© Daimler AG

Smart cities of tomorrow

Jan 13, 2021

Quiet, green, and preferably connected: all over the world new urban districts are appearing with intelligent buildings and traffic concepts.

People have always been drawn to cities. Work, education, prosperity – the greater their hopes, the faster cities grow. The proportion of people living in urban areas continues to increase. In 2005, for the first time the urban population accounted for more than 50 percent of the global population. According to a UN forecast, by 2050 70 percent of the world’s population will live in towns and cities. At present the city of Tokyo has the most inhabitants, on 38 million. But that is nothing compared with the planned megacity Jing-Jin-Ji – a city cluster integrating Beijing and Tianjin with the province Hebei. It will cover an area twice the size of Bavaria. By 2030 it should be home to more than 130 million Chinese. This will bring huge challenges for politicians, city planners and engineers. Already road networks and public transport systems are hardly able to keep up with developments. The dilemma is most obvious in Asia. The lift in the 494-meter high World Financial Center in Shanghai rushes towards the ground at about ten meters per second, but the traffic outside is reduced to walking pace. In cities such as Jakarta, Sao Paulo and Manila, the roads seem more like parking lots during the rush hour.

@ Daimler AG
@ Daimler AG

However, the problem is not limited to emerging economies. It long ago also appeared in European metropolises. Therefore everywhere there are discussions on how to make towns and cities greener and more environmentally friendly while their residents remain mobile. For example, redesigning urban transportation is supported by the future researchers at Daimler, with municipalities and experts from the most varied disciplines: urban planners, architects and vehicle makers. They believe that if you want to persuade people to use the transportation that takes them fast and efficiently to their destination, you have to make it easy to connect. This applies at the city limits just as much as within the cities. In their vision, future mobility hubs will be important for connecting all the different forms of urban transport – carsharing vehicles, rental bikes, driverless shuttles, flying taxis and cable cars.

„We’re researching how society and its values will change so that we can make assumptions about urban life in the near and more distant future.“

Marianne Reeb, future researcher at Daimler AG

Showcases of urban mobility

Europeans curious about urban traffic in the future often turn their eyes to Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Barcelona, which are digitizing and redirecting their traffic flows, and combining more alternative forms of mobility with cars to create integrated systems. In Asia, the cities of Hong Kong and Singapore have evolved into sustainable mobility laboratories. Their residents live in densely populated areas and they want to be mobile at all times of the day and night. Both of these cities have an almost perfect local public transport system. In addition, private cars are losing their prestige value, and in any case most ordinary people cannot afford them because of the horrendously high taxes and license costs. Furthermore, at the beginning of 2018 the government of Singapore capped the number of cars on its roads. The island is gradually turning into a large-scale lab for urban mobility: multimodal mobility apps, driverless buses and taxis, mini-shuttles and micromobility solutions such as electric scooters are appearing on urban roads in partnerships involving startups, OEMs and suppliers. This provides inspiration and new approaches for cities around the globe to improve their structures and traffic patterns that have grown up organically over time.

Artist’s impression: bird’s-eye view of Masdar City in 2030 © Masdar City
Artist’s impression: bird’s-eye view of Masdar City in 2030 © Masdar City

Planned cities

Some of them are starting from scratch. City planners and architects are creating new districts or whole towns. Masdar City in Abu Dhabi is one example. Its construction began in 2008. It was designed to be the first ecological, planned city in the world, a sustainable city accommodating nearly 50,000 people and producing all its own energy from wind and solar power. A gigantic photovoltaic plant with an annual production capacity of 17,500 megawatt hours has been created. Wind power plants have been built around the city. None other than Sir Norman Foster modeled the city on historical Arab settlements with low-rise, insulated houses, narrow streets, small squares and a city wall. The architecture is intended not only to keep the hot desert wind out of Masdar, but in particular to provide a lot of shade. The temperature is up to ten degrees lower here than in the surrounding area. With this in mind, the facades of the buildings are built with an intentional slope. Staggered balconies and screens provide additional shade. The 45-meter high wind tower in the center is also inspired by Arab architecture. It captures upper-level wind and guides it, cooled by water mist, downward into the narrow streets. And solar-powered desalination systems ensure a supply of treated seawater, pumped into the city’s numerous fountains.

Multi-level traffic

However, Masdar City has not developed as quickly as originally planned. One of its most visionary aims – a zero-emission traffic system – remains a distant utopia. The plan was to have a traffic system on three levels. Visitors could arrive from Abu Dhabi by light rail, or else park their cars in one of the garages on the city’s periphery. From there, driverless cyber cabs running through an artificial basement would take them to the center or some other destination. The cyber cabs should offer a choice of up to 1,500 programmed destinations and operate on demand. Freight transport for businesses and firms, and waste carried to the recycling depot, should also go underground. The ground level is destined primarily for pedestrians and cyclists, although private cars will still be present. In fact underground garages have been added underneath the houses. Construction is now scheduled for completion in 2030. It remains to be seen what form(s) the traffic will finally take.

Over 30,000 people already live in Songdo, and more than 30,000 jobs have been created here. © Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates PC
Over 30,000 people already live in Songdo, and more than 30,000 jobs have been created here. © Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates PC

Is surveillance inevitable in the smart city?

Digitalization and artificial intelligence are the defining characteristics of projects like the “Smart City Songdo” in South Korea, where people’s data are connected with the infrastructure such as streets and houses. Construction of the planned city on the Yellow Sea coast, southwest of Seoul, started in 2003. Songdo aims to do everything better than today’s cities. Its residents should live close to their workplaces instead commuting long distances; from the outset the focus has been on environmental protection and sustainability instead of continual readjustments and patchwork solutions. For example, emissions are 70 percent lower than in other comparable urban areas. All of this is made possible by the large-scale application of hi-tech solutions. Innumerable sensors and ubiquitous digital networks ensure efficiency. How much electricity is required in the buildings right now? Which streets need lighting right now, and which are deserted? Where are the roads full of traffic?

The city’s control center knows the answers and reacts in real time. All the data come together here so they are accessible when the need arises. Building technology, the infrastructure, traffic lights – everything can be controlled from here. Even waste management is also perfectly orchestrated. Trash from houses and offices passes along an underground disposal system to sorting and recycling centers, and is either recycled, buried or incinerated to generate energy. What is more, cameras are everywhere – from public spaces to private homes. They register every single car and the data are used to compile patterns of movement. The administration promises residents that this will improve security. Ultimately, life in Songdo is under surveillance 24/7 – at work, at home, or out and about. Everyone who lives or works here has to be aware that they are part of a non-stop data collection project.

 (Stage photo: © Daimler)

The IAA MOBILITY is transforming itself from a pure car show to an international mobility platform with four pillars: the Summit, the Conference, the “Blue Lane” and the downtown Munich Open Space. Under the slogan of “What will move us next”, it stands for the digital and climate-neutral mobility of the future. From 7 to 12 September 2021, the car, bike and tech industries come together at IAA MOBILITY in Munich.