What do you think urban mobility will be like in 25 to 50 years’ time? You may picture a future filled with driverless cars, hoverboards and pods propelled through near-vacuum tubes. While this may yet become a reality, there’ll still be transport infrastructures in place – ensuring they are equipped to deal with urban demands will be just as important, if not more so, than any technological development.
The relationship between innovation and transport, and what it will mean for the city of the future, was one of the key topics being discussed at this year’s IoT Tech Expo Global. More than 6,000 attendees converged on Olympia London’s conference centre for two days of talks and networking. There were a mixture of multinational corporations, startups, fledgling entrepreneurs and tech aficionados.
The event – now in its second year – is a celebration of the Internet of Things (IoT). Products, services and industries are continuously becoming more connected and this is having an impact on every aspect of daily life. The smart city industry is expected to be worth £319 billion globally by 2020, according to a report published by the UK government, and at the heart of it will be transport.
Summing up how mobility is the fuel in the city’s engine, Chi Onwurah, a qualified engineer and UK shadow minister for industrial strategy, says: “Urban transportation is a key part of transforming our productivity, improving regions and economic development. We need to ensure that we have efficient travel to work times, people can go to where the jobs are, and more jobs can be created where the skills are.”
So what makes a smart transport infrastructure?
Startups should be in the driving seat
Startups can drive change, says Sacha Meckler from telecoms research company Analysys Mason, and also chair of the first day’s talks around smart cities. Innovators and entrepreneurs are strong leaders and have in-depth knowledge of the latest technology, while not being afraid to make bold statements.
Government bodies are often less ambitious and don’t have access to the finances that private companies do, but collaboration between the sectors is essential nonetheless.
A practical example of collaboration is local transport authorities making APIs commercially available to apps such as Moovit and Waze.
While data is being used to alleviate congestion and improve driver and pedestrian safety, startups should also look beyond the car when it comes to using IoT to design solutions that reduce the volume of traffic.
Mobility delivers the goods
“More and more of us are buying goods on the internet, and goods transport is increasing much more than personal transport,” says Gustaf Landahl, head of planning and the environment at the City of Stockholm and coordinator of the GrowSmarter project.
The Swedish capital is one of eight cities that has signed up to implementing a series of sustainable solutions to improve urban infrastructure over the course of five years. One of the ideas being suggested is for residents to be given a smart box for parcels on their porch or in the foyer of their apartment block that they can open with a pin code. Items would ideally be delivered by a fleet of cyclists.
If such a solution could be implemented at scale logistically, it wouldn’t only reduce the number of vans and HGVs causing problems in quiet neighbourhoods with narrow streets, says Landahl. It’d mean that residents wouldn’t have to take unnecessary short trips to pick up missed deliveries. This would have a positive impact on carbon emission levels, while also leaving the roads clearer for commuters to get to work on time.
A city that works for everyone
As the IoT continues to evolve, startups are likely to propose new and novel solutions to everyday tasks and services. But, as Onwurah argues, “technology is not the solution on its own,” particularly if not designed with all residents in mind.
Landahl agrees. He adds that for cities to operate efficiently they need to be inclusive and have accessible transport that helps everyone connect and have the opportunity to participate in the economy.
“Where smart cities will begin to work is where they empower people to make more effective decisions for themselves,” argues Onwurah. Improved mobility will enable them do this.
Look beyond the city
For a city to be truly intelligent, it shouldn’t be exclusive to those living in it.
Startups and local authorities need to consider transient travellers. Particularly those that come in from rural areas on holiday or even looking for work, who might not be as astute about the urban traffic situation, such as where parking spaces are, and cause disruption as a result, says Tim Gammons, a director and global smart mobility lead at professional services firm Arup.
“City planners need to understand the behaviours of those outside,” he adds. “If these travellers can be provided with better information, then they can change their journey and plan it before and not once they’ve left the house.”
As Onwurah puts it: “It’s about getting data and putting people in control of it. Everyone needs to feel part of the urban environment.”
IoT Tech Expo Global took place at Olympia London, January 23-24, 2017.