The most innovative Smart City projects in the world

Facing some pretty steep challenges like a growing population, increasing urbanization, scarcity of resources, the growing global food crisis as well as reducing global CO2 emission, building smart cities has...

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February 20, 2020

One is the start-up way: brands or governments that build new cities from the ground up, centred around the needs of the customers, or citizens in this case. This type of greenfield approach obviously allows them to rethink the system from scratch and innovate in the most radical of ways. But, just like with a startup, there is no way of knowing if the people will buy buy into their vision and approach. They might, and that chance becomes bigger when they keep experimenting and adjusting along with their inhabitants, but the risk is still pretty high. Now, on the other hand, you have the ‘incumbent’ smart cities: existing places that are striving to make themselves smarter through sensors, algorithms and applications in order to manage their energy, traffic, pollution etc. in ways that will make their citizens happier and healthier.

To inspire you with all the possibilities of the smart city – and its possible implications on your industry (because it will impact everyone) – I wanted to list some of the most impressive examples in the matter. Now, though the start-up way of Toyota, Google and ReGen Villages might seem a lot more exciting at first sight, you’ll see that the ‘incumbent’ projects of Singapore and Alibaba in Hangzhou are just as impressive. Software is eating every city, not just the new ones, and this informational approach offers so many possibilities to players in every industry.

I. New cities from the ground up

1. Toyota Woven City

Toyota very recently announced the very ambitious “living laboratory” prototype town Woven City, which will appear in 2021 at the foot of Mt. Fuji, Japan. The idea is to allow scientists, researchers and Toyota itself to observe how residents will live and interact with next-generation technology, self-driving automobiles and a host of internet connected devices. The fact that it’s a carmaker that’s experimenting with the cities of the future is just another example of the blurring of the industry lines about which #nexxworks Partner, author and keynote speaker Rik Vera talks and writes about so much. (It’s in fact a big reason why he is taking a group of decision makers on our “Moving the World Tour”, so they can experience the impact of trends like urbanisation, mobility, Iot, AI etc on their industry.)

We all know that individually owned transportation is on the way out, so it is absolutely not surprising that car companies are investigating how they can turn megatrends like urbanisation, environmentalism, an ageing society, changing mobility, robotics, sustainable energy, autonomy, 5G wireless connectivity, AI and IoT to their advantage. Innovation is about finding relevant problems to solve, not about holding on to disappearing products like cars.

The Woven City will have autonomous cars and various mobility solutions, in-home and on-street robotics and a plethora of connected technologies. There will be in-home robotics and sensor-based AI that will automatically restock the fridge, take out the trash, and check the health of the homeowner. But the most interesting part of Woven City is that it will feature a "digital operating system" that connects all these smart and autonomous devices. This quite literally means that one overarching operating system will be in charge of the lives of each Woven City resident. Which is probably just as conventient as it is fragile.

2. ReGen Villages

California-based developer ReGen – as in ‘regenerative’ - Villages has the ambitious goal of becoming the "Tesla of eco-villages". As such it wants to develop off-grid, integrated and resilient eco-villages that can power and feed self-reliant families around the world. I love their holistic approach in which they combine a wide variety of innovative technologies, such as energy positive homes, renewable energy, energy storage, door-step high-yield organic food production, vertical farming aquaponics/aeroponics, water management and waste-to-resource systems. It’s in fact all about the smart use of applied technology to provide clean energy, water and food right off the doorstep. The villages will be "power positive", effectively generating surplus energy that can be fed back into surrounding electricity grids, and growing about half of all the food the inhabitants eat.

This is a beautiful case of ‘smart’ not just meaning efficient and convenient for the city’s own citizens, but efficient and convenient for the entire environment. On top of that, ReGen Villages not only adds environmental and financial value, but also social value, by creating a framework for empowering families and developing a sense of community, where people become part of a shared local eco-system.

Their very first project will be constructed in Almere, close to Amsterdam, and will initially host 25 pilot homes, with a view to 203 in total upon completion. They expect to launch the pilot somewhere in 2020.

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3. Google Sidewalk Labs

Where ReGen Villages is mostly focussed on self-reliance and environmental efficiency, Google’s Smart City - or urban innovation as they like to call it themselves - organization Sidewalk Labs is all about cutting-edge technology, people-centric experience and convenience. Its goal is to improve urban infrastructure through technological solutions, and tackle issues such as cost of living, efficient transportation and energy usage.

Since 2017, Sidewalk has been developing a Toronto neighbourhood “from the internet up”, including accessible ride-sharing vehicles, self-driving cars, moving sidewalks, heated pavements and underground delivery robots. Their approach calls for “ubiquitous sensing” throughout the smart city, collecting data on everything from rubbish disposal to park benches. Above all, it wants to turn the area into an “affordable, inclusive community”: some 50 percent of all housing units would be rentals, 40 percent of which would fall below-market rates. I feel that this is the part that makes the Sidewalk Labs project unique. Though yes, the Toronto Sidewalk Labs tech will be impressive, Woven City promises to be just as state of the art. But Toyota talks about a “living lab” and it seems to be focussed a lot more on experimenting with efficiency, while Google focuses on including everyone from the get-go. Obviously that's because it knows that the data it collects won’t mean anything if they are not a mirror of the diversity of society in general,. But still, this appears to be a project for everyone.

Obviously the first thing anyone thinks about when they hear that Google is building a city full of sensors is “privacy”. Needless to say that there have been months of negotiations with the Toronto government, and there were some heavy discussions about issues in the initial plans around real estate, intellectual property, data privacy and community engagement. In response, the Google sister company has produced a new, more limited proposal in order to answer to the concerns of the citizens of Toronto. There are still several procedural hurdles to be jumped , but the city’s conditional approval of the revised proposal shows that it got much of what it wanted from its negotiations with big tech.

II. ‘Smartening’ (if it wasn’t a word, it is now) old cities

1. Singapore

Now, where Woven City, Sidewalk Labs and ReGen Villages are a highly experimental ‘from the ground up’ smart city project, Singapore is one of the most impressive “Old Cities Turned Smart” projects out there, being named one of the best smart cities in the world by the IESE. Though the other projects where driven by private companies, this one – as with many things in Singapore – is driven by a strong and innovative government with a long-term plan to create a digital economy, digital society, and digital government.

The nationwide Singapore Smart City project - called “Smart Nation” – was launched in 2014 and it encourages the use of digital innovation and technology to drive sustainability and liveability. No wonder that Singapore is considered a world leader in safety, smart mobility, and health care. Data sets collected by public agencies have for instance been made available and accessible to the public through online portals: anyone can participate and co-create citizen-centric solutions. It has applied smart, connected traffic solutions like phasing traffic lights and a very strong policy curtailing car ownership in an effort to reduce the number of vehicles on its roads. In some seniors’ housing, sensors alert family members if their relative stops moving. But it can also detect if people are smoking in unauthorized zones or if people are throwing litter out of high-rise buildings. Even in the realm of feeding its citizens, Singapore is fast becoming a champion of vertical farming. It opened the world’s first commercial vertical farm over six years ago, aiming to feed the entire island nation with a fraction of the land use. The city also developed a software called “Virtual Singapore,” a dynamic 3-D model that enables city planners to run virtual tests—verifying, for instance, how crowds might evacuate from a neighbourhood facing an emergency.

Singapore is an inspiration for many administrators due to its all-encompassing strategy, which involves technology, regulation, education, and support at all levels of government.

2. Hangzhou's City Brain

Seeing that China wants to become the world leader in AI, it should not come as a surprise that it is one of the world’s forerunners when it comes to smart city development. In fact, about 500 of the roughly 1,000 smart cities being built worldwide today are in China. One of the most striking examples lies in Hangzhou, where e-commerce giant Alibaba is working on the “City Brain” project, aiming to build out one of the most data-responsive cities on the planet.

With cameras and other sensors installed across the entire city and using speech recognition, face recognition, image identification, text recognition and Natural Language Processing; a centralized AI hub will process data on everything from road conditions to weather data to vehicular collisions and citizen health emergencies. The City Brain for instance manages traffic signals at 128 intersections, tracks ambulances and clears their paths to hospitals without risk of collision. Already, it has cut ambulance and even commuter traveling times by half. For the latter, there’s no more wasting time at a red light when there is obviously no cross traffic or pedestrian activity. The City Brain also detects accidents within a second and it allows police to arrive at pretty much site within 5 minutes. Pretty impressive for an urban area of over 3,000 square miles. Other City Brain application possibilities are smart lighting solutions, autonomous vehicles, smart parking, power management and even pollution management, which is of course a big problem in a lot of Chinese cities.

The City Brain also uses converging sensors and AI to monitor crowds and analyze human movement. And though the focus is on traffic and efficiency today, it could very well use machine learning to predict population-level disease spread through crowd surveillance data, building actionable analyses from social media data, mass geolocation, and urban sensors. The highly people-centric approach of Alibaba will ensure that the City Brain project will keep in growing into several domains. The ‘advantage’ here (though I’m well aware of the fact that this is also a disadvantage in other ways) is that - unlike Google and the city of Toronto - the use of citizen data is widely accepted in China and Alibaba loses a lot less time in negotiating in the manner.

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and science on the way we work, consume and live our lives.
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February 20, 2020