The smart infrastructure that will save us from our dumb cities

In cities around the world, streetlights are monitoring traffic flow to alleviate congestion, sensors are guiding drivers to empty parking spaces and football pitches are being illuminated by floodlights powered using kinetic energy created by the players’ footsteps.

Together, these technologies have the power to shape the nature of our built environments. But how smart are they as standalone innovations? Arguably, not very. A truly smart city thrives on connectivity. Piecemeal solutions won’t deliver city-wide intelligent networks, but if they’re embedded into the existing urban infrastructure, it’s a different story. A drone is a drone. A fleet of drones flying between ports on otherwise redundant building rooftops is an airborne delivery service.

“When building new transport corridors in cities now, we should be thinking about what may replace present day technology in the future,” says James Stewart, KPMG’s global infrastructure chairman. “When designing and developing new high-speed train lines, we should also be thinking about how we would use the same land and space to also accommodate a hyperloop line or maybe a drone corridor.”

The problem is that urban planning systems the world over are often complex and bureaucratic. Introducing the strategies required to rethink infrastructures with future technology advances in mind is unlikely to prove less challenging. For companies looking to implement technology in high density areas, this is becoming a growing source of frustration. “We need smart buildings and smart cities to install the right charging facilities in space constrained metropolises,” says Tesla co-founder JB Straubel. “We need smart infrastructures.”

But just as Straubel knows that the future of autonomous vehicles is as dependent on urban environment as the life span of the battery or the affordability of the latest model, governing bodies are realising the power of connected digital states and cities. And they are starting to act.

State-wide connectivity in Pennsylvania
There are plans to add 288 strands of fiber-optic cable alongside the 885 kilometre that runs east-west along the state’s southern border. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is currently evaluating bids from consortiums pitching for the Broadband Public-Private- Partnership project. The cable will likely lie on the side of the highway and will not only deliver high-speed connectivity throughout the state but will connect all of the toll booths along the route with centralised computing.

Pipe mapping in Chicago
Chicago is trialling a 3D-mapping platform to create a visual network of its underground pipeline network of sewer, water, electricity, gas, broadband and other services. Developed by Chicago-based innovation accelerator UI Labs, the goal is to to cut down the amount of time it takes construction and maintenance workers to locate and ascertain the depth of subterranean infrastructure.

Users can upload live data for access to the location and key information about all installations in a given area. The system will help cities overcome the problem of recording, locating and maintaining underground utility data by converting photos, digital drawings and existing mapping information into a single format and storing them in a central database linked to a 3D city map.

Sicilian Valley status in Catania
The city of Catania in Sicily dates back nearly 3,000 years, but that has not stopped it from becoming one of only five per cent of cities around the world to introduce a municipality-wide app. A prime example of how, with the right government support, urban hubs that are not considered world leaders can implement technology without significant financial backing.

Developed by the University of Messina, Catania’s SmartMe app was built off the back of a modest crowdfunding raise in 2015. Now it successfully knits together a formerly sprawling city population via an app that responds to specific local needs. It connects sensor-laden rubbish bins that send an alert to the sanitation department when they are full and bus stops which monitor heat, humidity and sound. The local government is now looking to invest a portion of the €13 million (£11.4m) needed to roll the technologies out across other Sicilian cities, including the capital Palermo. Similar applications have been introduced in Barcelona, Singapore and Porto.

Dual-use car parks in Cincinatti
At some point, autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing will end the need for car parks. But, until then, we still need them. Conversions are one thing, but existing car parks have not been designed to be easily re-purposed. The answer could be to build in dual use from the outset. One example of this is a three-level parking structure at the 84.51 building in Cincinnati, Ohio from global design practice Gensler. When the time comes, the structure can be quickly and cheaply converted from a parking deck into an office space. Installing above-ground parking with higher ceilings, horizontal rather than the traditionally slanted floors and exterior rather than interior ramps are all part of the process.

Rooftop drone ports in London
From urban farms to fisheries and beehives, there is a question regarding the best – and most financially viable – use for redundant high-rise rooftops in high density locations around the world. Putting them to use as launchpads for a network of drone ports is a possibility. In London, Skyports is doing just that. Anticipating a growing demand for aerial delivery and, eventually, passenger movement, the company has ports on 15 roofs on buildings from Battersea to Clerkenwell. Landlords generate revenue by putting the space to good use and Skyports will cover the planning and construction costs as part of the deal.

Internet voting in Tartu
Infrastructure improvements are sometimes just as much about keeping people off city streets and travel networks as on them. Particularly at busy times that can be anticipated, like elections. The city of Tartu in Estonia is leading the way in implementing the country-wide internet voting system. Introduced in 2005, it was initially only used for local elections before being rolled out to cover general and European Parliament elections. In the 2017, general elections more than 30 per cent of votes were cast via the i-voting channel.

Smart street lights in San Diego
San Diego’s $30m (£22.5m) programme to fit 3,200 streetlights with sensors comes off the back of the replacement of 35,000 streetlamps with LED lights. The intelligent lighting network, which can sense sound and light, is being used to track footfall and congestion and is also being used to help law enforcement. The first phase of the streetlight network programme will cover 160 square miles – approximately half of the city.

Live weather mapping vehicles in Berlin
Navigation app Here WeGo already includes a service that provides live road and train updates and reports delays. Now it has plans to use sensors on vehicles signed up to the app to add live weather updates. “It will mean you can see what the weather is like at different locations even within the same city,” says Thomas Herr, EMEA Head of digital innovation for property agent CBRE. “Sensors will detect when the cars windscreen wipers or fog lights go on to map live weather patterns.”

Want to know about the future of transport?
This article is part of our WIRED on Transport series where we explore the challenges and solutions in transport, such as the future of borders after Brexit, the new race to make supersonic travel work and the hover train that never was.

Follow the hashtag #WIREDonTransport on Twitter for all our coverage and click the links below for more stories in the series.

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