*Updated November 2022
Future cities and technological innovation have always been synonymous with one another, just take a look at basically any sci-fi film, show, or video game and their usually Blade Runner-esque back drop of AI robotics and flying vehicles. The cities of the future, or near future, may or may not have flying cars, depending on the development rate of drone technology, but one thing is for certain is that these urban environments are going to need solutions that combat the issues urbanization and cities bring along with them.
The UN projects that 55% of the world’s current population lives in cities, but by 2050 this number should jump to 68%. Of course, with world populations also expected to shoot up well over 9 billion, that 13% becomes a much more intimidating number.
Undoubtedly, overpopulation and the mass urban migration on the horizon are the issues posing the largest threats to the future of cities. Their implications are overreaching into various areas of urban life, such as housing, infrastructure, transport, pollution, etc. It is apparent that overall urban sustainability is the target and should be in the crosshairs of city planners now and well into the future.
But to achieve these goals and find the urbanization solutions that are so desperately needed, technological innovation is a must. It will be through innovation that the future landscape and face of cities will be shaped by. So let's dive into some of the innovative tech, ideas, and companies out there that are pushing and developing the solutions needed that will make future cities the near-utopic picture that we have all painted in our heads.
AI and machine learning for mobility solutions
AI and machine learning (ML) seem to be on most people’s radars when it comes to technological innovation, any tech blog that came out in the last couple of years seems to have a reference to these technologies. It’s not unwarranted, as AI and ML seem to be applied across the industrial spectrum, and in terms of urban development, it is no different.
Where AI and its subset ML is being applied in the urban environment is as a solution to the congestion that urbanization brings with it. What an AI-based traffic system can do in here is collect and analyze live traffic and historical traffic data from interconnected traffic systems to better control the flow of traffic in a city and avoid congestions. Less idling means more efficient travel, reducing the carbon footprint of fossil fuel-based vehicles.
[Related Article - Using Information Technology Towards Building a Smarter City]
Another way in which AI and ML are applied in traffic efficiency is in analyzing data on the infrastructure itself. Deep learning algorithms can not only make transportation infrastructure safer, but they can also help predict when and where maintenance will be needed, saving time and money for the city.
This technology is already being developed by a company based in Cambridge called Intellegens. Their ML solution created models to determine where drainage issues and maintenance would be needed, saving Hampshire county more than 100,000 pounds.
Another example is road damage recognition being developed by ARCADIS, which is taking images of various stretches of road, running them through a software program that can determine the extent of damage, suggesting how to approach the particular maintenance case, and the manner in which it should be fixed. This can also be used to create a predictive model to determine as to when maintenance should occur using historical data.
AI and ML also have their place in the water and wastewater management sectors. Access to fresh water and the health of our overall water systems is one of the most important staples when it comes to civilization and modern urban areas. Having a healthier and more efficient system would make great leaps and bounds for urban sustainability and quality of life for people.
Using IoT hardware, smart sensors, and meters, AI and ML will be able to comb over the vast amount of data generated by these sources and detect any issues within the water and wastewater network. They would also be able to determine the right course of action for a fix, and suggest plans for making systems more efficient.
These technologies are great urbanization solutions when you consider the efficacy they have towards efficiency. Efficiency, from traffic and transport to water management, will be imperative for future cities, improving quality of life and making cities increasingly sustainable.
The greening of urban areas is not just the addition of green spaces and parks, but rather the use of vegetation to make cities more sustainable. One way is to simply use vegetation and shrubbery to naturally cool down urban areas.
The Bosco Verticale Towers in Milan are a great example of the use of plants in alternative and sustainable ways to cool cities. Since concrete and asphalt accumulate heat during the day and permeate the heat in the evening, what the vegetation does is provide shade from the sun and as the water that is accumulated in the plants evaporates, it naturally cools down the building and surrounding area. Making it a cost-effective and a sustainable solution to cooling compared to current cooling A/C systems.
Urban farming aims to create a multifunctional approach to urban sustainability. Of course, urban farms will not be able to cover the entire agricultural needs of a city, but it can have a significant impact on sustainability in general.
Produce grown in these vertical farms use less space than traditional farms, less soil, water, and generates less waste due to the closed-loop systems that vertical farms are based on. And much like the vegetation on the Bosco Towers, these urban farm crops can provide that same level of cooling to buildings and heat islands within cities.
With that said, the technology in the sector of urban farming is constantly evolving, future cities can be developed in a way that can evolve the vertical farming process in order to produce more food and become increasingly self-sustainable.
One startup company looking to innovate urban food production is Freight Farms, which has created an urban farming solution by using freight containers as an optimal, climate-controlled artificial environment for growing crops. The containers are equipped with LED lights, climate controls, and an innovative use of hydroponic farming that is taking urban farming on another plane.
It is these green infrastructure and low-impact development projects that can start to make an impact in creating a more sustainable urban environment and help in improving quality of life. It is hoped that these technologies can help swing the pendulum back towards a greater balance between the urban environment that has allowed our civilization and way of life to flourish and the environmental sustainability we need to improve to keep our planet healthy.
What is photovoltaics (PV) you might ask? Well, to put simply they are cells in solar panels or any surface that can harness solar energy. The application and integration of photovoltaics, however, is where sustainability meets practicality.
What I mean by this is that to use PV technology as a roof or a street, it needs to be just as functional as normal roofing material and asphalt, as well as be cost-effective and safe. That’s why the next innovative step in this sector is to create durable multifunctional PV technology for use in building and infrastructure.
And currently, this is exactly what is happening, with companies developing PV technology to be increasingly efficient and multifunctional. One example of innovation in solar energy is thin film solar panels or CIGSe – named after the materials they are made up of – are 350 times smaller than the standard panel and are flexible, lightweight, and easy to install.
On the multifunctional side of things, a company called Ubiquitous Energy is developing transparent solar windows. They have achieved a solar-to-energy conversion with a conversion efficiency of 10%. To put that into perspective the typical solar panel conversion ratio is around 15-20%, meaning these solar panel windows are not far off the mark when it comes to efficiency. These developments along with others is why the solar industry is expected to boom in the next couple of years.
Urban air mobility
Future cities may not have flying cars (think back to the future), but that doesn’t mean they won’t have some sort of urban air transportation system. With the development and innovation of drone technology, many companies are looking to go further. Much like with AI and ML sensors helping to ease congestion, these companies are now looking towards urban air mobility (UAM) as a transportation solution for future cities.
Hyundai is one such company investing in UAM technology and attempting to be a leading innovator in this still nascent industry. They have partnered with UBER Elevate to try and bring to life what they are calling the eVTOL air taxi. Their aim with the project ultimately is to make UAM affordable and accessible to everyone, however, they do realize this may not be the case initially.
Hyundai expects to see this project take off around 2028, which seems very optimistic considering the amount of what you can say is red tape surrounding UAM. Red tape in that to get such a project off the ground, there will be many moving pieces to the puzzle that will need to be put in place first. Such as the need to get the public on board with the idea of aircraft flying around urban city centers and residential areas, let alone governments even signing off on such a project in the first place.
And by Hyundai’s own omission, partnerships will be integral to the success of developing UAM technologies and for the entire industry overall. The key to this industry's success will be to get the entire ecosystem of stakeholders on board together with the idea of UAM. So in this case, collaboration itself will be the cornerstone to innovation and hopefully, we will get to see a glimpse of that science fiction future-esque city after all.
Urban solutions for future cities
With urban populations expected to increase in the near future, cities are going to have to find innovative and sustainable solutions to help curb the negative effects of urbanization. Here, what’s outlined is a combined overview of the top technological innovations that will help shape the face of future cities. With everything from urban farming innovation to urban air mobility, the future looks bright for innovation and sustainable solutions.
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