A fire starts in a building and as people evacuate, the fire department is called in. It's rush hour, so the roads are jammed. In response, the traffic signals at every intersection are adjusted to allow emergency vehicles to pass unimpeded. Meanwhile, in the building itself, the fire alarm system automatically turns on lights to guide people to safety. Water flow is adjusted in the area to make sure that the firefighters have enough.
This is the scenario envisioned by Living PlanIT, a European technology company that wants to build smarter cities using an operating system, called Urban OS, that works similar to operating systems in ordinary computers. The key is coordinating a network of sensors that would feed the information into the operating. By monitoring waste, water use, traffic flows and even the temperatures of individual rooms, the entire city could be run at peak efficiency. That means saving energy, water and even reducing the waste that goes into landfills (Living PlanIT says it has a system for extracting useful compounds from garbage). It also means being able to respond to emergencies more quickly than now.
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The Urban OS will run PlaceApps, the equivalent of apps on a smart phone. These apps, however, would control vital systems in buildings. The OS would also be open to independent developers, and the whole system could even connect to individual smart phones to monitor household appliances, for example.
The company is building a demonstration project in Paredes, Portugal, called PlanIT Valley, though it will be a few years before it is fully up and running.
There are a few issues that will need to be addressed. Privacy is one, as well as the possibility of hacking. Then there’s the relative openness of the system. Living PlanIT has several technology partners but it isn’t clear how open the standards used will be; if the UrbanOS is designed in a way similar to Apple’s OS products, then it means a given city would be locked into a single set of vendors. A more open system would solve that, but then one would have to decide how open — and how robust — they should be. That said, with a single platform running a whole city any problems could be addressed more easily.