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The city of tomorrow : Technology and Digital tools for climate protection

Pascal Malotti
Global Retail Strategy Lead & Strategy Director at Valtech France

November 28, 2016

Make no mistake: the 21st century will be urban or will not be. With 75% of the world population living in urban settings in 2050, our cities are more than ever at the heart of societal changes. As the first anniversary of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference draws near, cities must serve as a driving force for raising general climate awareness.

Technological sophistication, the growing mastery of digital data and the development of digital applications are contributing to the development of a more responsible and sustainable society. Isolated initiatives, however judicious they may be, have reached their limits. We now need to give priority to solutions that can be applied to every continent and can create a global network of smart cities. And results must follow: the aim is to facilitate daily life for people while limiting the carbon footprint. Here is an overview of relevant pioneering initiatives around the world.

Singapore - A nation moving towards green data

Singapore stands as a model for those who would like to leverage digital resources to design the city of tomorrow. The challenge there is such that ideas are being explored at the national level. The government of this city-state of over five million inhabitants can count on its hyperconnected population (9 out of 10 homes are equipped with broadband Internet access and 85% of the population has a smartphone) to drive the most innovative projects forward. The island’s record traffic congestion issue, which is generating health concerns and national economic burdens, is one of the factors that led to the launch of the Smart Nation programme at the end of 2014. As a result, this programme will focus on implementing three measures. First, new sensors will continue to be installed to complete the existing fleet in order to track hourly changes in traffic flows in every geographical area. This system has led to the installation of particular variable toll areas where pricing is dependent on traffic congestion. This effective initiative is combined with free public transport before 8 am to encourage people to change their daily habits and forsake their car to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As a second step, a large number of these sensors have been installed in Jurong Lake District, in the west of Singapore, as part of a pilot project. The purpose of these devices is to analyse air quality data of all kinds: pollutant levels, humidity, temperature, etc. The aim is to fully understand the island’s microclimates to design an environmentally responsible urban planning dependent on the geographical location.

Bacteria for producing light in the cities of tomorrow

Glowee is a great example of how dynamic the FrenchTech is, if ever proof was still needed. The start-up has embarked on a major project: providing night lighting to our cities without electricity! The team has taken current regulations into account: since July 2013, electric night lighting is prohibited in France in public buildings, storefronts and offices. An ecological necessity for some, a source of anxiety for others. Glowee is reconciling both sides with a technology based on bioluminescence. We are talking about the chemical reaction brought about by a gene present in 90% of marine organisms that allows them to produce light on their own. Once the gene has been extracted (from squid in this case), the start-up inserts it in nonpathogenic bacteria. All that then remains to be done is to encapsulate these bacteria inside a transparent shell containing a nutrient solution so that they can develop and produce their luminous reaction. We can easily imagine the positive development this non-electric light source would bring about if these shells were to be installed on our buildings: a natural urban lighting that would no longer be intrusive and would put an end to the 5% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions related to lighting. Glowee is thus developing an affordable and fully independent process that is also clean as only organic material is involved in the end-of-life incineration of the bacteria. Last October during Paris's Nuit Blanche cultural event, Glowee demonstrated its expertise in using this technology. The company is working to conquer the market of independent lighting solutions for the cities of tomorrow.

The era of supersonic transport

At a time when cities are rethinking urban planning and are aiming to limit their ecological footprint, some are already thinking about the next step. Technology is already giving us a glimpse into a new era of smart intercity travel. The system’s name: Hyperloop. This is a groundbreaking pod system for transporting people and goods at over 1000 km/h using magnetic levitation on air cushions. In France, this would mean that Lille and Marseille would only be 50 minutes away from each other while more than nine hours by car are currently needed to connect the two cities. And this would require minimum energy consumption. Production costs would also be interesting in case of large-scale construction. The technology could use the pylons that already exist on some high-speed rail networks to add the tube required for the pod to travel. As for comfort, passengers would not feel more acceleration than “when a plane is taking off”. These assets have aroused the interest of market stakeholders such as French railroad company SNCF, which has invested in Californian start-up Hyperloop One. The latter is aiming for a 12-minute connection between Dubai and Abu Dhabi (200 km) in the coming years. Another company is also working on developing the Hyperloop technology, the market being already open to competition. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is aiming to connect Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest. Which company will lead the transport of people and goods into the era of green hyperspeed? That remains to be seen.

Babcock Ranch, the solar town

Can a town be self-sufficient in terms of electricity consumption? It certainly is what Syd Kitson, former American football star now turned real estate developer, is aiming for. The businessman has simply decided to build a new town from scratch: Babcock Ranch, Florida. Close to a nature reserve specially created as part of the project, the town’s urban planning and mode of operation have been designed with climate protection in mind. Babcock Ranch thus includes a very distinctive feature: a 179-hectare solar farm capable of supplying electricity to the 20,000 homes this American town will ultimately include. While the solar energy produced will for now be fed to the region’s power grid rather than be directly delivered to the inhabitants of Babcock Ranch, self-consumption is indeed the ultimate aim. Committed to the environmentally responsible nature of such a project, the former football player’s decision to build a new town was not a random one. He observed that ecodistricts were being built further and further away from city centres, increasing traffic between city centres and the suburbs and thus generating a carbon footprint inconsistent with the desired lifestyle project. At Babcock Ranch, solar technology and digital resources will therefore mingle to coherently link this new urban planning to climate protection. For instance, carpooling will be encouraged and an app should be developed for booking a self-driving electric car. The first phase of the project will come to life in January 2017 with the delivery of more than 1,000 housing units.

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