1 September 2017

Getting smart in the city

Sarahjane Widdowson from Ricardo Energy & Environment explores the role of technology and data in cities, and how the digital revolution could change the world of waste and resources.

I’ve spent the last month shouting at someone called Alexa to turn my lights on in various rooms around my home. To explain, I’ve recently updated my house to become a little ‘smarter’, and installed a device that is controlled with my voice. It features a personal assistant called Alexa, who will perform various tasks and control various household systems.

The device is capable of voice interaction, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts and music, and providing weather, traffic and other real time information. It can also control several smart devices, including my LED lighting, using itself as a home automation hub.  It has been frustrating at times trying to get things to work, but also an exciting process, discovering what devices I can turn on and off, how I can find out information such as today’s news, and how I can order things online without picking up my tablet or laptop.


Sarahjane Widdowson of Ricardo Energy and Environment

It also allows me to develop simple interactions, for example, if the International Space Station flies overhead my lights will flash red (the system uses available online data from NASA that links with my connected lighting system). Now this is a bit of fun and doesn’t serve a useful purpose, however a more useful example, if you could connect to your refuse collection vehicle on collection day and get an alert to put out your recycling bins when it’s in the next street.

As with any new technology, once you’ve been using it for a while you start to notice what it can’t do or in this case can’t connect to. You notice the limits of the system. You also begin to think about the possibilities and, particularly for me, what the opportunities and challenges are for waste and resources. Of course, my home environment doesn’t replicate a city, however it is a small microcosm and provides insight into how technology can be used effectively and how important human behaviour is within the system.

What is a Smart City?

The phrase Smart Cities can mean different things to different people and sectors. One common theme is how cities are adapting to become liveable, resilient, connected and sustainable. It is also the ongoing evolution of cities which, in order to survive and prosper, particularly with increasing urbanisation, must be flexible and able to respond more quickly to new challenges and opportunities.

Smart Cities are the latest stage in the evolution of cities. A Smart City:

  • has a modern, digital infrastructure system to enable citizens to access the information they need, when they need it;
    focusses on the needs of its citizens, by providing them with holistic, integrated services;
  • maximises the use of intelligent systems to effectively manage a wide range of services and resources, and which can deliver benefits to the everyday lives of citizens;
  • has an integrated and innovative approach to the intelligent management of energy, water, waste and resources;
  • is open to new ideas, innovation and alternative business models, and is willing to share and learn from others;
  • and has strong governance and the political commitment to deliver the necessary change.

There are many components that need integrating to deliver a truly Smart City, including transport, buildings, education and health services, all connected by interactive and accessible ICT systems and technology.

What are the opportunities for the Waste and Resources sector?

Our sector is beginning to embrace the power of data and utilising it to work smarter and reduce our use of resources. Many cities across the world now have networks of connected smart bins, which use sensors to detect fill levels, and can compact litter to increase capacity and reduce the number of collections required. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology is being used by some local authorities for communal waste containers to monitor access and record weights. In Slough, the technology has been used as part of a trial scheme to reduce recycling contamination of communal recycling bins. Containers, which can only be opened using electronic key fobs provided to residents, have been installed and residents have been given training to use the new bins.

In Seoul, South Korea, a system is in place, which uses RFID to measure how much food waste is deposited in communal bins by individual households. Residents scan a card to unlock the bin, which then opens for them to deposit their food waste. On closing the bin, the card is scanned again and the amount deposited is recorded and accumulated, with householders then receiving a monthly bill. Are there opportunities in the UK for Business Improvement Districts for example, where several buildings use the same bins? Or, could this be a system we use in the future if the law changes to enable a Pay as You Throw system for household waste and recycling?

Smart City

Tags and tracking will be a feature of smart cities and could be used in the waste sector (picture: shutterstock)

Asset tracking has been used for a number of years within the waste sector. The movement of clinical waste can be tracked from the site of production at ward level in a hospital through, to deposit in a container within the waste store, through to collection and final disposal providing a full duty of care trail. How could we apply this sort of tracking to other goods and items? Could goods contain asset tags with information about their material components and the best way to treat them at the end of their useful life? Could we activate a collection for recycling or re-use by scanning an item when we’re finished with it? For those goods connected to the Internet of Things could the item contact the producer themselves to request repair or to implement a software update?

Preventative maintenance technology is utilised in many sectors including waste processing. Sensors collect data from processing equipment, which inform regular diagnostic tests, this then allows technicians to understand when repairs need to be conducted and helps to reduce downtime. Could this be used in household appliances in the future to extend useful life and reduce waste?

What are the challenges we need to solve?

Systems thinking

I think the greatest challenge is learning how to think in systems. My experience of trying to make my house a little bit smarter has so far shown that I need to think more holistically about all of the systems within my home. One advantage I have is that to an extent I have control of the whole system, which is something that many of our local authorities and businesses don’t have. Thinking in silos can be a real barrier to implementing activities that seem to be common sense. A recent example we’ve come across has been of a major municipality in Greece, where for years grass clippings collected from city parks were sent for disposal. One department was internally charging another for this privilege. The municipality has recently been able to remove some of the political and financial barriers that were in place and the grass clippings are now sent to a local Anaerobic Digestion Facility, where the heat generated is used by the local nursery, which grows plants for the city’s parks and gardens – circular thinking!

Working collaboratively

We need to work collaboratively and think about overall outcomes and benefits. Last year when a Parish Council in South Gloucestershire voted to introduce a charge for the previously free weekly 5km parkrun due to increased wear and tear of the local parks paths, I felt sympathy for both sides. The Council had to try and maintain the local amenities and deal with increased usage and all the potential impacts such as repairs, damage to the grass, emptying litter bins more frequently and other staff requirements. What wasn’t considered within this decision making was the wider benefits to society – increased use of local amenities, health benefits, community value and social cohesion. With responsibilities for many public health issues now residing with local authority opportunities to raise health awareness and encourage people to be more active should be embraced. We often only think of our own boundaries and not about how we fit into the wider system. Working together can provide solutions to much bigger issues.

Questions have to be asked about how we can use data to inform greater thinking

Within the waste sector we need to reach out to collaborate and work with others. What technology can we adapt from other sectors? How can we use the data we produce within the waste sector to inform greater thinking? For example, a number of organisations are now encouraging people to collect data on litter, including the location (using geotags), amount and brand of products. Litterati (www.litterati.org) is one organisation that crowdsources data for this purpose, using the data to work with companies and create more sustainable solutions. From a sector perspective, could we use this data to identify litter hotspots and possible locations for new recycling bins? Or, influence behaviour change campaigns?

Being connected will mean an increasing amount of technology is added to items that previously may not have contained electronic and electrical equipment. This will mean that the amount of WEEE will increase in the future. As products become more sophisticated, it can create additional complications. Smart clothing from biometric training wear to shirts or jackets that allow you to pay with contactless technology are already available. What happens to these at end of life? The usual routes for re-use and recycling become more infinitely more complex.

We’re also using more advanced materials. I’m the proud owner of an electric car, however the dashboard is made from carbon fibre, a fantastic light and strong material but one that has no economical end of life solution.

The Future

There are a huge number of opportunities for the waste and resources sector within Smart Cities. The challenge for the sector is to be at the heart of the discussion so that we can inform thinking, share our data, encourage sustainability and raise awareness of the issues that waste causes. Unless we’re an integral part of the discussion we will continue to clean up after society rather than maximising value from the materials that can’t be re-used or recycled.


If you have any questions regarding the issues raised by the above article or would wish to understand how they impact your organisation, then please contact Sarahjane Widdowson at Ricardo Energy & Environment (sarahjane.widdowson@ricardo.com)

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