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Smart cities: Inspired thinking for expanding urban populations

Category: Smart cities
Published: 14/05/2016

The old Hollywood vision of the future seemed so exciting. We’d have flying cars by now, rockets to the moon, holidays on Mars. City streets would be clear of traffic jams and we’d buzz overhead at hyperspeed dressed in our shiny silver suits, encased in sleek tubes delivering us to offices in the clouds.

It’s fair to say that so far we’re not quite getting around as Hollywood may have led us to expect.

But what of the future?

Hollywood is closer than you think

Tomorrow’s megacities are far from science fiction. London’s population alone, currently 8.4 million, is scheduled to grow to 10 million by 2030. According to Transport for London’s own reckoning, that equates to an extra tube full of people arriving every three days. Today, in Tokyo, 38 million residents jostle for space on a daily basis.

This pattern of growth shows no sign of slowing down. A 2014 UN report suggests that by 2030, there will be 41 megacities with 10 million inhabitants or more. That means a phenomenal number of people trying to negotiate the same old narrow streets, many of them constructed centuries ago not for motor cars, but for horse and cart.

Finding a way through is not going to be easy.

Investing in smart technology

According to futurist, author and technology expert Daniel Burrus, it’s not as straightforward as simply building more roads. Coping with congestion in the future, perhaps not surprisingly, involves a superhighway.

Or more specifically, the Internet of Things.

“People misunderstand the Internet of Things as machines talking to machines. It’s really sensors talking to machines,” he explains.

“A sensor senses things. Position, proximity, presence – if something is moving, they can sense the amount of motion, velocity, displacement.

“Embedding sensors wirelessly in our cities, vehicles, infrastructure – which some cities are already doing – will in turn impact on transportation and mobility.”

By making parking smart, you eliminate 30% of congestion right away

The question then, is how does inserting a few sensors around a city really help ease rush hour traffic jam?

Burrus explains: “When you think of congested cities, you think ‘build more roadways’. With intelligence, you start to see where the congestion comes from.

“Studies have shown that 30% of congestion in our cities is caused by finding a place to park. The average person takes around 18 minutes to find a parking place.”

Indeed one study suggested that a motorist spends 106 days of their life just driving around looking for somewhere to park.

“By making parking smart, you eliminate 30% of congestion right away,” Burrus points out.

Some motorists already use smartphone apps to hunt for a parking space, reserve it and pay in advance, helping speed up a typically frustrating problem.

Sensors that track traffic movement, digest the information and then send signals to motorists, either to funnel them away from trouble or to tweak traffic signals so they keep vehicles moving, are not far behind.

Indeed, some smart cities are already partway there.

The forward march of smart cities

In Dublin, major research is already underway aimed at figuring out how to make best use of all the data that flows through the city, from road sensors to chat about traffic hold ups on social media. Eventually the information will filter through to apps, which will give users real time information to plan journeys better.

More visible today is the work of the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting to retro-fit 140,000 white light LED lights in its street lamps, each with smart connections and sensors feeding back to a command centre. Individual lights can be dulled or brightened, handy for crowds leaving a major event or illuminating areas so pedestrians feel safer, so they don’t have to drive.

Eventually the system may flicker to warn of an emergency vehicle approaching or of delays, and adjust traffic lights to ensure the traffic flows.

The world won’t be like Blade Runner

Meanwhile in Bristol, the ground-breaking Bristol is Open project is exploring how ‘hyperconnectivity’ there could help tackle everything from pollution and congestion to care for the elderly.

The city is one of four in the UK testing driverless cars. According to Bristol is Open’s managing director Paul Wilson, for them to be effective, there needs to be control over the whole traffic system.

“There’s a whole load of infrastructure that will be turned live this year,” he says. “We then begin to see real world things like apps on top of the infrastructure which will continue over the next five years.”

So no flying cars or jetpacks? “That’s science fiction and comic books,” says futurologist and engineer Ian Pearson of Futurizon. “We can already make flying cars but not cheaply and they need extremely reliable computers otherwise they’d be dropping out of the sky.

“They’d be like helicopters and yes, we might see a few. But the world won’t be like Blade Runner.”

Instead he predicts subtle changes such as delivery drones being used by businesses to deliver to secure depots, removing some commercial vehicles from the roads.

And fleets of self-driving cars, hired like taxis and then left for the next person to hire using their phone app.

However some cities are looking skywards. In Medellín in Colombia, the Metrocable glides above the steep hillsides like an Alpine cable car. A similar system, Mi Teleferico in La Paz, Bolivia, is so successful it’s being extended.

Others are heading underground. London Mayor Boris Johnson’s £1.3 trillion London Infrastructure Plan 2050 suggests a 22 mile long road tunnel beneath the heart of the city, to free up space above ground for new construction. However, high speed vacuum trains – underground capsules which could be shot through sealed tunnels at eye-watering speeds – remain the stuff of dreams.

Smartphones and smart cities

For most of us, future city transport will be in our own hands in the form of apps using predictive software that can guess your destination and suggest the fastest route, and others that encourage sharing vehicles or summon driverless taxis to get us from A to B.

Biometric fingerprint and iris payment technology will remove that awkward ‘fumbling for the right change’ moment on the bus – foreign visitors to Japan can try out a fingerprint payment system from this summer.

Perhaps the most obvious sign that the future has arrived, will be the sight of driverless cars. Whether they’re the whole solution, however, is debatable.

“Our point of view is that driverless cars are not the best use of the technology,” says Luke Bosdet of motorists’ group The AA. “The things they have that stop them from having an accident, that direct them away from or slow you down before your hit the car in front or help you park, are very useful for drivers without having to go to stage of driverless cars.”

Whatever we do, US-based Burrus believes there’ll still be congestion.

“It won’t be perfect, there’ll still be problems,” he says. “And if you want less congestion, you’ll need to accept that there needs to be more intelligence which looks at how you move.

“But will there ever be zero congestion? I don’t think so.”