The city of the future is taking shape in front of our eyes. With connected objects, innovative transportation, new energy sources and anti-pollution systems, the takeoff of the ‘smart city’ concept is giving rise to a host of innovations developed both by established manufacturers and pioneering startups. Many of their inventions look set to become part of our everyday lives within a few years.

Smart City: Between real inventions and high-performance gadgets...

Will the city of tomorrow resemble the Blade Runner cyberpunk mega-city or the urban idyll portrayed in the film ‘Tomorrowland’? With the creation of ‘eco’ areas, the renovation of zones long neglected by residents and re-shaping of urban mobility, town planners are now working to ensure that the city of the future provides better living conditions than those we have today and does not turn into a dystopian nightmare for the residents. But apart from the huge building projects that are today transforming our cities, there is a whole range of innovations intended to improve citizens’ everyday lives. L’Atelier offers an overview of these innovations, which are sometimes fairly modest and sometimes awesome in their scope!

The anytime-anywhere connected city

The number one concern for most tourists as well as for many of the residents of major cities is to have constant access to the Internet. Lots of cities are installing WiFi hubs in the metro, bus, parks and streets with a view to providing Internet access and creating a platform for added value services. Thierry Do Espirito, the boss of Paris private guided visit company City Smart Way, points out: "The mobile phone is an essential tool for both residents and tourists in a city, and not just for making payments. It’s not just a means of payment, but can also be used to obtain the personalised services people expect nowadays. A lot of cities abroad have made an effort to provide WiFi access everywhere on the streets and on public transport. Paris is lagging behind here and one of the major improvements that the city needs to make is continual seamless WiFi access, not just access in our parks!"

French state-owned public transport operator RATP is starting to provide connection points and WiFi access at its stations.  However seamless WiFi Internet access across all stations, trains and buses is still some way off.

For a number of years now, the Paris City authorities have provided WiFi access in parks and public gardens, and now the Paris public transport network operator is starting to install USB sockets at bus stations. In addition, this summer French state-owned public transport operator RATP began to deploy Connection Points at its Paris and suburban commuter rapid transit system (RER) stations with sockets where people can recharge their smartphone and access the Internet free of charge for 20 minutes.

Recently the Icelandic startup IceWind took a step beyond. The company has developed a hybrid power source based on small wind turbines and solar panels which can be installed at bus stops, providing WiFi access, smartphone recharging sockets and lighting. The project is being jointly financed by bus-stop advertising systems specialist JCDecaux, the City of Reykjavik and Icelandic low-cost carrier WOW Air.

The 21st-century bus stop will be expected to provide passengers with Internet access plus sockets for recharging their digital devices, powered by renewable energy sources

Smart lighting points the way

Street lighting is a major spending item for most local authorities – around €9.3 per resident for an area covering over 500 inhabitants – which is about to see a real revolution with the advent of LED lighting. In addition to the low energy consumption of LED equipment, it can be finely tuned in accordance with the ambient light and the flow of pedestrians and vehicles. This is precisely what Toulouse-based startup Kawantech is offering with its KARA smart lighting system. The system comprises a sensor that can be installed on any LED lamp-post. It includes a camera and movement analysis software that can detect the approach of a pedestrian or a car and adjust the lighting level accordingly. The information is transmitted from one lamp-post to another so that the lighting accompanies the user along the street. KARA’s designers claim 65% energy savings through this fine-tuning approach to street lighting.

Meanwhile French company Carré Products is marketing its Solaled ‘candelabra’ system. This combines LED lighting with a solar panel, which means that public lighting can be installed in a car park or on a street without the need to lay electric cables. The company offers several different models, with luminosity values ranging from 1,500 lumens to 3,800 lumens. Here again, this smart lighting system uses infrared detectors to spot pedestrians and vehicles.

Another French corporation, Bouygues, intends to transform lamp-posts into WiFi hubs. With its Citybox solution, each lamp-post installation can provide 5 Mbps over a range of 250 metres. Internet connection is made available through power-line communication, via the electricity network that powers the lamps. This solution not only enables passers-by to obtain access to the Internet, but can also connect security cameras and sensors installed on the lamp-posts. Valmont, one of France’s street lighting market leaders, offers the added facility of USB sockets on its luminaries. 

Street lamp-posts are gradually acquiring communication facilities. Recharging stations, WiFi access and even vehicle speed readers: smart lighting is set to provide a range of services in the city of the future.

Rival firm Technilum proposes ‘eXtimité’, modular ‘urban lighting furniture’ which can for example be used to light up a square. This equipment can serve as a WiFi access station, and can come with embedded video-surveillance equipment, environmental measuring instruments, presence detectors and a traffic information system. Libelium, an Internet of Things specialist, offers a way to exploit street lighting more fully, by connecting the posts with one another using a Zigbee network, so that the system will not only detect pedestrians and cars via Wifi and Bluetooth, but will also be able to measure traffic speeds. The Technilum team claims that its system will be able to detect traffic jams and warn motorists in advance, thus avoiding having to install inductive-loop traffic detectors under the road.

Towards a more efficient transport system

A report from the French national public health agency Santé publique France reveals that air pollution is responsible for 2,441 deaths every year in Paris and 4,166 in the inner suburbs. A major part of this pollution is produced by transportation. Electric self-driving cars will certainly help to bring a radical solution to this public health issue, but in the meantime town halls are looking for ways to reduce the pollution. Apart from limiting the allowable mileage of the oldest petrol vehicles, many local authorities could decide to bring in rules favouring electric vehicles, and subsequently encouraging the use of self-driving electric vehicles. Simulations made by researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) in California show that if only 5% of the total number of vehicles on US roads were autonomous taxis, pollutant emissions would fall by 63 to 82% compared with hybrid vehicles and by 90% versus petrol vehicles by 2030.

As we await the large-scale availability of these services, the French city of Lyon has meanwhile launched a fully electric autonomous public shuttle bus, putting into service a small fleet of driverless vehicles in the newly modernised Confluence district of the town. If the venture is successful we will perhaps see more such initiatives in other French cities. In Singapore, autonomous taxis have already begun to take to the tarmac in the university neighbourhood. MIT spin-off technology startup nuTonomy has ‘robotised’ six Renault Zoé and Mitsubishi I-Miev cars and sent these taxis into the streets with an engineer at the wheel as a safety precaution during the first few weeks. The goal is to determine whether the system is reliable in a limited geographical area before rolling out the service on a larger scale. Stéphane Barbier, Chief Business Development Officer at Transpolis Smart City / Urban Mobility Lab in Lyon, thinks that it is only a matter of time before such services become more widespread, arguing: "The use of autonomous vehicles will be phased in over time. The technology is progressing, but on the other hand acceptance by the general public could take a while longer. We’ll start to see autonomous vehicles in use as transport shuttles in limited areas, on very specific journeys, on campuses for instance. We might see this type of limited service in some cities before dedicated lanes for autonomous vehicles are created on motorways, and after that they’ll come into widespread use.”

However, before self-driving vehicles really take off, we are going to see lots of interim innovations designed to optimise car drivers’ journeys and urban transport services. With communication technologies such as Vehicle to Infrastructure (V2I), road vehicles are becoming empowered to communicate. We’ll know in advance when a traffic light is about to shift to red. Leading German car manufacturers, including BMW and Audi, have started to equip some of their models with gear that enables the dashboard to show when the traffic light is going to change colour. Audi has tested this functionality in Berlin and Ingolstadt in Germany and Verona in Italy. "There’s going to be huge progress as regards communication-empowered road infrastructure. You need to take a systematic approach. The actual vehicle is not where the main value lies; what we need in order to progress further is infrastructure with embedded intelligence. We’re working with our clients on how to get traffic lights to communicate with vehicles, having sensors in the road at the traffic lights and so on. The communications protocols have been standardised, but we still need to work on the actual messages that will be exchanged between vehicle and traffic lights,” explains Stéphane Barbier.

Smart’ parking will experience a new revolution when systems based on image analysis become more widespread. You will then no longer have to place a sensor on the road to detect the presence of a vehicle.

Another burden for car drivers – finding a parking space – will be eased in the near future. More and more underground car parks are now being equipped with lamps indicating which spaces are taken, and directing drivers to the remaining free places. The technology is evolving fast. While previous generation solutions from Streetline and Fybr required sensors to be placed on the roadway – which were lost every time the area was re-surfaced – the latest generation does not rely on sensors. Californian firm Streetline and New York-based Park Assist have both developed parking systems based on analysis of images taken by cameras installed on streets and in car parks. In the not-too-distant future these systems will feed into the ‘car valet’ feature of the most sophisticated vehicles. Cars will then go and park automatically in the place identified by the camera. Last but not least, some car parks, in airports for example, will have an automatic car valet service that will take total charge of your car. French specialist Stanley Robotics is currently working on a system which is scheduled for testing at Roissy/Charles de Gaulle airport soon, with the aim of bringing it into service in 2017.

"Last but not least, major advances will be made in city services, based on the Internet of Things. By placing sensors on garbage bins they’ll be able to optimise the scheduling of the local authority trucks collection rounds, i.e. emptying the bins only once they’ve reached a certain level,” predicts Stéphane Barbier.

Cities soon to be producing their own energy

With the development of smart electricity grids, the idea of installing clean energy sources right in the city centre is gradually gaining ground. One of the least intrusive systems uses trees geared to supporting ubiquitous smartphone use, such as the solar panel-equipped eTrees made by Israeli company Sologic. In addition to the shade it offers passers-by, the Sologic eTree is capable of powering several USB sockets, a touch screen and a water fountain pump. The tree is 4.5 metres in height and provides 1,400 watts of power, which works out at an annual output of 2,500 kilowatt-hours (KWh). By contrast, French company NewWind has gone for wind turbine technology, developing the Wind Tree, a metallic structure that resembles the shape of a tree around ten metres high. The structure supports 63 micro-turbines, dubbed aero-leaves, which produce electricity even when only a light wind is blowing. A four-ton tree will produce on average 2,400 KWh annually, enough to provide power for around fifteen lamp-posts or a fair number of smartphones.

Sologic’s eTree harnesses solar energy to provide power for people and city street installations

The wind turbines that have been installed on the Eiffel Tour are almost invisible but the jury is still out as to whether windpower generation in city centres has a future. One of the difficulties is to get these huge objects to melt into the cityscape. Some architects have accepted the challenge of integrating large wind turbines into the buildings they design. The Bahrain World Trade Center was the first to incorporate such large items – three turbines 29 metres in diameter, placed between the two towers of the complex. The designers’ figures show that they can generate 1,100 to 1,300 MWh annually, i.e. covering 11% to 15% of the energy needs of the building. Strata SE1 in London, completed in 2010, uses the same concept but on a smaller scale. It has three 9-metre diameter turbines, which are expected to generate 50 MWh electricity a year, which is just 8% of the building’s total power requirement.

London’s Strata SE1 is one of the few buildings in the world to incorporate wind turbines in its design

Given that these wind turbines often seem to be at rest, it does seem questionable whether they are really efficient, but solar and wind energy are nonetheless gradually becoming part of the architect’s toolkit. The most telling example is the building recently designed for the City of San Francisco by KMD architects. The building, which is located right in the centre of town, a few steps from City Hall, is regarded as Frisco’s ‘greenest’ building. The designers have made a very good job of integrating solar panels on the façade and vertical wind turbines on every second floor. These installations provide 7% of the building’s energy needs.

Pollution-trapping systems

Burning less fuel is certainly essential if we wish to reduce urban pollution, but it is also feasible to actively combat pollutants that concentrate in city centres. Green walls and façades, which have been in vogue for a number of years now, bring a little chlorophyll into urban areas, but Green City Solutions have taken this a step further with a system which they call a CityTree. The idea of the founders of this Berlin-based startup is to create a ready-to-use transportable green wall four metres high – a simple module which can be installed on a square or in a place that is particularly susceptible to pollution by car traffic. The designers reckon this type of wall, made up of green mosses chosen for their ability to absorb pollutants, can match the pollutant-absorption capacity of 275 natural trees. A CityTree absorbs 15% of the nitrogen oxides collectively known as NOx and 25% of the fine particulate matter circulating within a range of a few dozen meters. The automated watering system is powered by solar panels, while a Raspberry Pi computer sends an ongoing stream of measurement data. The system has been tested in a number of cities in Germany, plus also in Paris and Hong Kong.

An autonomous anti-pollution green wall which can be erected on a city square: this is what startup Green City Solutions is offering. Its designers claim that a single CityTree can equal the capacity of 275 trees in terms of absorbing pollutants.

Other systems for purifying city air are also in contention, many of them based on the principle of photo-catalysis. These substances use the sun’s ultra-violet rays to trigger a chemical reaction able to capture pollutants. German firm Elegant Embellishments capitalises on the virtues of titanium dioxide (TiO2) to create a façade which ‘digests’ pollutants. The façade of one of the pavilions of the Dr Manuel Gea Gonzáles hospital in Mexico City has some 2,500m2 of components made from this pollution-digesting material. The façade transforms emissions of nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds from a thousand vehicles into CO2 and water. Experts need to assess just how long the effects of this new outer shell of the building will last before they can judge whether this is a viable solution for city centres.

Palazzo Italia by Nemesi and Partners

In addition to these modular façade components, other solutions using the same photo-catalysis principle, but which architects find easier to use, have also appeared. Biodynamic paints and cements now incorporate titanium dioxide in their composition. The Palazzo Italia, built for the Expo 2015 in Milan, was built using biodynamic cement across the 9,000 m2 of the building’s façades. A true showcase of Italian knowhow in terms of construction material with a very small environmental footprint, this 22,000m2 building cost in the order of €40 million.

Little by little the city of the future is making itself felt in our daily lives and technological innovation is playing a massive role in improving people’s daily lives in our ever-expanding cities.

By Alain Clapaud
Independent journalist specialising in the new technologies