The UN predicts that by 2050 the world’s urban population will be equivalent to the global population back in 2002. The question that persists is ‘what will the cities of tomorrow be like?’

The opportunities that cities provide for economic, social and creative growth continue to draw people to them, resulting in large cities being more productive than rural areas and higher returns on capital. Mckinsey predicts that the top 100 cities in the world will represent 35% of global GDP growth by 2025. However, urbanisation poses significant challenges as well. Cities experiencing the fastest growth are struggling to adapt to growth and industrialisation, stifling under the weight of pollution, congestion and urban poverty. Urban settings magnify global challenges such as climate change, water and food security, and resource shortages, though they also provide avenues for tackling them. The future of cities must be one of diligent urban innovation instead of unsustainable expansion.  

The idea of Urban innovation is deeply related to the highly in-fashion term, ‘smart’. It refers to provisions, solutions, and ways of addressing the challenges associated with major cities. Since the urban setting is becoming increasingly relevant with its growth and global threats, the new technologies developed in these areas offer a horizon of sustainability. These innovations can improve the quality of life in cities by adopting better social and economic convergence, participation, and smart mobility solutions. The following examples show how two major global cities solve problems in innovative ways. These solutions are scalable, replicable and can be adapted to a variety of urban environments with new technologies. Within these innovations, four principles surface, which can be seen as a core framework to find innovative solutions to complex urban problems –

  •  Utilising underutilised resources (e.g. circular economy)
  • Technology-enabled demand management 
  • Small-scale infrastructure thinking (e.g. cycle lanes)
  • People-centred innovation (e.g. smart traffic lights)


Smart Array: Intelligent Street Poles as a Platform for Urban Sensing

LED street lights can be used as a platform for various sensing technologies that collect data on the weather, pollution, seismic activity, traffic, and noise pollution. When these smart street poles are linked into a network, they can sense what is going on in a city in real-time and provide innovative solutions such as public safety and parking. One such system, the Light Sensory Network, was demonstrated by Cisco, Sensity and the City of Chicago recently at the Internet of Things World Forum. Chicago smart lighting program installs energy-efficient smart LEDs to create a modern lighting management system. Switching from traditional street lighting to LEDs can turn the purpose of streetlights into a source of revenue.

Source: Chicago smart lighting program

Augmented Humans: The Next Generation of Mobility

A safer environment for pedestrians and non-motorised transportation fosters a greater use of public transportation, reduces congestion and pollution, improves health, and makes commutes more predictable, less expensive, and faster ( for, e.g., bicycling will be quicker than driving at peak hours). According to a recent study by the British government, an investment to encourage cycling can yield large returns – as high as 35:1. There are a number of relatively low-cost solutions, including separate bike lanes, bike-sharing schemes, and redesigning traffic lights to adjust to the speed of bikes.

Credit : Superpedestrian

The development of sensors, optics, and embedded processors may result in a whole new range of transportation solutions. The Copenhagen wheel, for example, is the transformation of a bicycle into a smart electric hybrid. It has an embedded control system, a motor, batteries, multiple sensors, and wireless connectivity. In order to multiply pedal power, the Wheel learns how a user pedals and syncs with their motion. Furthermore, it gets easier to cycle since batteries augment pedal power by capturing energy as the user brakes or goes downhill.

There are many other urban innovations such as smart traffic lighting, urban air mobility with drones and cable cars, Waternet, Urban agriculture etc.. However, all these innovations require smart urban planning to harmonise them in order to achieve the urban objectives in terms of sustainability and inclusion. More sustainable urban innovations can be realised by integrating advances in technology into smart urban planning.

Reference: Top ten urban innovations report/world economic forum

Featured image credits: Global Health now

Nithya Arumugam

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