Utilities in the Smart City

21/07/2016 15:05 | Updated 21 July 2016

As our cities grow, so do the demands on their infrastructure. More people require a greater volume of housing, better transport, extra amenities and, perhaps most fundamentally, more of the vital stuff that's required by each and every citizen and service - electricity, gas and water.

But there's a problem when it comes to increasing the capacity of our utility networks. The bulk of the modern urban environment is already built. Look around most cities -- whether it's an erratic old medieval settlement like Prague or a modern ordered grid like Chicago -- it's simply not feasible to rip out utility infrastructure to build new. To do so would be invasive, and, in all honesty, prohibitively expensive.

There is, however, another way. Much progress can be made by making existing utilities infrastructure more efficient, making better use of what it can already provide, accurately forecasting future usage, and ensuring that it's maintained intelligently. To do so simply requires us to have a clear understanding of existing capacities, how the infrastructure operates, and the ways in which it's used.

The easiest way to achieve that is to introduce a layer of digital intelligence: fitting buildings with sensors and meters to measure energy use and efficiency, and monitoring supply networks to identify faults and losses. These systems can provide data which allows us to understand utility use at the macro- and micro-level, providing insight about how people actually use services and how the networks operate in real time.

Utility companies are already aware of at least some of the power that this kind of sensing can provide, because it's fundamental to the concept of the 'smart grid.' Electricity companies are increasingly able to predict -- and meet -- demand more effectively as a result. Yet many of the greatest gains are to be realised not by optimising single infrastructures, but instead by integrating approaches across multiple utilities.

Some of the projects we're working on at Future Cities Catapult are demonstrating the potential for collaboration across the utilities sector. With Amey, for instance, we're designing and testing a new spatial planning service across Staffordshire that will enable utility companies to identify where maintenance is most required. In turn, that will create opportunities for collaborative works performed by multiple companies at once, saving time, money and disruption.

The idea may remind you of a popular beer advert from the 1990s, where labourers took the seemingly unusual step of co-ordinating their work to minimise public upheaval. They were clearly onto something.

Elsewhere, we've been working with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority to develop a prototype tool to rate infrastructure capacity and simulate how new developments reduce that capacity over time. Using information from the city's Open Data Infrastructure map, it shows utility assets and long-term development sites. By working with developers and city councils, utility companies would be able to better forecast future demand and plan accordingly.

These are wonderful examples of the possibilities for utility companies in smart cities, but they will require shifts in thinking and operation to achieve. Perhaps most importantly, such progress will require utility companies to embrace a collaborative approach to working. With new smart systems installed within buildings and infrastructure, there is a risk of intermediaries providing services for consumers -- bundling utility provision for customers, for instance -- which providers themselves would have to respond to.

But it's not just utility companies that might need convincing. In 2009, the Dutch government made a swift U-turn on installing smart meters around the country following complaints that their deployment represented an invasion of privacy. To avoid such problems in the future, utility companies must ensure that new data acquisition systems are explained more accurately or, even better, co-created with citizens so that people feel a sense of ownership and of the collective benefit, rather than seeing them as oppressive top-down social engineering.

Finally, regulators -- who set the commercial boundaries for utilities -- need to recognise the city as an entity. In the past, rules have been set at the regional or national level, but cities, with their density of infrastructure, provide the perfect environment for integrated utility services to be tested. Regulators must recognise this and shape their guidelines in order to allow this vital innovation to occur. The recent report 'Towards a Smart Energy City: mapping a path for Bristol' stressed that regulators don't adequately consider the city scale. This must change.

There is, clearly, some way to go before the full advantage of digital systems is felt in the supply of our utilities. But other sectors -- such as transport, banking and retail -- have already whole-heartedly embraced smart systems, transforming the services they can offer to the public in the process. It's time for utilities to catch up.