How city councils and local authorities respond to the small and large-scale shifts in the urban environment could change dramatically in our lifetime. Self-monitoring cities which relay air quality, moisture and traffic information directly to environmental engineers, urban planners, councillors and scientists are on the horizon.

Director of Unitec's High Tech Transdisciplinary Research Network Hossein Sarrafzadeh says the world's first truly responsive city, Wuhan, is already underway through a major research collaboration involving Unitec Institute of Technology, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) and New Zealand research and education network REANNZ in New Zealand, and Wuhan University and high-tech company LJDY in China.

"Every year, outdoor air pollution kills 3.3 million people, mostly in cities. Tackling air quality is vitally important, especially in China where cities often exceed World Health Organisation air quality guidelines. We are involved in developing a 3D model of Wuhan, the most populous city in Central China. This is one of the first attempts to create a responsive city."

"Big data, cloud computing, IoT and sentiment analysis are among the technologies being used. Sensors will be placed to test water quality and on top of buildings to gauge air pollution and traffic congestion. Options for sensors are limitless. You could have sensors that monitor every aspect of the environment, from carbon sequestration to thermal imaging."

"As an industrial city and transport hub of 10 million people, Wuhan authorities have been working hard to clean up air pollution. Soon, through the outcomes of this collaboration, they will have tools to do just that," explains Professor Sarrafzadeh.

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"Using the 3D model, planners will be able to make sense of the environmental data with accuracy to three centimetres. Coloured clouds will represent air-quality data allowing planners to identify pollution hotspots down to street level then address them quickly by diverting heavy-load traffic or finding longer term solutions such as urban planting to absorb pollutants."

"Likewise, because of the environmental data available, authorities could regulate or prosecute industrial polluters. Just by having sensors in place, cities will be able to deter polluters from flouting the rules."

"As well as air-pollution problems, Wuhan, faces major flooding risks. In fact, earlier this year, a major flood in the area severely affected transport links and water and power supplies. In a smart city, a flooding event would set off a relay of disaster response mechanisms. Moisture-level sensors fitted onto buildings and river banks could enable authorities to re-route or disable transport links, issue text-based evacuation notices and secure power systems immediately."

"If a river breaches its banks, instantaneously the council will be alerted by the water-sensors. This will then set off a chain of automatic events or alerts across the city to prevent the risk of accidents and disruption," says Sarrafzadeh.

Currently the 3D self-monitoring city system being developed by the New Zealand and Chinese team is a closed one but Prof Sarrafzadeh predicts that these models will be available on mobile phones in the future allowing tradespeople to merely peer into their smartphone to view an underground model showing in 3D the network of pipes, cables and sensors beneath the surface," says Sarrafzadeh.

He predicts that within a matter of a few years many major cities in the world will be mapped to make them clean, greener, safer environments. "We're hoping to get Unitec's Mt Albert Campus mapped in the next year." Unsurprisingly, he already has his eyes on Auckland and Christchurch.


Professor Hossein Sarrafzadeh is the director of Whaingia te Toi Huarewa Unitec's High Tech Transdisciplinary Research Network and a leading academic in high-tech computing, cyber-security, machine learning and sentiment analysis. He is also the founder of the Centre for Computational Intelligence and Cyber Security Research, a collaboration with NICT, Japan's national research institute, and founder of the Centre for Computational Intelligence and Environmental Engineering, a joint venture with NIWA and partners in China which uses sensing technologies, GIS mapping and the Internet of Things to monitor and manage the built and natural environment.