Building the Senseable City

The Internet of Things will transform construction in urban areas

By 2050, around 70% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities, according to the United Nations,, and urbanization isn’t the only shift on the horizon for the world’s cities. The IoT (Internet of Things) is increasingly allowing cities to offer the kind of high-quality lifestyle and vibrant economic climate that attracts the right residents, businesses, and visitors alike.

Sensors have transformed the way citizens live, work, and play. From smartphones to smart meters and smart streetlights, connected devices are delivering greater conveniences, comforts, and efficiencies. In the industrial sector, too, sensor-enabled automation has the potential to virtually eliminate human error, thereby delivering greater throughput and higher ROI (return on investment), and open doors for predictive maintenance.

Laila Salman, lead application engineer at ANSYS,, a provider of engineering simulation software, says wireless technologies such as LTE (long-term evolution) and 5G have the potential to improve human life by enabling IoT applications like autonomous vehicles, personalized medicine, and beyond. Importantly, she says sensors can free up people’s time, giving them the chance to focus their attentions on activities that require the full power and creativity of the human brain, rather than performing low-level monitoring activities. “Sensors have a fantastic potential to drastically reduce waste by replacing or, more specifically, assisting the human sense,” she says. “Sensors can perform continuous monitoring of what is happening somewhere. … This approach would reduce the waste of resources such as energy but also the most valuable resource: human intelligence and human resource.”

When Samir Saini, former CIO for the City of Atlanta,, envisions the future of smart cities, he says it’s all about transforming a city from reactive to proactive. “For cities, the perspective is that if cities can deploy sensors that can collect large volumes of data around what it sees, hears, and smells around it, and those sensors can be deployed in high density across the entire city, then the data can be used to move city department services from being largely reactive today to being proactive and predictive,” Saini explains. “If we can sense that there are elevated carbon monoxide levels, we could proactively dispatch a fire truck to the scene of a potential fire. Whereas if we didn’t have the sensor, there would be a fire and it would reach a point where it’s pretty serious, we would wait for a 9-1-1 call and then dispatch the fire truck. The difference there could be minutes (or) seconds, but that could be the difference between life and death.”

For Saini and his team at the City of Atlanta, a “senseable” city means an efficient, proactive city—a city that has a pulse on the health of its infrastructure, its services, and its citizens. “With sensors at scale, a city can respond to the needs of its citizens in ways we simply couldn’t before, which ultimately helps drive improvement in the overall quality of life of our citizens,” he says. “The notion is really that if you can sense it, you can improve it, because you know what’s happening, whatever ‘it’ is.”

In order to build these smart, senseable cities, operators, architects, engineers, contractors, subs, and everyone involved in a project needs to understand how the technology works in order to build these high-tech urban epicenters.

“Sensors can perform continuous monitoring … This approach would reduce the waste of resources such as energy but also the most valuable resource: human intelligence and human resource.”

–Laila Salman, ANSYS

Designing Senseable Cities

At MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology),, a research initiative called the Senseable City Laboratory,, explores “urban imagination and social innovation” through design and science. Its goal is to anticipate the ways networks and digital information are affecting and will continue to affect the built environment, including how cities are described, understood, and designed. Carlo Ratti, director of the Senseable City Lab, says as the Internet enters physical space, it’s bringing together the physical and digital layers, which is opening up a new world of applications—from energy to mobility, water management to citizen participation.

Ratti, who is also an architect and the founding partner of the Carlo Ratti Associati design office,, says: “Sensors are blossoming. But more than sensors, the amount of data sensed by citizens is growing exponentially. 90% of the data in the world today was produced in the past two years alone. And data is the key engine behind some of today’s richest companies. What are Google and Facebook—to mention just a couple—if not data companies?”

Data is providing opportunities never before seen, thanks to many sensing-and-actuating loops that were not possible before. “In general, IoT technologies offer new ways to measure cities,” Ratti says. “Learning more about our cities puts us in a historically unique position to make more informed decisions about their infrastructure.” The applications enabled by data gathered from city sensors will be plentiful, but Ratti anticipates mobility will be one of the most significant. “Self-driving vehicles promise to have a dramatic impact on urban life,” he explains. “This is not so much because you do not need to keep your hands on the steering wheel, but because they will blur the distinction between private and public modes of transportation.”

For instance, Ratti says an individual’s car could give its owner a lift to work in the morning and then, rather than sitting idle in a parking lot, give a lift to someone else in the owner’s family or social circle. That is one example of how the technology could work.

“Our recent research shows that we could run a city such as New York, Singapore, or Delhi with just a fraction of the cars we have today,” Ratti says. “This means that the advent of self-driving cars will change part of the urban infrastructure. Something that will probably change is parking. Today, our cars are parked on average a staggering 95% of the time. As a result, the parking infrastructure is so pervasive that for every car in the United States, there are approximately three nonresidential spots—amounting to 5,000 square miles, an area larger than Puerto Rico. Autonomous cars can keep on being used and hence would probably need fewer parking spaces.”

Before senseable cities can fully come to fruition, Ratti suggests governments will have to get involved to help make smart cities a reality in the future.

“Action from governments would be sorely needed,” Ratti continues. “They have certainly had an important task to play in supporting academic research and promoting applications in fields that might be less appealing to private capital. The public sector can also promote the use of open platforms and standards in such projects, which would speed up adoption in cities worldwide. More generally, governments should encourage citizens to take action. If we can develop the right platforms, people can then be the ones to transform cities.”

“Sensors and (the) IoT are driving the next wave of technological innovation, transforming lives, and growing the economy.” 

–Alison Mitchell, Sensor City

Growing Economies

According to Alison Mitchell, executive director of Sensor City,, a purpose-built facility where businesses and academics working on the development of sensors and the IoT can come together to collaborate, access specialist equipment, and share knowledge, the potential of a senseable city is enormous. “Sensors and (the) IoT are driving the next wave of technological innovation, transforming lives, and growing the economy,” Mitchell says. “By connecting digital devices to the physical world around them, the impact of these emerging technologies on our data-driven society is limitless.” One impact will be economical.

“Sensors are being used to create new products and new markets,” says Mitchell. “They are driving efficiency by enabling smarter products and processes to be established, which is accelerating the pace of innovation. Sensor technology can be applied across a wide range of sectors benefitting the economy as a whole.”

From an economic perspective, Saini says another opportunity is making the data collected via IoT city sensors available and “democratizing it for the specific purpose of enabling small startups to utilize that data to augment their business models.” For instance, anonymized mobility data could benefit a startup company that’s creating an app to improve mobility in a particular city. In this example, public data would help the business grow, and that’s good for the local economy.

What’s more, as cities deploy sensor arrays at scale, those sensors are enabling the transition from reactive to proactive, which allows a city to sustain growth that’s happening as a result of the urbanization trend. Saini says sensors reduce the pressure on a city’s infrastructure by allowing managers to think smart, be efficient, and operate effectively.

To get to this point, it will take demonstrative use cases from cities that are using sensors to improve citizens’ quality of life. Saini points out it will also take investment. “To really make this happen, it’s a major capital investment for cities; sensors aren’t free,” he quips. “There needs to be a great deal of thought around how to establish a public-private partnership that really enables a city to deploy this kind of technology at scale in an affordable, feasible way but without sacrificing quality of the sensors or the data it’s collecting or transparency around how that data is being utilized.”

From autonomous vehicles to LoRaWAN networks, which enable low-cost data transfers using ultra-low-power devices, Sensor City’s Mitchell hopes the connected cities of tomorrow will be designed to maximize life. “A smart city will identify the least polluted parks for family outings, identify and clear up waste, (and make) traffic flow more easily,” Mitchell says. And to enable the life-enhancing benefits of a senseable city, Mitchell says it will require all stakeholders in a city region to work together toward a common goal, solving needs that may be unique to them.

ANSYS’ Salman says there also needs to be a shift in people’s mindsets; citizens need to be open to cities deploying sensors that collect anonymized data with the promise that it will greatly improve city life—from delivering civil services such as water and electricity to enabling more proactive public safety and reducing waste in terms of public space, natural resources, human creativity and ingenuity, and beyond. If all the pieces come together, the senseable city will change the very nature of urban life, which will change life beyond cities as well.

Bethanie Hestermann is a contributing writer for Constructech magazine