68% of the world's population is projected to live in urban settings by 2050, according to the UN. With the growing threats of climate change and diminishing natural resources, as well as increasing life expectancies, there is recognition that smart cities are no longer just a futuristic idea or a nice to have, but may be essential to drive more efficient, sustainable, and healthier urban environments. While technology is already transforming transportation and infrastructure systems in cities around the world, people are now recognising its potential to also tackle the health and environmental challenges associated with city living. In this blog, we are focusing on smart cities for their initiatives in healthcare and health technology.

In a recent report published by Juniper research, Singapore ranked no.1 smart city across four categories; Mobility, Health, Safety, and Productivity. Given the influx of people migrating to urban settings, social determinants of health related to city living need to be addressed. These refer to the social factors and physical conditions of the environment in which people are born, live, work, and age. With this is mind, many cities are now beginning to investigate how to leverage technology in an effort to improve the health of their citizens.

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Singapore was voted top of the health category, closely followed by Seoul. The report identified that these two cities are leading the charge when it comes to innovative solutions to target the elderly population, highlighting their adoption of digital service platforms as well as remote monitoring devices which provide greater access to healthcare and health-related information for their citizens. The benefits created by these technologies are evident at both the citizen and the caregiving level.

In Seoul, the government recognised the increased pressure the aging population was having on their healthcare system, and so they developed the ‘U-Health’ (Ubiquitous Health) strategy. The strategy focused around improving remote monitoring in elderly citizens. They began by sending monitoring devices to a number of citizens’ homes, with the information accessible by the patients caregiver. They then expanded the offering and developed remote clinics in community centres, increasing the number of citizens who can avail of these monitoring devices, promoting earlier detection and intervention, as well as reducing the amount of people unnecessarily going to hospitals.

How research is driving healthier, smarter cities

Across the globe, the US is also taking an interest in developing smart cities, with New York, Chicago and San Francisco all featuring in the report. In 2016, The National Science Foundation established the ‘Smart & Connected Communities’ program to equip U.S. cities and communities with more responsive and adaptive technologies and services. In 2017, they invested $19.5 million to support 39 projects involving researchers at 34 lead institutions across the US.

‘What if the right light was a better ‘morning pick-me up’ than your coffee?’

These are the kinds of questions being investigated at the Well Living Lab, a research collaboration between the Mayo Clinic and Delos. The project is investigating the real-world impact of indoor environments on human health and well-being, and generating evidence-based information that can be used in practical ways to create healthier indoor spaces. They recognised that for people living in urban centres, our exposure to indoor environments is at an all-time high, estimating that the average American spends 21 hours indoors every day. Study participants wear devices that allow researchers to measure biometric data as they move through the research facility, which is also equipped with advanced sensor technology. The three-year research plan aims to identify how to optimise indoor environments to positively impact human health and wellness, by understanding the interplay of elements such as sound, lighting, temperature and air quality.

At MIT, researchers are working on the ‘Senseable City Lab’. Their mission is to identify how technology is creating new approaches to building environments. Researchers in the lab are studying and predicting how digital technology is changing the way cities are designed and occupied. The lab has collaborated with many companies including CISCO, UBER and Ericsson, as well as multiple other research organisations around the world.

Many cities outline improved healthcare as a fundamental aspect of their Smart City project. To do this, there needs to be active participation and buy-in from key stakeholders, as well as collaboration by all players in the ecosystem. Dr. Vonda Wright spoke at HealthXLs Global Gathering in Pittsburgh earlier this year about how wellness is baked into the healthy cities of the future, and highlighted how Pittsburgh had pivoted from being a steel city to a healthcare hub through collaborative, focused innovation. She noted that the shift in focus from a disease care model to a preventative model is what will drive citizens to live healthier lives. This revolves around innovation in infrastructure, such as the development of healthy streets which promote walking and cycling over driving, democratising access to healthcare and tackling social determinants of health through technology, and innovation in education, enabling young people to become more informed and engaged in their health.

Air pollution and Health

The World Health Organisation estimates that 7 million people per year die as a result of air pollution related diseases. Technology has the potential to increase visibility of pollution levels and allow for timelier detection and intervention.

Airlabs is one company trying to leverage technology to combat pollution in London. They aim to create clean air zones in polluted cities by transforming street furniture into sites where people can go to access clean air. In May 2017, Airlabs collaborated with JCDecaux and The Body Shop to put their anti-pollution technology in 3 bus stops in highly polluted areas of London- New Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road and High Holborn, to enable Londoners to breathe cleaner air.

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They are also developing ‘The CleanAir Bench’, which is designed to reduce exposure to air pollution in highly polluted hotspots by allowing people to sit on a bench that draws in dirty air from the street and releases clean air inside the bench, and the ‘Airbubbl’, which is a device that removes the nitrogen dioxide that enters vehicles from the surrounding traffic.

Verizon Enterprises is a US based company that uses IoT technology to develop an intelligent traffic management solution. Their aim is to optimise traffic flow through smart, connected solutions that allow people to spend less time in their cars, thus reducing the amount of cars on the road and lowering emissions. Verizon’s intelligent traffic system is made up of sensors embedded into city roads, pairing them with cameras on traffic lights, and connecting the devices to its wireless network to analyze traffic. This data then allows city and transportation leaders to gather actionable intelligence on traffic. Their solutions are used across a number of US cities, as well as in some European and Asian cities.

Singapore is also looking to tackle air pollution by promoting reduced car dependency and increased active, efficient and sustainable travel. Singapore was found to be highest ranking in the mobility section due to their "smart, connected traffic solutions, in conjunction with very strong policy curtailing car ownership in an effort to reduce the number of vehicles on its roads.’’

The Smart City of the Future

So, how do we design the infrastructure for today’s smart city that will also be relevant 10 or 20 years down the line? Given how rapidly technology changes, and how fast solutions become obsolete, it is a challenge to anticipate what technology will be available to us in the future, thus making current technologies redundant.

The answers are yet to be seen, but there are some key areas for the future that we believe will enable city-wide intelligent networks to thrive. Connectivity is key when it comes to smarter, healthier cities, and so the future of urban living will likely be centred around a coordinated ecosystem of data driven networks, allowing for the rapid adaptation of existing services to suit the needs of citizens at a given time.

As HealthXL advisor and friend, Naveen Rao, succinctly put it ‘’Cities have a unique opportunity — some would argue a moral imperative — to take on the social determinants of health head-on as part of their Smart City programs.’’