Innovations That Matter

Top 7 Smart City Innovations From 2019

Best of 2019

From self-driving shuttles to energy-producing bike racks, the technology powering smart cities does not cease to surprise us.

“Smart Cities” are locales designed to incorporate communication and information technologies (IoT). This may result in enhanced performance of urban services like transportation and utilities while simultaneously increasing energy efficiency and reducing overall waste.

However, is Big Brother on the dark side of smart cities? Along with many benefits, smart cities can compromise on privacy, energy use and data security. Built as the world’s “smartest city,” Songdo in South Korea was envisioned as a sustainable, low-carbon and high-tech utopia. But to accomplish that, buildings and streets had to be embedded with sensors that monitor everything from energy use to traffic flow. 

While some innovations aimed at creating positive change also come with drawbacks, we believe the following ideas from 2019 made cities smarter for the right reasons while laying the groundwork for how we may interact with where we live in the coming years.

1. WORLD’S NORTHERNMOST ENERGY-POSITIVE BUILDING

Photo source Snohetta

Powerhouse Brattørkaia, in Trondheim, Norway, is an energy-positive office that became the most sustainable building to date when it opened a few months back. The office, measuring 18,000 sq m (193,750 sq ft), was designed by architecture collaborative Snøhetta.

The building uses a variety of different technologies to radically reduce energy use in its daily operations. These include the use of a heat pump system, collecting rainwater for use in toilets, and using seawater from the nearby fjord for heating and cooling.

To generate energy, the roof and the upper part of its facade are covered in 3,000 sq m of solar panels. These produce around 500,000 kWh of electricity a year, more than twice as much as the building requires.

The excess energy is supplied to nearby buildings and used to powering electric vehicles, turning the building into a power plant. Energy storage is also built into the building’s footprint. Batteries are used to store surplus energy in the summer, when it is light for up to 20 hours a day, providing energy in the winter months when daylight is at a minimum.

2. PLANS FOR A SMART FOREST CITY IN MEXICO

Photo source Stefanoboeriarchitetti.net

Italian architect Stefano Boeri developed plans for a new, eco-efficient forest city in Cancun, Mexico. The plan calls for the 557-hectare site to contain more than 7.5 million plants, capable of absorbing 116,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year.

Boeri is known for his forest city designs which propose the creation of vertical, plant-covered skyscrapers to reduce pollution.  The Mexican project would also include sensors embedded in the building fabric. These would be used to collect and analyse data on the use of energy, water and other systems. 

Boeri’s firm is designing the city in conjunction with German engineering company Transsolar. It will include elements to create a circular economy, such as solar panels, farmland irrigated using an embedded water system, a desalination system and water gardens to prevent flooding. Other features will include an internal electric mobility system that will allow residents to leave vehicles on the outskirts.

3. TWO-STORY FLOATING HOMES EXTEND CITY LIVING FOR COASTAL COMMUNITIES

Photo source rca.ac.uk

Art school graduate student Wojciech Morsztyn’s floating concept home is a largely self-sustainable, two-story structure, powered by renewable energy. Created as an alternative solution to rising sea levels, the homes can be anchored together in clusters. Ideally located only metres away from a city’s coast, each Ocean Community will connect individual homes via walkways. When tethered together, multiple communities could form larger neighbourhoods. 

Each floating home runs off a mixture of solar and electrical energy, and filters and stores water. Due to each community’s proximity to the shore, Morsztyn envisions residents travelling to and from the mainland quickly and easily, as per regular urban commuters. As well as being of interest to individual homeowners, the hospitality industry is likely to show interest in offering the floating homes as additional accommodation.  

Potentially, the homes could be available commercially within 10 to 15 years, and their suggested cost is expected to be around €174,000. Further development of the idea includes expanding renewable energy sources, to enable a community to live completely off-grid. 

4. FREE, SELF-DRIVING SHUTTLE SERVICE STARTS IN NEW YORK

Photo source Optimus Ride

Autonomous vehicle company Optimus Ride launched New York’s first self-driving vehicle program. The programme allows workers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard industrial park to ride for free between the NYC Ferry stop at Dock72 and the Yards’ Cumberland Gate at Flushing Ave. The service is expected to carry around 16,000 passengers a month. 

The company, a startup out of MIT, uses geofencing to allow its autonomous vehicles to safely move through areas it has thoroughly mapped. The strictly defined areas where the vehicles drive help them learn what the company calls the “culture of driving” on different roads.

Optimus Ride’s vehicles use a machine vision system to rapidly identify objects and make predictions. Location-specific details, like the turn radius of buses used in different communities, are learned quickly by the system because it focuses on a defined area, rather than everywhere.

5. DIGITAL TWINS MAKE URBAN PLANNING A LOT LESS MESSY

Photo source Shutterstock

Digital twin technology has been around for decades, but now urban planners, engineers and others are using the technology to problem solve city development projects, before tearing up streets. Digital twins (in this context, virtual replicas of physical cities) work like sophisticated 3-D maps, but ones hooked up to real-time data collected from the real world. Thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT), and falling technology costs, simulated cities can tap into huge amounts of data on things like traffic, people’s movements, power systems, streetlights and the weather. Computers can use this data to build a more realistic twin, before playing out various “what-if” scenarios, such as how a new streetlight would affect commuters.

A digital twin of Singapore serves as a perfect example. With software made by French firm Dassault Systemes, a virtual Singapore uses real-time data such as traffic, demographics and climate information, in a platform used by urban planners to test innovations. Several other companies are also working on digital twin simulation software, including Cityzenith, Siemens, Microsoft and GE.

6. BIKE RACK COLLECTS ENERGY GENERATED BY CYCLISTS

Photo source Pixabay

Dutch designers Guillaume Roukhomovsky and Blaž Verhnjak created S-Park, a bike rack system that can use kinetic energy from cycling to charge batteries. The system was proposed as part of Amsterdam’s Clean Energy Challenge. As the rider bikes around the city, their front wheel produces kinetic energy, which is stored in batteries on the bicycle.

When done riding, cyclists park the bike in a communal bike rack that’s connected to the electricity grid. The energy that the batteries stored during the ride is then discharged into the electrical grid. The system includes a front wheel that can be popped into any bike frame. The designers estimate that each bike rack could generate about one kilowatt-hour of energy per day.

7. CROSSWALK LIGHTS USE AI TO ANTICIPATE POTENTIAL ACCIDENTS

Photo source Günther Pichler GmbH

Vienna installed around 200 pedestrian crossing lights that can recognise when a person wants to cross the road. The system was commissioned by Municipal Department 33 of the City of Vienna and developed by a team at the Institute of Computer Graphics and Vision at TU Graz University. It is intended to replace the push-button system and can adapt to give large groups and people with disabilities more time to cross.

The system uses cameras mounted on the traffic light that have a large visual field. The research team used global movement models and recorded data to develop learning algorithms, which recognise when a pedestrian wants to cross the street. The system then triggers the light to change. Images are analysed locally by on-sight computers and are not saved.

The traffic lights are equipped with a monitoring system that can report faults immediately. They can also work in all types of light and weather conditions. The hope is that the system will not only make crossing safer and faster but will also allow smoother traffic flow.