What will cities of the future look like? Just about everyone imagined we would be living in the future with robots, flying cars, hoverboards, time travel and a whole slew of other futuristic products by now. This vision of the future could come to fruition, but many of the most profound changes will be largely invisible to us.
Today, 54 percent of people around the world live in urban areas with that number expected to rise to 66 percent by 2050, according to the UN. Already 73 percent of Europeans and 82 percent of North Americans live in cities. But with this increasing urbanization comes an increase in problems. According to the NASA Megacities Carbon Project, 70 percent of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere as a result of human activity comes from cities. Cities also devour a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources and have an increased rate of crime and disease. Even though cities cause a lot of problems, they also create a lot of solutions. They are magnets that draw in ideas, intelligence, and innovation. So here are some of the technologies propelling us into the future that you may have never even heard of.
In recent years, smart cities built from scratch have been headlines for stories. For example, New Songdo in South Korea, Tianjin in China, and Masdar in Abu Dhabi have all planned for new smart cities. But now that sensor technology has become cheap, established cities are starting to install them instead. Santander in Spain has put more than 15,000 sensors under sidewalks and parking lots, inside lamposts and fixed to buses and taxis. These sensors give an instant overview of traffic congestion, air quality, noise levels and available parking spaces, and help prevent crime. It saves the city energy and money by having streetlights turn on only when people walk by them, and tracking the moisture levels of soil so that parks and lawns get watered only when needed. Smart sensors have also allowed Los Angeles to make a mathematical model based on six years worth of crime data. This helped determine where and when to deploy police officers to prevent crimes, with the predictions being twice as good as those of human analysts.
These sensors give mass amounts of data to authorities and they are using this data to recognize patterns in cities, such as flu outbreaks and rat infestation. Data gathered in Chicago revealed patterns that connected rats to factors such as food poisoning, overflowing garbage cans, and stray animals. Analysts then created an algorithm that identified likely breading spots and sanitized them before an outbreak started.
Smart sensors are starting to predict the future of cities, allowing them to prevent and take actions of problems before they even occur.
Harnessing Wasted Energy
In the future, cities will generate some of their electricity through harnessing wasted energy. For instance, sunlight hitting skyscrapers can be turned into electricity by using photovoltaic glass. This glass allows sunlight through but also has a thin film of solar cells on it. Currently, it can convert twenty percent of sunlight into electricity. Countries like the Netherlands are using this technology to coat roads. A prototype generated enough energy in six months to power a home for a full year.
Public spaces and sidewalks can also harness people power. The kinetic energy of pedestrians footsteps can be captured by floor tiles that convert motion into electricity. Currently, this is already being used at London’s Heathrow Airport, Saint-Omer train station in France, and Webster University in Missouri.
Amazon has already announced Prime Air, a delivery system that uses drones to deliver packages. Drones can also help monitor traffic, clean windows on highrises, and provide information to first responders during emergencies. Scientists are developing one type of drone that can fill potholes, another that fixes streetlights, and another one that can sow seeds and tend to plants. These drones working together and fixing problems will transform cities.
Pollution scrubbing buildings and billboards are already in the making. Pollution scrubbers use a photovoltaic chemical and titanium. In the presence of ultraviolet light from the Sun and water molecules in the air, titanium dioxide breaks down nitrogen oxides from car exhausts and turns it into a less harmful substance. A billboard in the UK was coated with the material and every day it eradicates the nitrogen oxide emitted from twenty cars. Now just imagine the air quality if every billboard and building was coated with this!
Indoor farms do not have to worry about pests, bad weather, or disease but the challenge is keeping the farm energy efficient enough to produce a plant that makes more money than it costs to power the farm. With LEDs becoming more efficient indoor farms could become a main agricultural tool used in the future. Today in Japan, a farm grows lettuce on racks in a warehouse by using LEDs that generate light in wavelengths most conducive to photosynthesis. It produces 10,000 lettuces a day using 99 percent less water and growing them twice as fast as conventional farms.
Another option is aquaponic farms. Aquaponic farms eliminate soil and recycle the water that they use by growing crops in water and fish tanks. Fish in tanks produce waste, which is fed to the plants giving them the nutrients they need. Then the plants filter the water which is returned to the fish creating a cycle of growth for both the plants and fish.
In the future, driverless cars would make the roads safer because the computers operating the cars would not have momentary lapses in concentration and poor decision making like humans. Uber has partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to develop a driverless technology. Rapid developments in artificial intelligence, sensors, and mapping have led car companies to predict they’ll be selling driverless cars by 2025. The question is being changed from “When will we have driverless cars?” to “When will it be illegal for humans to drive?”.
Waste Into Water and Gold
Turning sewage into drinking water is an idea that we are going to have to accept soon. Developing countries where waste is not properly sanitized are at risk of contaminated water supplies, which can lead to outbreaks of dangerous disease. Even in rich nations drought is becoming a problem. For example, California in the United States is facing this problem right now. Water from waste is one solution and it is being made possible from a machine called the Omniprocessor by Seattle-based Janicki Bioenergy.
Human waste may also become a money maker in the future for those willing to take advantage. US scientists have discovered gold, silver, and other rare metals in sewage. The University of Arizona worked out that a city of one million produces sewage worth 13 million dollars every year. Right now though, extracting these metals is the challenge, but the ones who figure it out will be rolling in a SHIT-load of money.
One of the biggest ideas in architecture is the idea of homes that are not constructed but rather grown from scratch. Mitchell Joachim got the inspiration from pleaching- the technique used by gardeners to create arches and screens by weaving tree branches together. In his design plants, Fab Tree Hab, plants are trained to grow into a lattice shape using a prefabricated scaffold which is later removed. This concept will help the environment by having living buildings that can soak up carbon dioxide and save the energy required to cut down and transport trees for timber.
These are just some of the newest innovations and technologies that are going to propel us into the future. These will allow cities and the world to continue to grow in ways we never even imagined. Our path to the future started decades ago, but now the pace of technological evolution is speeding past the pace of human evolution. We are a ball in motion that cannot be stopped, and maybe one day when we reach the point of the Jetsons, we will want to go back to the Flintstones.