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The millions of essential ups and downs that keep our cities moving

City Voices (ES)
City Voices (ES)

There are an estimated 20 million elevators in operation worldwide. If every elevator makes at least several journeys every day, then the total number of elevator journeys worldwide is billions per day.

And this number continues to grow as urbanisation and high-rise construction projects increase in many parts of the world, in addition to old buildings being retrofitted and modernised.

But, what if all the elevators and escalators in our cities were suddenly to stop working?

How would we keep people moving? What would happen at tube stations, airports, hospitals, and office blocks in the principal business districts?

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The ability to move around safely would grind to a halt. The morning rush hour would descend into pandemonium as people jostled for space on overcrowded staircases at transport hubs. Platforms would have to be evacuated, unable to contain the crowds. High-rise office buildings would be at a standstill. Shopping centres would become mazes, with people unable to reach their intended destinations. Everywhere firms would lose millions in potential business.

This scenario – whilst extremely unlikely – underscores the fundamental role that elevators and escalators have for the world’s urban centres, and the smooth flow of people in complex built environments. The truth, however, is that we rarely spare a thought for the meticulous maintenance and service that ensures their smooth functioning.

The global elevator and escalator company where I work, for instance, moves more than a billion people every day. To put that in a UK context, in January 2024, the company measured 59 million individual elevator journeys from only part of its installed portfolio across the country. By March, the number was 63 million. In the China region, by comparison, we measured 1.15 billion elevator journeys in March alone.

Servicing this critical infrastructure is increasingly cutting-edge and technologically sophisticated. This is a world where predictive analytics and artificial intelligence anticipate potential malfunctions before they occur, pre-emptively scheduling maintenance to avert disruption. Smart sensors and advanced diagnostics seamlessly monitor every door-open, door-close, ensuring optimal performance with surgical precision. At the moment, around 20% of KONE’s equipment uses AI-based analytics to evaluate equipment status, which has resulted in 40% fewer faults and entrapments and an 80% increase in identifying faults.

But it’s a combination of people power, knowhow and technical expertise that keeps everything moving. We have over 1.6 million units of equipment in service around the world, made up of our own products and those manufactured by our peers.

That requires more than 30,000 people in the field, installing, maintaining, and troubleshooting all those lifts and escalators. On an average day, that means about 80,000 customer visits a day. Plus the connected equipment provides about half a billion messages daily, which need to be processed and analysed – of course with the help of AI and machine learning.

As urban populations continue to grow and buildings become taller, or more adaptable, catering to complex needs, the demand for reliable vertical transportation systems will only increase. And even while the technology helping service teams advances exponentially, it is ultimately still people’s expertise that is the linchpin for urban infrastructure.

While the thought of all elevators and escalators suddenly ceasing to function is a remote possibility, it serves as a powerful reminder of the critical role that this infrastructure plays in our daily lives. By recognising the importance of proactive maintenance and embracing technological advancements, it will be possible to build more resilient urban environments for the future.

Amy Chen is Chief Innovation Officer at KONE