gauge sensors inside concrete to track stress and loads and predict repairs.

Adding sensors notifies the city engineers of a problem before the structure fails, and crews can then repair or replace failing elements to keep residents safe from harm.

The Urban Flood Project was funded by the European Union to address the monitoring of flood defense assets through sensor technology. Some of the initial cities using this technology include Amsterdam, Boston in the United Kingdom and the River Rhine in Germany.

6. Designing for Community

Planning smart urban areas creates a sense of togetherness and community that lends itself to times of need. Picture the last natural disaster you witnessed on television. Who went out on the boats and saved the flood victims after a hurricane? It was neighboring states and rescue professionals from around the country.

During times of disaster, a community that is already connected is more likely to come together to share resources and connect through existing technologies.

7. Reducing Environmental Damage

Smart cities reduce the pollution put into the air and often reduce the carbon footprint of everyone living there. Close monitoring means the city only uses what’s needed. In addition, a smart city may inform citizens of their usage and make suggestions for improvement.

Think about a smart office building as an example. Perhaps the lights in the bathrooms are smart and only turn on when someone is actually in the bathroom, saving electricity. Each worker’s personal preferences are trackable, and heating and cooling is adjusted to suit their needs and also conserve energy.

Reducing the impact each person in the city has on the environment protects our world for future generations and may prevent future disasters. City planners are also creating sustainable designs that consider the natural landscape and any changing climate concerns.

8. Keeping Communication Running

One major issue during hurricanes and other natural disasters is a loss of communication. People can’t see if their loved ones are okay, call for help or even get updates on outside conditions. For example, when Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey in 2012, the power went out followed by the cell towers. One of the reasons cell service went out had to do with low fuel for the backup generators. However, with an interconnected smart system, those in charge already know fuel is low and can replenish it before it runs out.

Smart Cities for the Future

Some people still aren’t sold on the investment in smart city technology, but as the world becomes more and more connected to the Internet of Things, expect to see cities everywhere get on board and begin adding some of the underlying infrastructure necessary to connect everyone and everything, for the benefit of all.

*) Header: Waterway to prevent flooding. Source: Shutterstock.
**) This article was written by Kayla Matthews (kaylaematthews@gmail.com), tech journalist and writer.

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