Getting city smart

By Sarra Pardali

In mid-March, senior school students from across the GDST family of schools came together at our sixth annual Techathon. This year’s event focused on Smart Cities.

The intention was to give girls the opportunity to think about a smart city environment and how they can improve it, with a view to also offering smart-city dwellers opportunities to live in a sustainable way. It was also a way to challenge our students to identify and solve real-life problems.

So, what are Smart Cities?

The definition of a Smart City is constantly developing and evolving, alongside technology, but also alongside urban living problems; problems that we did not even know we had 10 years ago. For the GDST event, we wanted our girls to think about the principles that must be taken into account. What can they, as the future generation of designers, engineers, urban planners and smart city dwellers, do to be part of the solution?

The first steps of the Smart Cities movement

smart citiesIt all began way back in the 1960’s, at the Los Angeles Community Analysis Bureau, an obscure think tank inside the city hall. Their ambition was to create an urban information system that could be used to tackle problems, such as poverty-stricken neighbourhoods and slums.

It was in the early to mid-Noughties, when sensors, networks and analytics began being applied to urban issues, that our current idea of what constitutes a smart city came into being. And today, we are seeing attempts to marry technology and urban planning to create the ultimate, futuristic smart city. One that uses the ability to collect and stream real-time data (how clean is the air, how is traffic moving, how much energy is being produced and used?) to improve the quality of life of city dwellers, to allow them to make the best decisions at the right time.

There is now growing concern about environmental issues and greater demand for action on climate change. This all begs the question: is smart living becoming synonymous with sustainable living? For a smart city to be truly smart, it must allow its inhabitants to tackle environmental and social issues, it must make them part of the solution.

Smart ideas from the future generation

As always, GDST girls demonstrated not only how attuned they are to current environmental and social issues, but also how skilled they are in putting imagination and ingenuity into practice, even in the course of a couple of hours.

The day’s main event was a ‘Dragon’s-Den’-style innovation challenge, supported by industry mentors.

Gold prize

smart cities

Team ‘Sustainable’ made up of students from Birkenhead High School Academy and Brighton Girls won first prize for their ‘Biopet’ idea, designed to reduce food waste at a household level. The Biopet is a miniature biogas generator that is fed food waste and produces natural gas that can then be put back into the grid. The idea is meant to be scaled and used at supermarkets and restaurants, helping them also make good use of food waste, and ensuring further value is extracted from resources before they are discarded.

Silver prize

smart city

Team ‘Environmental’, made up of students from Nottingham Girls’ High School and Streatham & Clapham High School, were awarded the silver medal for their school-based environmental app. The app is designed to use biometric technology to tackle a number of key environmental issues in school: for example, students can choose their food order in advance, helping reduce food waste and be protected from allergens; biometric technology would also be used as a ‘presence’ or ‘user’ detector to help turn lights and appliances off in areas where users are no longer present.

People’s choice award

smart cities

Unanimously awarded to team ’Renewable’, with girls from Sutton High School and Croydon High School, the People’s Choice award winners developed an e-bin idea that helps consumers make the right decisions when recycling.

Honourable mentions

Other teams tackled transportation and urban movement problems, such as ways to motivate people to walk more and use public transport or ride-share technology and driverless cars in the most efficient way possible. Others tackled the issue of housing: utilising old, unused city buses to house the homeless; or mobilising entire neighbourhoods and communities to regenerate and exploit underused community assets, such as abandoned buildings or plots.

Final thoughts

The event certainly accentuated the theme of how smart, sustainable living can be facilitated by technology; but it also, crucially, demonstrated that we all have a role to play in making a city truly smart. Technology undoubtedly provides the means, but the way we use it and apply it in our everyday lives can make us part of the solution. In the end, a smart city must rely on its smart inhabitants, right?