32.6 trillion liters.

That, roughly, is the amount of water lost annually through leaky pipes before it gets to homes, businesses and hospitals. Put another way, if you could detect those leaks and plug them, you could almost fill China’s Three Gorges Dam to the brim every year with clean, treated water.

The “leaky pipe” problem highlights one of the biggest challenges we face in the coming decades. Simply put, we’re going to have to figure out new ways to bring basic resources like food, power and water to a growing number of people who increasingly live in large urban centers. These are the defining issues of sustainable cities.

Approximately 54 percent of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, a figure that will likely rise to 66 percent by 2050. China alone will have 221 cities with over 1 million people by 2025 (Europe has only 35 today). The number of megacities with more than 10 million residents will more than double in the coming years.

The good news is that we can do this. The increasing sophistication and declining cost of digital technologies will become a platform for economizing resources and sharing physical space in ways that are both economical and more convenient. Things will be micromanaged, but you won’t feel like you’re being micromanaged.

Consider the experience of Maynilad, the water agency for Manila. Maynilad serves millions of customers over a territory that covers 540 square kilometers; it manages nearly 7,500 kilometers of water and sewer pipes and 19 reservoirs. In 2007, nearly 20 percent of the citizens in its service territory could not even get service, roughly half did not have 24-hour service, and over half did not have sufficient water pressure to support basic functions and services.

As part of an overhaul, Maynilad pursued an aggressive program to monitor the entire water system with metrics like real-time water flows, while mapping consumption patterns in different geographies. By 2013, it was servicing 94.7 percent of its customers, 97 percent had 24-hour service, and 99 percent had sufficient pressure. At the same time, Maynilad recovered 640 million liters of treated water.

Or consider the example of power theft. Electric power is the third-most stolen commodity in the world. Some estimate that over 30 percent of India’s electric power gets stolen on a regular basis, causing chronic blackouts and economic losses exceeding $17 billion annually. These kinds of losses happen everywhere, not just in India. South Africa, Brazil and Eastern Europe face similar challenges. Technology has been developed that can remotely detect unusual usage patterns and thwart thieves. (A substantial portion of stolen power is used in illegal drug operations, so these technological advances have a positive impact on community safety as well.)

These same technologies to monitor the electricity grid can be used inside of the buildings and businesses connected to the grid. In fact, they will become a gateway for economic revitalization. Studies show that energy-efficient buildings achieve higher rental rates and often get “leased up” more quickly: on average, owners claim their ROI is 19.2 percent higher than on normal projects. In another example of using technology to drive sustainable outcomes, smart parking systems can reduce emissions and energy consumption as well as reduce resistance to coming to crowded downtown areas. It’s no coincidence that urban campuses like Carnegie Mellon and UC Berkeley have been incubating startups in this market.

Megacities won’t be the only proving ground, either. Lawrence, Kansas, a college city with a population of 90,000, is currently experimenting with using software to reduce the cost and energy involved in treating wastewater by shifting treatment procedures to off-peak hours. These technologies are being tested and deployed in both megacities and villages. Microgrid technologies being developed and tested in industrial academic centers are being deployed in places like rural India, where a sustainable supply of clean renewable energy can be a real life-changer, providing power necessary for refrigeration, water treatment and other basic necessities.   

None of this, of course, will happen overnight. Advanced lighting and energy management systems will have to pass multiple pilot tests before they percolate everywhere. The first “smart” vehicles in widespread use likely won’t be passenger cars. They may be ships, trains and trucks operating at first in controlled environments, and their performance will be dissected in multiple ways. Technology providers are also going to have to figure out new business models -- as a service? Lease to own? -- to make these upgrades as painless as possible. 

Privacy and security also have to be considered. When Twitter goes down, people make jokes about it on the internet. If your metropolitan transportation district unexpectedly shut down, the result would be chaos. Making sure systems are resilient, secure and redundant will be just as important -- if not more important -- than new features.

Again, this won’t be easy. The next few decades will be a time of trial and error. But I believe we’re going to discover we have more resources than we thought. Collectively, we will drive sustainable outcomes -- and the technology platforms will be a key component of every city and village. 


Dave Roberts is the smart city principal and corporate fellow at OSIsoft.