Cutting-edge aircraft flying in a futuristic city

Cutting-edge tech that’s shaping the cities of the future

  • Philips soon to offer mind-controlled appliances
  • Smart clothes that act as sensors
  • Bioluminescent trees to light the streets
  • Panasonic’s invisible screens
  • Circular runways: the shape of airports to come

Smart cities offer thoughtful technology as a solution to the problems facing 21st century urban centres. Experts warn that our ageing infrastructure, inefficient energy consumption, and traffic congestion promise to become more than headaches over the next few decades. But smart cities promise answers. Using the Internet of Things (IoT) to connect sensors to control centres, for instance, they’ll provide smart traffic control that eliminates congestion. This tech knowhow will enable smart energy grids that adjust in real time to supply and demand, and sensors embedded in critical infrastructure will alert engineers to maintenance issues before they become a problem. You’ve probably heard of some of these advances, and by now, none sound particularly futuristic. But smart cities have some pretty high-tech innovations we’ll see over the next decade or two, and some of them will surprise you.

Philips soon to offer mind-controlled appliances

Many people suffer neurodegenerative diseases like ALS or spinal injuries that reduce their motor control. Even basic tasks like turning on a television, checking email, or answering the phone can be frustratingly difficult for them. Advances in neurotechnology are poised to change this. For decades, researchers have been working on reading the minute electrical impulses that constitute our thoughts. As hard as it may be to believe, they’ve been wildly successful, developing a new generation of brain-computer interfaces (BCI), systems that allow brain activity to be measured and translated into code a computer can understand. In practice, this means that BCIs can read our thoughts, allowing us to issue commands with nothing more than our minds.

This technology is almost consumer ready. The Dutch technology titan, Philips, is developing home medical systems that use BCIs to assist patients with motor control deficits gain greater independence. Wearable BCIs are paired with tablets to control smart appliances like televisions and smartphones, providing the control most of us take for granted. But that’s not the limit of the tech; as BCIs improve and our cities get smarter, we anticipate that thought-controlled devices will become increasingly common. For instance, with your hands full, answering your phone or opening your door requires a complex juggling act. Instead, we think you’ll soon be able to command your phone to answer or open your email with your mind while you stay on the couch.

A black wearable brain-computer interface
Wearable BCIs are paired with tablets to control smart appliances like televisions and smartphones, providing the control most of us take for granted.

Smart clothes that act as sensors

Smart cities rely on the Internet of Things (IoT), the connection that allows one smart device to talk with another or collect and send data. Tomorrow’s cities will be smart, in part, because they’ll know more about what we need by using sophisticated suites of sensors to gather information on virtually everything, processing this information to assess patterns, increase efficiency, and minimise waste. Developers are working on smart fabrics as part of this system. At Southampton University in England, a research team is reimaging clothing as a data generating sensor. Their hope is that as pedestrians move through their city, they could capture real-time information about traffic, weather, or pollution, relaying this to a central node for sorting and analysis. Mobile data collection adds a new dimension to the smarts of our future cities, allowing sensors to be where the people are. As Steve Beeby, a professor of electrical engineering at Southampton, explains, “Most of the sensors that are used in smart cities are fixed, on lampposts for example, and there has been some work to put them on vehicles such as buses, but we are looking to put them on people, in something they can just put on and wear.” These smart clothes work both ways: they can send and receive information, allowing the authorities, for instance, to warn their citizens of potential security threats and prompt rapid evacuation. But this is a dream come true for retailers as well, who could advertise sales and specials to people they know are in the neighbourhood.

Bioluminescent trees to light the streets

Paris is exploring using the bioluminescence of jellyfish and insects to illuminate signs and storefronts. Glowee, a Parisian start-up, has designed self-contained bulbs filled with bioluminescent bacteria and the food and oxygen they need to thrive. The gently glowing bulbs may soon be seen on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. But, Daan Roosegaarde, the famous Dutch designer, wants to take this tech a step further by genetically modifying plants to glow much as seas creatures do. His idea is to use gene editing software like CRISPR to provide trees the light-giving capacity of fireflies, for instance, illuminating the streets of Amsterdam with softly glowing trees. If his project succeeds, it may be the end of one of the most nagging problems in smart energy use, decreasing our demand for scarce resources and helping keep the planet clean.

Panasonic’s invisible screens

The cities of the future don’t just want to be smart – they want to be beautiful as well. To meet these demands, Panasonic has been working on a new generation of transparent television screens. Where traditional LED technology depends on backlighting, this new generation of OLED is self-lighting, allowing true transparency. This may not seem exciting, but imagine being able to convert the large windows of an office into a screen for presentations, embed video advertisements on the windows of commuter trains, or have glass-top tables become sophisticated work stations with the swipe of a finger. This new tech’s security applications are exciting as well: when motion sensitive cameras detect someone at the door, they could automatically feed their video to the nearest tabletop, mirror, or glass panel. The possibilities are endless. When combined with artificial intelligence like IBM’s Watson, Panasonic’s revolutionary tech could allow you to use your hotel room’s mirror to summon a talking digital concierge who can offer you customised information about nearby attractions, answer questions about hotel amenities, or help you make reservations at your favourite restaurant.

Circular runways: the shape of airports to come

Not everything smart is high tech. Sometimes, smart cities get better through creative reimagination rather than technological innovation. One great example of this forward thinking is Henk Hesselink’s proposal for circular runways at airports. His imagination supplied the solution to a common problem: by ringing an airport with a round runway, incoming and outgoing flights can land and takeoff at optimal angles with respect to the prevailing wind. “The idea of the circular runway is that planes can land and take off at any point in the circle,” he explains, avoiding the fancy flying that’s necessary at conventional airports that sport only two or three runways. In heavy crosswinds, pilots can struggle to safely land a plane – but not if Hesselink’s idea is widely adopted. Moreover, his proposal can increase the capacity of airports by allowing more planes to takeoff and land simultaneously.

As you can see, the future of smart cities offers technology that’s straight from science fiction. From mind-controlled appliances to bioluminescent trees, smart cities are limited only by our imagination.

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