Dragging thousands of years of city planning into the future is no easy feat, but the power of our mobiles presents an unprecedented opportunity to influence infrastructure and redefine our lives. So how do city planners, architects, data analysts and city officials begin to redesign the cities we live in with our mobiles in mind? We can look to some of the more provocative solutions around the world to fix old problems whilst tackling new ones.

What makes a Smart City?

 Using enhanced mobile processing power and ever-increasing Internet of Things (IoT) technology, cities are able to streamline services and find efficiencies from traffic management, to waste treatment, public transport and beyond.

Dubbed ‘the most wired city in the world’, Barcelona is unabashedly the global leader in creating a working smart city blueprint. In 2012, Mayor Xavier Trias introduced the Smart City Barcelona program, which successfully integrated many of the city’s services into an efficient urban system. By transforming their city lighting system into Wi-Fi ready, sensor-based LED towers, they reduced energy consumption by 30%; while IoT soil hydration sensors enhanced water conservation by 25%.

The expanding locations where New Yorkers and tourists alike can access free WiFi.

The expanding locations where New Yorkers and tourists alike can access free WiFi. Source: LinkNYC

With their open-source ‘Smart Cities’ initiative, Amsterdam joined a small selection of locales baking truly innovating technology into their town planning. Featuring over 100 technology partners working on 70+ projects, you could find free Fibre for web experiments, a social Tinder for seniors, a mobility guide for disabled public transport options, crowd sourced solar power and smart street lighting in amongst their more ancient canals and bike paths.

Transportation and community

The Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) predicts that with 5.9m more people to accommodate on our roads, congestion could cost us $50 billion annually by 2031. So how we can we pivot our roads to do more for us than transport?

Thanks to Solar Roadways, Route 66 could once again become the highway of the future. Source: Solar Roadways

Route 66 could once again become the highway of the future thanks to Solar Roadways. Source: Solar Roadways

In 2014, Amsterdam also installed the world’s first solar road – a 70m long cycling path with the ability to power three households for a year. Success here paved the way (pun intended) for Idaho-based Solar Roadways to adapt the technology on more ambitious scale; their interlocking solar panel design has the same traction as asphalt, with intelligent traffic management, ice-repellent surfaces, and wireless communication that could eventually tell your car where to go.

Advances in self-driving cars from Volvo, Google, and (reportedly) Uber, are considered the most achievable way to deal with urban challenges like traffic congestion, safety, and pollution. Lili Du, Assistant Professor of Transportation Engineering at Illinois Tech, has pointed out that the precision of these vehicles could reduce street width and eliminate the need for parking lanes and garages. And if Elon Musk (of ground-breaking electric vehicle firm Tesla) has a say, it may remove the concept of car ownership all together, as we call rides from our phones only when we need it:

“In the distant future, people may outlaw driving cars because it’s too dangerous. You can’t have a person driving a two-tonne death machine.” – Elon Musk

Sidewalk Labs, an offshoot of Google parent company Alphabet Inc., was established with a mandate to invest in innovative solutions to classic city problems – from low income housing to population density and fossil fuel dependency. With the single largest investment pool in urban innovation at their disposal, they have partnered with local design firms to produce products like the ambitious sidewalk project Link NYC and transportation coordination platform Flow. Much like Google’s affordable gigabit-internet service Fibre, their goal is not to dominate global city planning, but push for greater innovation and efficiency in areas like clean energy, public transport and internet access for others to go it alone.

This movement is as much about digital equality as making the city more accessible.

Why redesign our cities?

At both a consumer and government level, we have an unprecedented opportunity to utilise the relentless flow of data from our smartphones to make cities more efficient. Consider the crowd sourced traffic app Waze, which can recommend new paths for pedestrians and bike riders based on city sensors and user updates, or automated street parking reservation systems like ParkMe. A connected city ideology can accommodate for greater populations with less congestion, leaving more time for citizens to work harder and enjoy their lives.

“Designing a city from the Internet up really is compelling” – Dan Doctoroff.

The challenge

No exciting technology is without its challenges. Today’s smart cities require extremely wealthy, tech-equipped governments to kick-start initiatives. For example, Google Fibre in Austin is nice for Texans but getting Fibre to Morocco may not be on the horizon any time soon. Tech infrastructure needs to become cheap, scalable, and solve more problems at a lower cost than current measures allow. Otherwise, smart technology could widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

At first glance, the challenges facing city redesign seem dizzying: 66% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, and our current energy, traffic, and waste infrastructure will need to accommodate. With this in mind, the opportunity to shape the world around us has never been greater, and the power could come right from your pocket.

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