Professionals from a dozen different industries came together in London to showcase some of the solutions and products that could turn the cities of tomorrow into greater entities.
In the past centuries, London was a melting pot for some of the world´s most important developments in the political, economic and industrial fields. Great Britain has many times been a global leader, and its capital was often the engine behind that leadership or the forum in which new ideas were forged. Today, some of the most important breakthroughs for cities, citizens and consumers are not usually crafted in huge industrial complexes and are not devised by established tycoons. Instead, small ideas become large functional projects and applications, and come from the minds of smaller teams of visionaries.
Therefore, even considering that the main fraction of the industrial production has moved to other regions, cities like London can still be a nexus of progress where today´s bright minds can redesign the kind of world and cities that we will experience tomorrow. The Re-Works Cities Summit, which took place in London on the 15th of December, certainly proved this idea to be true.
Back in the days of the British Empire, London´s fluvial docks were strategic locations where the products from across the ocean and the communications and reports from afar were brought to. Thus, many of the elements that would change or affect the social, political and civil life of the time were gathered at these locations. The Tobacco Dock, not too far from the renowned Tower Bridge, became one of the main trading spots in the city for tobacco leaves and tobacco products. On December 2013, as we have mentioned, it were not consumer goods or products that were gathered at the Tobacco Dock, but more than 200 people from all over the world, all with a common interest: to contribute to the reshaping and reworking of our cities to become more efficient and sustainable.
The gathering was arranged by RE-WORK, an organization which, in their own words, “combines entrepreneurship, technology and science to solve some of the world's greatest challenges using emerging technology”. The team led by Ms. Nikita Johnson offers two or three of these events per year, each one focused on a certain key area of human progress like health or the state of technology itself. On this occasion, the theme was the cities themselves: the areas pending of improvement and the available solutions or projects. In this regard, the way that RE-WORK defines itself is undoubtedly fitting, as the professionals and speakers that attended the summit were not only representing various of the sectors, industries and institutions with the power to reshape a city, but also displayed many surprising, innovative and cutting-edge solutions to some of our cities´ current issues.
For several hours that passed quicker than we expected, split by the eventual coffee and lunch breaks, we enjoyed different theme blocks that were each introduced by a different moderator: projects and ideas aiming for sustainability, mobility, interactivity and new architecture techniques, just to name a few. Not only did we have the chance to discover some groundbreaking initiatives with an uncommon level of creativity and insight, but we also had the chance to discuss them among ourselves: the organization set moderators for each table so we could have several debates over the nature of the cities, the right approach and angles to tackle the problems that affect us, or what we believed that the next tendencies in technologies will be.
However, cutting-edge tech and resourceful thinking were, perhaps, not the greatest ideas that remained with us after the event, although they definitely left a print. Instead, the strongest memory from the summit is probably the sense of a common goal and the potential of collaboration between the various industries involved. Smart Cities have grown to be a huge sector that could reshape the living spaces of the world in the forthcoming years, and within that super-sector there are countless areas of work and research, that required years of hard work to become visible to the population and administrations. However, when all of these pioneering sectors come together with a common goal, such as the re-conception of today´s metropolis, the possibilities multiply, proving that true wonders can happen when great minds think alike, even if they came from a different path.
FASTER, STRONGER, SMARTER
Mobility and transportation are a common element in urban planning, regardless of the region or their cultural factors around it. Clearly, having cheaper, faster and safer ways to transport goods, supplies and people themselves from one point to another will revert in a great logistic efficiency for cities. Thus, it was not surprising that the first theme section after the opening was dedicated to mobility.
Frauke Behrendt, Senior Lecturer at the University of Brighton, presented an alternative to make biking more appealing in a big city such as London: an improved version of the existing electric-powered bicycles or e-bikes, with an incorporated electric motor to aid the cyclist in steep roads, or at times where he or she might be worn out. Vehicle like these could become popular in cities like Barcelona or Amsterdam that have traditionally favored biking as a means of transport. Perhaps they could go one step further with the addition of a dynamo so that the user could partially charge the bike´s battery by pedaling. Whether this addition is being considered or not, Ms. Behrendt didn´t say, but it could be an interesting choice to explore.
Later on, Erik Schlangen, from the Delft University of Technology, delivered a surprising presentation on a new improvement to roads and related facilities such as bus stops that are located on open air and therefore suffer the effects of the weather: self-repairing materials, such as concrete and asphalt. These materials would automatically react when a breach appeared in them and would act to seal them: in the case of concrete, a special kind of bacteria is added to the composition; a bacteria that exits its dormant state when leaks occur in the concrete and use the water itself to secrete a substance that seals the leak. The asphalt, on the other hand, incorporates magnetic particles that can close small breaches and potholes together by attraction. After his presentation, Mr. Schlangen told SC Actual City that similar procedures are being researched in other materials such as metals, to further save costs on repairs of infrastructures.
THE ERA OF DATA
Some say that we are living on the age of information. Indeed, an easier and quicker access to information or its transmission has become an indicator of human progress in cities, and it will continue to do so, as more and more devices will be able to access the Net and communicate with one another, as the experts on the Internet of Things believe. This field brings a lot of interesting possibilities to help in the process of decision-making, and furthermore, it is a very “democratic” field, in the sense that it allows citizens, businesses and administrations. It was not surprising that this area was the most prolific within the summit, and as Nick Bromley said during the opening of this segment of the summit, “data is becoming a utility” in today´s cities, and businesses based on the management, storage and distribution of real-time data will be some of the most active in the next years.
The speakers from this sector represented the citizen-focused aspect of open data utilities, as most of them exposed projects based on offering updated information to the citizens for their everyday lives. Sam Hill spoke to us about Hello Lamp Post, a network installed in street utilities such as mailboxes or lamp posts that could be used to ask the citizens questions about their preferences in the city in terms of favorite locations, ways to spend their free time, and other similar enquiries. It would be interesting to see if these devices could not only collect information from the citizens in this way, but also use it to create accurate feedback about their city´s performance, or even work both ways and open the possibility to give some information to citizens at request.
Other companies have focused in this aspect and use their devices and solutions to supply useful data for the citizen´s everyday needs or government´s tasks. One of these companies is Libelium, based on Spain, who builds sensors with integrated emitters to send the information they collect to accessible databases. These sensors can, for example, automatically detect the number of free parking spots in an area and let the citizens know how easy it will be to park their car there, or send a notification to waste-managing companies when a trash collector is almost full and ready to be collected. Alicia Asin, co-founder and CEO of the company, explained many of the features of these sensor-based data collection systems, and spoke about the importance of open data to help the citizens feel safer, more informed ans taken into account in their own cities.
Priya Prakash showed us how citizens can take the initiative in many matters using open-data solutions, such as the network she presented, Changity. This application, accessible with smartphones, tablets and similar gadgets, allows citizens to spot and share information about issues in their street and propose or discuss the ways to solve them, with a profile system that enables citizens to earn points for their good deeds and later turn those points in for rewards in their local businesses. Initiatives like these prove that the smart cities can not only be applied at a large scale but also on a more localized scale, and also prove that people can do great things without needing an institution to set things in motion.
A GREENER TOMORROW
If we were to choose one negative trait from the human development in cities during the past century, that would probably be resource mismanagement. The environment wasn´t a true concern in urban planning until well past the first half of the century, and some argue that, by then, it was already too late to reverse some of the damage. Nowadays, however, technological advances have provided us with countless new ways to better exploit our resources and to even obtain materials from what we thought to be waste. These technologies are often devised and tested in European and American cities, were the increase in population seems to have stabilized or even come to a relative halt, but they will yield their greatest results in cities located in developing countries, or regions with a notable industrial growth.
The exposition of Mr. Phillip Rode, the executive director at LSE Cities, went along these lines. Mr. Rode underlined the importance of combining functional and green strategies to achieve new degrees of urban efficiency. Mr. Rode believes that the projects implemented to this day have had a good result in the field of waste management, but that we still lack in the fields of energetic production and consumption and the growth of our foods, and those should be the fields in which the sustainable efforts should focus next.
Carlo Ratti, director at the Senseable City Lab in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, clearly thought the same. He shared his experiences at the MIT Senseable City Lab to show us how new highly advanced devices like drones can collect all kinds of information like usual routes taken to transport goods, so that these devices can “tell us stories” about our city, improving our mobility and helping us find new ways to maximize our energetic and resource efficiency.
Perhaps the most surprising innovation presented during this segment of the summit was the project that Allison Dring came to introduce. Her company, Elegant Embellishments, has been working with devices that work as air filters, that can literally collect pollutant gasses like CO2 from the air around us and extract carbon from it, which can later be used as a resource. These devices are astonishing enough on their own, but Elegant Embellishments has found a way to take this idea even further and has developed frame-like structures that can be fixed to the exterior walls of buildings, adding a decorative factor to them while they help in providing a cleaner air for those around it.
Many of us noticed, by looking at the brochure, that we would have a segment dedicated to 3D printing. This is a field that I have been following closely for some time, and I was anxious to see the new ideas that these technologies could offer. However, the solutions presented by Enrico Dini probably surpassed the expectations of many of us. Mr. Dini´s company, D-Shape, is already famous for their free-structure multipart buildings printed in workshops, but now they have found an incredibly efficient and sustainable way to combine 3D printing and housing construction. By using a special polymer fluid, D-Shape has managed to turn sand itself into a printing material, using huge machines to create connectible pieces made of solid sand that can later be transported and assembled into a house. Sand is certainly not a scarce resource in areas of the Middle East that are experiencing a strong economic growth, and techniques like these could provide them with a sustainable and efficient way to build entire neighborhoods from scratch.
The summit that RE-WORK put together was definitely a great showcase of the up-and-coming talent that is surfacing everywhere, in many industries, seeking to develop newer tools for urban planning and design that can increase the city´s sustainability and create a friendlier, more open, more accessible living space for their citizens. Right now, RE-WORK is planning their next summit, which will focus more heavily in technologies and that will take place in Berlin on the 19th and 20th of June, were we will be able to witness even more cases of Smart thinking, researching and creating. It was an honor and a pleasure for SC Actual Smart City to attend this summit, and we hope to see more from these professionals and from RE-WORK in the nearby future.
The preparations for RE-WORK Tech Berlin and the next edition of RE-WORK Cities Summit are already in progress. The brochure and information, for anyone interested in attending further events from RE-WORK, are available in their website: www.re-work.co