By Neil Cresswell, CEO for VIRTUS Data Centres

In 1950, only New York and Tokyo exceeded a population of 10 million – the definition of a megacity. Today there are 33 megacities from London and Cairo, to Beijing and São Paulo. Looking ahead to 2030, it is expected that there will be over 40 megacities across the world.

There is no doubt that these megacities deliver opportunities and challenges in equal measure. On one hand, these urban sprawls have become synonymous with economic growth: agglomerations of people, opportunity and innovation. London, for example, is a megacity and the fifth wealthiest city in the world with a GDP of $731.2 billion, making it’s GDP greater than countries like Argentina, Poland, Sweden and Belgium. On the other hand, continued population growth has put strain on fundamental infrastructure such as power systems, water supply, transport, education and welfare.

So how do we find the right balance between growth and opportunity and a sustainable quality of life? What does a city of the future have to look like in order to make life worth living in it?

According to Hitachi, the ability to make megacities productive and successful lies in making them as smart as possible and that technology-enabled living will be crucial to success and improved quality of life in the age of urban living. There certainly isn’t a one-size-fits-all, but the success of the megacity depends on the infrastructure, and more specifically, the IT that supports it.

The smart city – and the network that supports it

What unites smart megacities is that they thrive, or otherwise, on shared public systems and services, and Governments and businesses alike want to leverage this urban interconnection and the data it produces. The ultimate goal is to use data to bring intelligence to urban environments, and to improve the quality of life for residents.

We see smart cities learning from each other as they move to embrace the newer and smarter technologies. Viewed this way, London has more in common with cities like Shanghai than its closer (but smaller) European counterparts, as it struggles with the challenges that come with very high population density. London is moving towards Shanghai-style smart transport systems to alleviate congestion, hoping that innovations in autonomous vehicles, data & Artificial Intelligence (AI), electric vehicles and shared mobility will help solve its transportation issues.

The need for resilience is felt particularly hard with these types of smart city applications. Physically linking dispersed machines and sensors so they can exchange information in real time is crucial if cities are to tap into the potential value of “big data” interconnections between people and applications, data, content, clouds and the network needs to be seamless.

The big capacity challenge – the role of the data center

Although the future seems bright for smart megacities, the possibilities are limited by issues of complexity and capacity. What’s really important in this brave new world is being able to handle, and use, vast amounts of data. It’s key to remember that this data isn’t standard transactional data as we know it. The data to power smart cities is both transactional and unstructured, publicly available and privately collected, and it’s the importance of both big data (large data sets used to spot patterns or trends) and fast data (data which is used for immediate decision making) which is driving a new architecture for data centers.

The extensive nature of big data needs something beyond a company or government department’s in-house storage capabilities, and this presents significant opportunities for data center providers to help governments and businesses alike to deal with their big capacity challenge. Being able to store Internet of Things (IoT) generated data, and the ability to access and interpret it as meaningful actionable information – very quickly – is vitally important and will give huge competitive advantage to organizations and municipalities that do it well.

The implications of not getting it right are potentially disastrous. Failures in the network could result in energy systems being shut down, companies unable to do business and huge transportation disruptions as well as hospitals and schools suffering if there was a huge outage.

There is certainly no one-size-fits-all model to mitigate these disasters, but interesting solutions and approaches are already in place to address the most pressing challenges. It’s not an easy task though.  Smart megacities will have to mix the old and the new – dealing with legacy infrastructure as well as creating new facilities. Some are turning to decentralized energy-generation and storage systems which will be able to minimize the impact of power outages or natural disasters. For others it might mean that traditional “core” connectivity hubs will have to work alongside smaller data centers optimized for Edge computing. Providers may also need a work-around to cope with disparate local energy regulations and prices – and work out where data center facilities can be optimally located. As more and more applications are required to service immediate engagement – such as streaming, ecommerce and financial services – data centers must be placed correctly for this type of need too.

Multi-tenant colocation facilities have been cornerstones of the internet economy since the 1990s, and will continue to be important as we enter into the age of the technology powered smart megacity environment, providing the best in interconnectivity, flexibility and scalability. High Performance Computing (HPC) will also likely power smart megacity applications, as it presents a compelling way to address the challenges presented by IoT and big data. Data center managers will continue to adopt high density innovation strategies to maximize productivity and efficiency, and increase available power density and the physical footprint of computing power of the data center, vital in power heavy big data application.

The world’s population is continually growing, and urbanization is expected to add another 2.5 billion people to cities over the next three decades. Whilst we can see incredible opportunities for residents of megacities, we also know that population size may also be their downfall if the infrastructure is not there to support them.

The key component to success is to ensure that the data center is equipped to handle the rigorous demands that technology innovations place on them. Governments and businesses alike must adopt a data-center-first strategy when it comes to technical innovation if they are to provide an intelligent and scalable asset that enables choice and growth.