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The city of the future: a clean, green, well-oiled machine

  • We need clean, green, well-oiled machines
  • Buildings that adapt to our needs and even influence our heart rate
  • Smart parking systems that can signal when they’re available
  • The high-tech utopia of Songdo, South Korea
  • What happens to all this data generated by sensors? The creepy use of technology

Almost half of the world population lives in urban centres and according to the WHO, we’ll see 6.4 billion people living in cities by the year 2050. In order to sustain this growth, urban centres will need to become much more efficient in terms of their environment, traffic management, communal spaces, food consumption and energy use. Our spaces need to be green, healthy and sustainable.

We need clean, green, well-oiled machines

The so called ‘greenification’ of our cities is born out of an urgent need. Our urban spaces are bursting at the seams. Our traffic congestion has reached alarming levels and our public transportation networks are overcrowded and prone to delays. Our queues are getting longer and power outages happen with increasing frequency.

Our future cities will be shaped by ideas and concepts and there are many different ideas about what these urban spaces are supposed to look like. One thing is for sure – smart cities are definitely greener; boasting electric transportation systems and bike sharing initiatives, parks and offices with windows that can open because the air quality will have been significantly improved. The cities of the future will see green, adaptable, self-sustaining high-rise buildings where we live, work and grow our own food.

Buildings that adapt to our needs and even influence our heart rate

Dave Bartlett, Vice President of Smarter Physical Infrastructure at IBM is of the opinion that buildings are living organisms, not static structures. Buildings have the ability to talk to us through data and the Internet of Things. His buildings – such as Tulane University – are full of sensors; on lights, water pipes, boilers, air ducts and more. These sensors monitor the performance of the building in real time which makes it possible to pinpoint potential problems before they even have a chance to affect the occupants. Offices should be able to automatically adjust temperature, humidity levels, air quality and more, based on sensor data and ‘crowd sourced’ assessments made by their occupants. In the future, heating and smart lighting will be directed at us and follow us around the room. The Ario lamp, for instance, based on research from Harvard and NASA, is connected to Wi-Fi and mimics natural sunlight to help improve your health.

Buildings that are not adaptable, dynamic and interactive don’t serve their purpose. The National Institute of Building Sciences identifies three types of smart buildings: adaptive, regenerative and living structures. Adaptive buildings and structures change according to changing conditions and requirements, for instance climate change. They make it possible to easily repurpose a space so that its impact on the environment is minimised. Living buildings are really alive because the natural environment powers them. They use rainwater and harness energy from the sun and the wind. When we talk about regenerative buildings – we talk about structures that actually generate more energy than they are able to use. They use the excess energy to power buildings in the area around them and by sharing, they are improving their surroundings.

ExoBuilding, an incredible project from the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham, explores the possibilities that emerge when someone’s physiological and emotional data is connected to the architecture of a structure. Personal data and data from our surroundings can be used to make our spaces more interactive. The ExoBuilding is a spatial prototype that follows the heart rate, skin conductance and breathing rate of its occupant. This is done through synchronised visualisation, sounds and motion. When the occupant of an ExoBuilding inhales, the building moves up around him and when he exhales, the building moves back down. What the occupant of the building experiences is multi-sensory and immersive and triggers behavioural changes. The biofeedback environment encourages its occupant to breathe deeper and slower, resulting in improved synchronicity between respiration and heart rates.

Smart parking systems that can signal when they’re available

Did you know that over thirty percent of city traffic is caused by drivers looking for a place to park their cars? If cars would know where to go, these challenges could soon become a thing of the past. Streetline, a company that’s worked with cities like Birmingham and Los Angeles, has embedded thousands of sensors in parking spots. This enables them to send out signals to indicate that they are available. Using the Streetline app, drivers can get real time information on available parking spaces – and even pay for them – without having to circle each and every city block. Of course, with the data a city is able to generate, systems like these can also create options for dynamic pricing for parking spaces. Let’s say you want the most spacious, most conveniently situated parking space in the street, all you’ll have to do is pay a little extra. This is also a great opportunity for merchants – they could incentivise their customers for shopping at their stores by automatically paying for their parking.

hands holding a smartphone in a parking garage
Using the Streetline app, drivers can get real time information on available parking spaces.

The high-tech utopia of Songdo, South Korea

A good example of what a smart city looks like is Songdo in South Korea. Construction of this incredible city commenced in 2005 with more than $40 billion in investments and was officially opened in 2009. Everything, from traffic patterns to temperature and energy use, is monitored and regulated through sensors throughout the entire city. The city is designed with lots of open spaces – 40 percent of the city consists of parks – and the buildings within it are designed to be eco friendly and sustainable. Waste is automatically ‘sucked’ out of people’s homes, making garbage trucks virtually obsolete. The waste is gathered and transported via an underground network of tunnels to a central area where it is turned into compost. A substantial part of the residents of Songdo are bicycle commuters and they park their bikes in tidy rows outside their offices during the day and in front of their apartments in the evening. The city boasts many pedestrian walkways along restaurants, shops and other places of interest. Songdo’s former fishermen have been given small pieces of land for urban farming – as compensation for giving up their fisheries to make way for the construction of the city. New, smart cities such as Songdo leverage new technologies, planning techniques, design and infrastructure in order to create living, breathing urban organisms that can communicate with its inhabitants.

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What happens to all this data generated by sensors? The creepy use of technology

Smart cities could offer unprecedented health, economic and environmental benefits to their citizens but filling our cities with all this technology also has potential downsides. The thing with smart cities is that the data they produce is not accessible by individuals that produce this data in the first place. Instead it is used by the city (or god knows who) for various purposes, sometimes without people knowing about this. This could lead to citizens feeling alienated and used – instead of engaged with the city.

We produce data about what we eat and when we eat it. We generate data when we show interest in something which enables marketers to approach us with targeted advertising at exactly the right time. Enjoying a nice pizza? Perhaps you would like a beer to go with that to quench your thirst? Are you stressed or worried? Marketers will even be aware of that, because wearables collect and transmit data about your heart rate and more. Marketers will jump right in and offer you something to cheer you up or relax you.

A couple of years ago, there was some controversy around Wi-Fi garbage bins in London. They were tracking pedestrians by identifying the Wi-Fi connections on their smartphones. They monitored where the people went and the amount of time they spent at certain stores. The objective was to display highly targeted advertising on these garbage bins. For example, if a clothing store noticed that a loyal customer suddenly went shopping at their competitor, it could display a special discounted offer on the garbage bin as the customer walked past. Another example is the smart billboard that can recognise a Mini and greet it. The i-Dat facial recognition software can see when you smile. Imagine what could be done with this technology if it fell into the wrong hands?

As with any type of (new) technology, there is always the potential for abuse. The operating systems of smart cities are sensitive to hacking – as are all operating systems. Imagine hackers tapping into the transport infrastructure or into the power supply of all the buildings in the city. That could easily result in the disaster scenarios we see in movies and we therefore need to put the right security measures in place. But even though there are many challenges, technology will turn our urban spaces into clean, green, well-oiled machines and could potentially help us get our sense of community back. Which would perhaps be the greatest benefit of all.

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