Smart cities: What will the city of the future be like?

Overview

More and more people are living in cities. In an effort to prevent rapidly growing urban areas from collapsing under their own weight, cities around the world are increasingly taking an intelligent approach to how they organize and plan their traffic, energy supply and administrative systems.

Publish Date

22 FEB 2020

Author

Kai Beckmann

More and more people are living in cities. In an effort to prevent rapidly growing urban areas from collapsing under their own weight, cities around the world are increasingly taking an intelligent approach to how they organize and plan their traffic, energy supply and administrative systems. The right technology is crucial for creating these “smart cities”, and solutions from Merck KGaA Darmstadt, Germany are making an important contribution.

Growing cities, growing problems

It is estimated that the world’s population will reach 9.7 billion by the year 2050, with 68% living in urban regions. In order to ensure the future coexistence of those living in such densely populated areas, there are numerous challenges that those who bear responsibility for modern cities need to address. With more and more people living in increasingly crowded spaces, how can we make sure that we have clean air and reduce waste? How can we facilitate mobility for millions of people? And how can we ensure that administrative structures are in place and there is universal healthcare?

One solution is to apply modern technologies to achieve a comprehensive “renewal” of today’s cities. It is the rare urban planner who does not dream of the advantages of smart cities. For experts, a smart city represents the integration of information technologies and data into both existing and new infrastructure systems with the goal of enabling those in urban areas to live together sustainably, efficiently and in social harmony, despite growing population density. But what exactly will the city of the future look like? And what technologies are already making urban life smarter?  

Accordingly, environmentally friendly mobility systems such as electric motors, smart mobility apps and self-driving cars are crucial elements of a smart city. In the future, all of a city’s traffic might be integrated into an enormous, interconnected ecosystem featuring AI-controlled cars, trains and flying taxis, as well as rental bikes and e-scooters. Darmstadt, Germany, where our headquarters are located, has already taken a first step in this direction. It has installed sensors throughout the city to collect air quality data, which is processed in real time in a municipal computing center. The results are used to enhance traffic flows, thereby reducing emissions.

Of course, the city’s digitalization, coupled with rapid population growth, mean that the demand for energy will increase. Smart-city concepts therefore need to find a way to generate adequate clean electricity in densely populated areas. To eliminate the need for electricity in the first place, climate-neutral buildings must become the standard in cities. Particularly in the case of buildings with large glass fronts, which will shape the skylines of the future, energy loss, heat production and cooling costs are major issues. Dimmable liquid crystal windows, developed here at EMD Performance Materials, are one intelligent solution that makes it possible to significantly reduce the use of heating and air conditioning systems.

In light of climate change, renewable energies can be the only choice for generating electricity. Photovoltaic systems that are integrated into buildings have a great deal of potential in the urban context. Furthermore, we need to use the available energy more efficiently. The city of Stockholm, for example, is a pioneer in intelligent energy management. The Swedish capital is already channeling the excess heat generated in computing centers to its district heating system and using it to heat homes. In the future, electricity distribution will also be smart. In a smart city, electricity could be fed into the grid as needed, using decentralized energy grids that are connected to intelligent storage systems.

A focus on people

Yet a smart city is much more than a conglomeration of networked cars and buildings with photovoltaic modules on the roof. A holistic view of this concept requires thinking about approaches like e-governance and smart citizens. A digital administration system might be one example of such an approach. In Copenhagen, you no longer need to make an appointment with the citizen center to report a change of address or apply for a space in preschool. Such bureaucratic matters can now be handled with a few clicks, simply by visiting the city’s online office. Cities might also have a networked, automated healthcare system, where smart devices monitor patients remotely and reliably, with the help of real-time data. Based on that data, drones could then automatically deliver medications to patients. Some projects of this kind have already been launched and at Merck KGaA Darmstadt, Germany, we are also experimenting with delivery drones to gain experience in zero-emission transport in densely populated areas, such as between our plants in Darmstadt and Gernsheim, Germany. 

If smart cities are to become a reality and not merely a utopian fantasy, two essential conditions must be met. First, technologies such as artificial intelligence, IoT and machine learning need to be brought to the next level. Only then can cities be transformed from static residential areas to living organisms that learn from the behavior of the people who live there, adjust to their needs and help the community to live together efficiently. Powerful computers are essential for these technologies – and EMD Performance Materials semiconductor materials are contributing significantly to their development. However, even the smartest technology is useless if people fail to adopt it. Thus, the second crucial factor in the success of smart cities is the consistent focus on people. The ultimate goal of any smart city project should be to improve the quality of life for the city’s residents. After all, a city is not a city without the people who live there. 

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