Why Cities Need to “Get Smart” About Pollution

Jun 14, 2017

When we think about protecting the environment, we often think of faraway issues like melting ice caps or dwindling rainforests.

The reality, however, is much closer to home. The World Health Organization estimates that 92 percent of the world’s population doesn’t have access to clean air. This is more than a health problem. The World Bank estimates that in 2013 air pollution was responsible for $225 billion in lost productivity.

Action must be taken by policymakers, the private sector, and citizens like you and me in order to safeguard the air we breathe. It falls to all of us because the conditions are worst in cities, where most of us live. Children are hardest hit by poor air quality, meaning that the pollution in major population centers is already affecting our future.

The good news is that we are building tools to tackle this problem head-on.

A man and a woman stroll along a city sidewalk.


Intel worked with Bosch on the Bosch Air Quality Micro Climate Monitoring System (MCMS), an end-to-end solution that collects air quality information across large areas. At a fraction of the cost (and size) of previous systems, it can be deployed throughout a city or industrial zone, radically increasing the precision of air quality data.

While cities might have once paid $150,000-$250,000 for a single unit, the MCMS is affordable enough to be distributed throughout many neighborhoods or industrial areas. This is critical as disparities in traffic, population density, and industrial activity can mean drastically different levels of pollution across a city.

In fact, pollution levels can differ enormously from block to block. A new study used Google Street View cars to measure air quality in Oakland, collecting data every 100 feet. The results shocked researchers, demonstrating enormous variation depending on facts such as proximity to cement plants, auto body shops, and even restaurants. The MCMS offers a permanent solution to collect highly localized air quality levels.

Each device pushes measurements to the cloud, where they are broken down with analytics that are easy to understand. This puts large volumes of high-quality data in the hands of city or industry decision makers, giving them the tools to measure how well clean air policies are working.

In a major step forward, this data can also be shared directly with the public, empowering city inhabitants with real-time information about their surroundings. Knowing that pollution levels are high may lead some people to stay home, for example, or change their running route to avoid lung damage.

Things get even more exciting as we think through ways IoT systems will change the nature of city life. If we integrated an air quality monitoring system with a smart traffic network, we could detect traffic jams with high levels of air pollution as motors idle. It would be possible to redirect the flow of traffic, or instruct drivers to turn off engines as they wait.

This is only one opportunity on the horizon. Given access to large new pools of city data, entrepreneurs can transform issues like congestion into opportunities with traffic management solutions, connected lighting, and smart parking. City planners and developers will integrate connected features into their design process. There is much to be excited about; the rise of such smart cities will bring many positive changes to residents in tomorrow’s urban centers.

Smart cities are becoming a reality thanks to recent advances in technology. In the future our cities will depend on 5G connectivity and artificial intelligence, which offer the speed and compute power to deliver real-time insights to millions of city inhabitants.

This isn’t science fiction. In fact, 5G has already arrived; live demonstrations took place at Mobile World Congress earlier this year in Barcelona. Intel recently launched a residential trial of a 5G connected home in Speedway, Indiana, featuring livestreaming of high-resolution 4K 360-degree video, using VR headsets to showcase activity at the famed raceway nearby.

Before long, 5G  will offer better solutions to commuters as they begin their day, and before long 5G will be powering systems of autonomous vehicles, supporting a $7 trillion “passenger economy” by 2050.

We are ready for this revolution today thanks to the steady rise of processing power. Moore’s Law has brought the cost of powerful chips down to make the mass deployment of IoT devices possible.

Intel co-founder Robert Noyce once said, “Don’t be encumbered by history. Go off and do something wonderful.” The rise of smart cities presents us an opportunity to do just that. Given that the health of our children is at stake, these technologies have arrived just in time.

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