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How Intel’s Technology is Helping Cities Solve Their Toughest Problems, From Traffic Jams to COVID Outbreaks

Busakorn Pongparnit/Getty Images
Busakorn Pongparnit/Getty Images

Technology has the power to transform our daily lives. In this three-part series in partnership with Inte, we’ll bring you stories of the cutting-edge innovations that are doing just that—and the people working to make those innovations a reality. Read on for Part 2 and then check out Parts 1 and 3.

It can be hard to get the average citizen excited about infrastructure. It’s the kind of thing that’s supposed to remain invisible in plain sight, like an electronic dog fence. Most people pay zero attention to the timing of stoplights, the speed of emergency vehicles, and shipping activity at ports and airports unless it directly affects their lives. 

Fortunately, we don’t necessarily have to pay attention, because people like Sameer Sharma are doing it for us. As Intel’s Global General Manager for IoT (Internet of Things) solutions with a focus on smart cities and intelligent transportation, Sharma is intent on keeping cities running smoothly now and in the future, when demands on infrastructure will be so high that they may overwhelm certain legacy systems entirely.

According to estimates from the United Nations, 60% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities by 2030, with 43 megacities worldwide housing more than 10 million people apiece. Sharma—who began his career at Intel more than two decades ago as an engineer—wants to make sure that when that happens you can reach your destination on time without facing traffic jams.

“The phrase ‘smart cities’ is loaded and can have many connotations,” says Sharma, who over the course of his tenure at Intel has called on the company’s technology to improve the functionality of dozens of city systems. “But as my team and I talk to city leaders across the world, there are three major themes that emerge. The first one is public safety, the second is around mobility and transportation, and the third is environmental sustainability and resilience.”

In short, creating smart cities means using ideas from IoT—stuff like connected TVs and refrigerators—and using them to improve on the big challenges affecting communities.

Creating Efficient Cities, Starting with Traffic Lights

Sharma points out that city infrastructure—prosaic as it may seem—affects the very bedrock of society. Cities with well-considered foundations improve people’s health and safety, trade effectively with other cities, and even save their citizens’ time. Sharma’s team partnered with Juniper Research to perform an independent market study that found that if cities were outfitted with efficient mobility, public safety, healthcare, and city administration systems, each city dweller could save 125 hours a year.

What is the most efficient way to design a city? That’s Sharma’s fundamental challenge, and the solution involves developing flexible digital infrastructure that can run on top of the physical stuff. Computing capabilities can be added to waste and recycling management, security cameras, floodwater systems, airports, toll booths, parking lots, and traffic lights, leading to better energy use, better environmental profiles, and safer, saner places to live. Think about it: If a utility company could use algorithms to determine where and when homes will need greater trash removal services, garbage trucks would use less fuel and take up less road space while doing their jobs.

In 2018, Sharma and Intel started working with AT&T to place multiple sensors capable of “edge AI”—civil engineering–speak for on-location computer processing—onto traffic lights in Portland. These smart lights provided around-the-clock counts of vehicles and pedestrians as well as information about vehicle speeds, thus improving street safety design. Smart streetlights like these can adapt to changing traffic trends, adjusting red and green lights to real-world commutes. A camera system on Arizona’s Bell Road Highway that uses Intel technology has already shown that cutting down driving time is possible, reducing delays by 20% on weekdays and 43% on weekends.

Not forcing people to sit at unnecessary red lights only scratches the surface of what intelligent traffic light sensors can do. They can communicate to emergency services the appropriate number of ambulances and fire trucks to send to the scene of an accident. They can also spread the burden of traffic out among multiple roads and intersections. “You take this information from one traffic intersection [and apply it to others] across the city, and suddenly you can increase your traffic capacity without spending a single more dollar on physical infrastructure,” Sharma says.

Smart Infrastructure in the Time of a Pandemic

Computing capabilities make steel and concrete structures more flexible, and nothing has made that fact clearer than the coronavirus pandemic. Back in March 2020, Sharma began fielding calls from partners asking whether Intel’s technology could help get the world up and running again. “Before the pandemic, we were talking about things like urban density and job creation,” Sharma says. “Now we’re back to basics: How do I reopen the city? How do I get the city services going again? How can technology take away some of the stress?”

Unsurprisingly, Intel and its partners had some answers. The company set aside $50 million to provide cities, healthcare operations, schools, and public service companies access to artificial intelligence, high-performance computing, and sensor-to-cloud (known as edge-to-cloud) services so that they could come up with solutions to problems introduced by COVID-19. One city that took advantage of this program was Houston, which had already been working with Intel on a smart cities accelerator program. Together, Intel and the City of Houston supported a startup called Water Lens, which is currently working to produce a dynamic map of Houston’s COVID-19 hotspots by measuring the amount of the virus’s genetic material in wastewater.

According to Sharma, other ideas Intel’s team have talked about for defeating the pandemic include using smart disinfecting robots and contactless payments to reduce infectious spread between people, and monitoring adherence to social distancing guidelines in train stations, airports, and other public spaces with smart cameras. Whether these ideas are implemented in many cities or not, the process of coming up with them has been great preparation for a future in which we won’t know what we need to adapt to until we’re already facing it.

“It might be another pandemic, or it could be a different crisis,” Sharma says. Whatever happens, cities will need to be nimble enough to make complex changes immediately, with smart sensors and systems doing most of the work on location.

A Vision of the Future

In the years ahead, Sharma sees a world that’s filled with the kind of behind-the-scenes computer infrastructure that will make cities and their citizens more resilient to challenges. Smart cities will be like duck’s feet paddling away under the water—humming along out of sight—while we easily glide along the surface when things like floods or even just traffic arrive. All we will need are eyes and ears (sensors and cameras) and a brain (Intel’s technology and analytics capabilities) to pave the way forward.

“I’ve been in the industry for 20 years, so I’m always mindful that the work we’re doing is really to hand off a much better world to the next generation,” Sharma says.

With young people ever more engaged in creating a more just, happy, and peaceful society, Sharma wants to have the digital infrastructure ready and waiting for whatever great solutions they come up with. That means not just incorporating technology for technology’s sake, but looking at it the way an anthropologist would: as a tool we call on to implement our best ideas.