Future Cities

Two new HP Labs projects aim to improve the quality of urban life

HP Labs researcher Amip Shah is thinking about the future awaiting his 2 year-old niece. For one thing, when she grows up she’ll likely be a city dweller. By 2050, 70% of the world’s population is expected to be living in urban communities.

As a child born in the age of smartphones and tablets, she’ll also have a very different relationship to her surroundings than most of us have now, suggests Shah.

“When you look at the urban infrastructure around us today – the clocks we still have to set, the heating systems we need to program, the irrigation that still needs to be adjusted with the seasons – our interactions with our surroundings could be much smoother and a lot more intuitive. More importantly, they could help us use our available resources much more efficiently,” he says.

But by the time his niece is an adult, Shah predicts, “she’ll just want to tell her phone, ‘I'm hot’ and then let the infrastructure figure everything else out automatically for her behind the scenes.”

“Redesigning the infrastructure to handle such an interaction is going to be a big challenge,” Shah adds. “But what if we could even go one step further—what if the infrastructure could automatically recognize that she might start to feel warm or cold, and proactively adjust itself up or down without her even needing to say anything? That's the truly intuitive and vastly more efficient future we're driving towards.”

Managing resources for sustainability

To help us realize that future, Shah leads an HP Labs team seeking to change how people, technologies and environments interact. With the advent of cheap sensing technology, the rising cost of resources like water and electricity, and global population growth, they’re looking to reinvent our urban infrastructure by creating a new generation of what are known as ‘cyber-physical’ systems.

Initially, they’re creating cyber-physical system platforms to enable energy efficiency and sustainability management at the scale of an office complex, a residential neighborhood or a university campus. They call it Resource Management as a Service (RMaaS).

The RMaaS team expects such cyber-physical platforms to offer the kind of services Shah imagined his niece using across entire cities. "These systems will provide the functionality and have the structure of the traditional built environment,” he explains, “but they’ll now exhibit the characteristics of connectivity and programmability of traditional IT systems, and they’ll help us lead more sustainable lives.”

Building them will be a tall order, however. “We’re pulling from expertise in fields ranging from energy systems to electrical hardware engineering, IT systems, signal processing, "big data" management, machine learning, optimization, control theory, and even behavioral psychology, city planning, environmental economics, and public policy,” says Shah. “Eventually, we envision integrating all this knowledge into a seamless management system across diverse sets of campuses on a global scale, with millions of data feeds coming in each second, while at the same time addressing very real challenges around privacy and security for billions of people.”

Urban research in Singapore

While the RMaaS project is starting out by exploring cyber-physical systems at the campus level, a second HP Labs research effort is already working at the city scale.

SimpliCity is a major new study of urbanization that aims to understand the role of technology in modern cities and how it can positively impact people’s lives. A collaboration between HP Labs Singapore, HP Singapore and the Singapore government, the project hopes to benefit city dwellers, the physical environment that supports them and the public and private sectors that govern and drive a city’s economic growth.

Singapore offers unique attributes for such an effort, says director of HP Labs Singapore, Sau Sheong Chang.

“Singapore often describes itself as a living laboratory,” he explains. “The entire country can be a microcosm and a test bed for experimenting with different approaches to tackling research problems. This allows our research to be grounded in reality.”

The SimpliCity project entails both exploratory and applied research. It will focus in particular on cloud-based solutions that can both represent and facilitate the relationships between the different constituencies – human, organizational, environmental – that need to work together for a city to thrive.

“Our vision is for the continuous improvement of cities through the application of technology,” says Chang. Areas of research interest include data processing and storage at the city scale, how cities are modeled, and how data and modeling can be used to create intelligent decision-making support for citywide issues such as traffic and utility management, crime prevention, and environmental health.

As with RMaaS, the sheer breadth of the project presents a challenge in itself. Hardest of all, says Chang, “will be figuring how to build technologies that really can positively change people’s behavior.”

The two HP Labs teams are also working together, exploring how the RMaaS solution might fit within the SimpliCity cloud environment. And they are in conversation with other HP Labs teams that are researching, for example, massive sensor arrays, data analytics and cloud-based issues in privacy and security – all of which promise to yield additional insights that could positively impact the cities of tomorrow.