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Smart cities: Reality check

There are some big, futuristic ideas in smart cities, but how do we balance that with fixing the fundamentals today? Sarah Wray takes a look.


Last week, I attended the Passenger Experience Conference in Hamburg. Futuristic modes of transport were on the agenda, from flying cars and hyperloops to the world’s first ‘spaceline’.

When you arrived very late the night before because your plane was delayed on the tarmac and then you got stuck in traffic, the mind really does boggle but I am all for thinking big.

Speaking at the conference, Virgin Galactic’s Head of Design, Adam Wells, admitted his company’s work to make space travel “open to everyone” was taking much longer than anyone initially thought.

“Doing things that are this radical; it’s difficult,” he said.

Feet on the ground

It made me think of the size of the challenge facing cities too. Bright ideas are the easy(ish) part – and many of them are pretty exciting. Implementing them on a large scale requires buy-in and behaviour change from citizens, businesses and other stakeholders. It also needs many different stars from inter-related sectors to align, not to mention the boring fact of cash.

This week, back on Earth, we get a reality check from Megan Goodwin, IRM, who questions what real in-roads have been made to improve quality of life for residents. Jacob Klimstra points out that electric vehicles have enormous potential – Henry Ford and Thomas Edison both tried but ultimately failed to roll them out over 100 years ago – but even today, their deployment has so far fallen short.

Making progress

It’s not all cold water, though, as both have ideas on the specific challenges we need to address to make progress, from rethinking the skills mix in cities to a focus on the outcomes of electric vehicles, such as better air quality – an important topic at the moment, following a new study from the Health Effects Institute which finds that over 95% of the world’s population is breathing dangerously polluted air.

Meanwhile ESI ThoughtLab announced the launch of Smarter Cities 2025, an urban transformation research programme which will include a cross-sector coalition of organisations. The initiative aims to provide city leaders with a roadmap to becoming a successful smart city of the future.

Uma Adusumilli, Chief Planner, Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, envisions the region in 2036 and outlines a 20-year plan for tackling issues such as floods, garbage and slum living. Anne Kerr, Mott MacDonald, talks about how data could make our cities much safer and more secure in the future – if we take the right action now.

A long way


The amount of work there is to do overwhelms me – and I’m not the one who has to do it.

Elsewhere, though, progress shows the scale of what can be achieved for those who dare to think big and keep going.

The world’s first full-scale hyperloop prototype is under construction, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies announced this week. Earlier this month, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceship completed its first supersonic, rocket-powered flight.

In Hamburg, Wells said he still couldn’t put a timeline on when we’ll see commercial operation of the spaceline and safety tests will continue but, he said: “It is fast becoming real,” adding: “Once upon a time, we were just a concept. We’ve come a long way since then.”

We’re not riding in hyperloops or holidaying in space just yet – but who’d have thought we’d even get this far?

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