Realising the ‘Smart City’ Ideal: Smart urban planning and development is speeding up

The exponentially increasing speed of our global technological advancement is now a well-known and well documented phenomenon, but what does that mean for the design and creation of smart cities? This month, we take a look at a range of specific technologies, projects and tech trends that are letting us move closer to the realisation of the smart city ideal. 

Data: The lifeblood of smart cities

Much of the progress being made towards creating truly smart cities is due to our increasing ability to collect, store, analyse, access and leverage data in quantities (and from a startling range of sources) that would have seemed utterly impossible less than a decade ago. The smart city ideal relies entirely on making the most of interconnected systems that give operators a holistic view of what is really happening across the city, subsequently allowing them to manage utilities, security, transportation, communications and more in the most efficient manner possible.

Realising this goal requires smarter use of data, and that in turn requires digitalisation. Nowhere is the importance of digitalisation shown more clearly right now than in the sphere of urban mobility. The sudden shock and ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic through 2020 and into 2021 brought a unique set of circumstances to practically all the world’s major cities. Even now, as the world recovers and begins to open up again, there is an estimated (19%) less congestion globally​, along with cities experiencing an average 26% congestion reduction during rush hour.

This time in lockdown and slow recovery has been crucial for helping smart city planners and smart mobility solutions providers to rethink the most effective ways for us to get around in the future. With remote working on the rise, along with the desire for shorter commutes, urban mobility systems are being redesigned and engineered around people’s actual needs, rather than being framed around the current limitations of city infrastructure. To enable this change of perspective, the collection and use of high-quality data is being combined with AI and connectivity platforms, leading to innovative new mobility solutions that will change the face of urban transport forever.

New advances in smart mobility in recent months include:

  • Volkswagen daughter company Urban Mobility International (UMI) has launched an electric vehicle car-sharing service called WeShare. It allows users to rent a car and then leave it anywhere within the operating area when they are finished. WeShare now has tens of thousands of regular users every month.

  • Bosch announced its plan to team up with Microsoft to develop a software platform to seamlessly connect cars to the cloud. The overall aim of the collaboration is to speed up the development of vehicle software to help raise quality standards regarding sustainability, safety and convenience.

  • German startup Volocopter, announced that the delivery of live services on the two flying taxi models they are developing is only two years away. Estimates on how soon the concept of commercial air taxi operations will become a reality vary widely, but this is one of the shortest timing predictions we’ve seen so far. 

  • Dubai’s own Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) signed an MoU with Dubai Air Navigation Services (DANS) to hash out the reality of air taxi travel across the emirate. They will collaborate on areas such as legislation; testing programmes; identification of vehicle air routes and take-off and landing sites; and safety and security relating to urban air mobility. This work will be essential for ensuring that the right physical, legal and regulatory infrastructure is in place by the time viable air taxis are ready to start serving paying customers.

Thinking bigger – the Smart City reimagines all elements of city living

Completely redesigning urban mobility is just one facet of realising a true smart city. The rapid advance of technological innovation is allowing similarly major rethinking of other areas of our daily lives. Through our posts, papers and discussion panels, we frequently discuss the importance of reconfiguring the apparatus of agriculture to satisfy global demand but without the vast levels of wasted food and water that the industry currently experiences.

As such, vertical farming has been on our radar for some time, due to its ability to impressively outperform traditional farming across a range of key metrics. Last month saw Berlin-based startup Infarm reveal its next generation of vertical farms. Their 18-metre-high “grow chambers” are managed through robots controlled by sophisticated software and AI applications. Each unit uses 95% less water, 99% less space and 75% less fertilizer than the equivalent conventional land-based farming. If scaled up successfully, vertical farming has the potential to wholly reimagine the way we grow food and satisfy one of our most basic needs more sustainability.

This is just one of many examples of emerging innovations building on radical concepts that hint at a much brighter and more ecologically balanced future. With the rapidity of new breakthroughs of this scale, that future might not be so far away.

City life, literally reimagined

The final smart city development to be highlighted this month is Saudi Arabia’s ‘The Line’ Project. This is a $200 billion undertaking which has had economists and architects across the world scratching their heads in astonishment since its announcement by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in January. It envisages the creation of a car-free, carbon-free city the size of Belgium, but built in a straight line. Attached to the ongoing Neom Project, The Line saw construction begin last month to on various preparatory works. Don’t expect to hear anything concrete about a timeline or budget for The Line any time soon, however. This is the kind of megaproject that takes years to even begin to take shape.

Still, The Line is important to today’s developing smart city narrative. This is because its design radically reimagines what city life will look like. One of the key stated aims of the city’s design is that its one million residents will be able to fulfil all their daily requirements within a 5-minute walk, and the city’s entire 170km length can be traversed in an astonishing 20 minutes. By eliminating traffic, lengthy commutes and poor access to services and amenities, this truly is a bold new direction for smart city planning.