Will the city of the future be sustainable?

Will the city of the future be sustainable?

The sci-fi vision of ‘the city of the future’ with sleek skyscrapers and flying cars has started to give way to a more plausible, human, practical, and ‘green’ vision known as the ‘smart city’. Whilst smart city visions differ, at their heart is the notion that in the coming decades, the planet’s most heavily concentrated populations will occupy city environments where a digital blanket of sensors, devices and cloud connected data is being brought together to enhance the city living experience for all.


Smart concepts encompass all of the key elements that enable city ecosystems to function effectively – from traffic control and environmental protection to the management of energy, sanitation, healthcare, security, and buildings.


The world’s premier cities are now competing to build highly interconnected smart environments where people, government and business operate in symbiosis with spectacular exponentially improving technologies such as big data, the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, hyperconnectivity, artificial intelligence (AI), robots, drones, autonomous green vehicles, 3D / 4D printing, and renewable energy.


Future smart cities promise to harmonize the benefits of these key disruptive technologies for society and provide a high quality of life by design. At the same time, they assume that pervasive surveillance and data capture are permissible to city residents. Some have already begun implementing smart city mechanisms and, as the concepts, experiences and success stories spread, the pursuit of smart will become a key driver in the evolving future of cities as communities and economic centres.


In a fast-changing world, it can be hard to develop a clear future vision and strategy – when every sector is being disrupted and all our assumptions are being challenged. However, that’s exactly what we have to do. City governments have to create inclusive processes that inform citizens about the forces shaping the future and the possibilities and challenges on the horizon and then engage the population in dialogue about the kind of future we want to create. We have to explore what a livable city means to its people and be clear on how we will attract and support a constant flow of industries of the future. Alongside this we need to articulate a clear vision and direction around education, environment, public services, access to justice, city administration, and civic engagement. These pillars then provide the guiding requirements which will in turn influence the design of the physical, digital and human elements of a smart city infrastructure.


Smart cities are designed to inform decisions by capturing massive amounts of data about the population and its patterns, such as water use and traffic flows. This information gathering results in what is called big data, and it is essentially gathered via surveillance. There can also be voluntary efforts to collect information, but the ease and affordability of sensors, AI and advanced analytics in the future will mean this function can be completely automated. The data can be collated from a constantly evolving and expanding IoT – encompassing traffic lights and cameras, pollution sensors, building control systems, and personal devices – all literally feeding giant data stores held in the cloud. The ability to crunch all this data is becoming easier due to rampant growth in the use of devices algorithms, AI, and predictive software – all running on networks of high performance computing and storage devices.


Singapore is a leading example of a smart city, and is constantly evolving its “city brain,” a backbone of technologies used to help control pollution, monitor traffic, allocate parking, communicate with citizens, and even issue traffic fines. The behavioral aspect is not to be overlooked. Singapore’s “brain” is attempting to modify human behavior; for example, one system rewards drivers for using recommended mapped routes, and punishes those who do not. Ultimately, Singapore’s planners hope to discourage driving, and guide most commuters to making greater use of public transportation. The city is planning for 100 million “smart objects” including smart traffic lights, lamp posts, sensors, and cameras on its roadways, which will be used to monitor and enforce laws. In the UK, where $634B is earmarked for infrastructure over the next several years, drivers are already saving up to half an hour per day on the M62 smart motorway through the use of congestion management techniques such as dynamic signage, variable speed limits and peak period access to the hard shoulder.


Smart cities rest on advanced technology to make sense of massive collections of information. Indeed, the amount of information on the internet is expected to grow exponentially as a result of the IoT. Essentially IoT means that everything (“things”) – and potentially everyone – will become beacons and data collection devices, gathering data on ambient and behavioral patterns from its surroundings and from the information it is fed—and networking all this data via the cloud. Hence, after data, the IoT is the second driving force behind the rise of smart infrastructure; in order for everything from air conditioning to parking meters to function in a smart city, the use of microphones, sensors, voice recognition, and all sorts of other high-tech gadgetry must be hooked up to the IoT.


Companies and planners are already beginning to explore the possibilities. For example, a case study from India suggests that light poles along the highways can offer both smart city and connectivity solutions. In addition to helping monitor road conditions, the light poles could be fitted as high-speed data connections. Data is a critical element of the smart city/smart road future. However, because this option will further expand the relationship between internet service providers, surveillance, and private business including advertisers, there are several issues around privacy to be considered. Certainly the information from smart cities and roads should be used to keep citizens safe, healthy, and protected. But should companies be allowed to target users with adverts based on information collected for other purposes?


Within and between the smart cities of the future, smart roads in particular are where planners can put into effect the ultra-efficient mechanisms that will characterize the modern smart city. In general, the concepts around smart cities, smart roads, and smart infrastructure are becoming less visionary and more strategic and sustainable by the day. As cities grow in size and importance to the global economy, it will be increasingly important that they adopt the most innovative and forward-thinking design and sustainability ideas. As a smart infrastructure future unfolds, three important new technologies—big data, the IoT and renewable energy—are working in tandem to transform the day-to-day.


For example, South Korea is planning an entire network of smart roads by 2020, including battery-charging stations for electric vehicles (EVs) as well as infrastructure to handle autonomous vehicles. Autonomous vehicles will require roads to transform into information superhighways; the vehicles will need to communicate not only with each other, but also with the city infrastructure. The need for ubiquitous data is a critical step in the evolution toward self-driving cars. Mapping, traffic signals, and safety regulations, for instance, are all parts of the physical and digital infrastructure that will have to become highly coordinated for autonomous vehicles to function.


Finally, all this data and awareness will enable decisions that make the best possible use of space, fuel, energy, water, electricity, and all resources, with an emphasis on sustainability. For example, a clear priority is being able to anticipate big traffic jams and provide alternate routes to save time, fuel, and reduce impact on the city infrastructure itself. Limiting waste is a very logical outcome and benefit of the merging of big data, AI and IoT which feeds into the rise of smart infrastructure.


Electric vehicles are growing their market foothold, hence the charging concerns related to EVs are gaining urgency in the eyes of many policy-makers and planners. One of the biggest hurdles to electric vehicle adoption is keeping a charge across long distances. To help address this challenge, UK researchers are testing out smart road technology that charges electric cars while they are being driven. The achievement of smart infrastructures could drive the required policy and behavioral tweaks to enable wide adoption of today’s renewable resources.


Another smart technology involves pavement surfaces prepared with panels that capture solar energy allowing streets to power themselves, which has been tested in the U.S. and the Netherlands. Meanwhile, a special powder that gathers sunlight and glows at night has shown promise, but not in the wet climates of northern Europe—it washes off with excessive rain.


A futuristic concept that would not require sunshine is the capture of renewable energy with piezoelectric crystals installed beneath asphalt on busy highways. Theoretically, the crystals could capture the energy released by vehicles driving over the asphalt, which could then be stored or used for powering highway infrastructure. Piezoelectric crystal pilot programs, though so far unsuccessful, provide a fresh perspective on renewable options for gathering energy to power our infrastructure and roads.


Interestingly, the car companies themselves are exploring similar options as they place their stakes in sustainable solutions beyond transportation; BMW and Nissan have released home energy batteries that can extend the life of an electric car battery as an in-home renewable energy source, even capable of storing solar energy. Given that the UK has recently broken energy use records with solar meeting almost a quarter of energy demands, there is significant potential for the sun to become a mainstream power source. There is also a new scientific forecasting tool to predict solar weather, which will make the rollout of solar on smart roads (and in homes) a more feasible option. Eventually, with a growing array of such distributed power solutions, a centralized energy distribution grid for homes and businesses may not be necessary.


The smart city movement now afoot has the potential to transform the organization of people and physical objects in a way that transcends urban development as we know it. The shift to smart infrastructure is not simply fashionable or aspirational; in many ways, it appears to be a critical enabler of the future sustainability of cities. It can be argued that the future of human life on the planet rests on a smooth transition to cities that are more efficient, less wasteful, and more conscious of the impacts of the individual upon the greater good. This may include a range of new negotiations along the boundaries of freedom and privacy; for example, allowing self-driving cars to replace human drivers in the hope of preventing death and injury in auto accidents, increasing traffic efficiency and removing environmental impacts. Similarly, we might have to agree to invasive monitoring of waste generation, energy and water use in the home to reach municipal conservation goals. These are the kinds of tensions that future planners will need to wrestle with on a continuous basis.


The smart city shouldn’t be an apocalyptic future where citizens are stripped of their free will, nor does the smart road lead to a utopia. However, it is now possible to create and deliver a city vision with citizens at its heart and that is enabled by forward thinking infrastructure planning coupled with judicious use of enabling technologies. A well thought through vision, enabled by a robust and well-executed smart city model could provide a foundation stone for the next stage of our development, where science and technology are genuinely harnessed in service of creating a very human future.
Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells and Alexandra Whittington, Fast Future



Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells and Alexandra Whittington are from Fast Future which publishes books from future thinkers around the world exploring how developments such as AI, robotics and disruptive thinking could impact individuals, society and business and create new trillion-dollar sectors. Fast Future has a particular focus on ensuring these advances are harnessed to unleash individual potential and ensure a very human future. See: www.fastfuture.com



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