Can smart cities be beautiful cities?


In the global agenda for smart cities and seamless 5G living, it’s really the tech that dazzles most people. The thought of being able to step outside, simply speak a request, have your driverless car arrive minutes later and ferry you off to your destination is super mod – and unfolding right now.

But what about aesthetics? What will smart cities look like except (perhaps) neater, faster, and packed with ease-of-use AI and automation?

Although remote work has been forced upon the globe due to pandemic lockdowns in most countries, humans still manifest a desire to congregate around a shared purpose.

The traditional office isn’t dead yet –it’s not even dying, in fact.

For one, certain office facilities like top-end colour printing, conferencing, and immediate access to colleagues have cost and productivity implications that limit just how far we can go with disbanding the current model without it affecting business. The office is still a valid arena.

However, whether London clients gleaning IT support from EC-MSP or New York clients of the local support fraternity will still be housed in conventional office towers is unsure.

Architecture, too, is evolving and will evolve rapidly as 5G becomes a reality. For instance, IT support and other business services could soon be visiting their clients in organically moulded glass domes connected by skyways, who knows?

Which brings us right back to aesthetics-what will our future cities look like?

Can smart cities be smart and green?

As much as technology overall is evolving apace, so too are other arenas within science and other fields advancing in their disciplines. Indeed, modern scientific discovery – when applied to commerce and industry – will be capable of introducing revolutionary new inputs into smart cities of the future.

Science has become virtual sci-fi in 2021, and holds stunning aesthetic implications for our modern societies.

What if street trees could glow in the dark, providing city illumination once the sun started setting? Sounds like a fantasy, right?

Well, much as luminescence was a prime (and beautifully rendered) theme in James Cameron’s movie Avatar, our Earthly scientists have managed to finally introduce bioluminescence into a host of plant species.

The kicker?

It doesn’t wear off, it doesn’t fade, and in fact often gets brighter as the plant matures!

The MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences recently published some remarkable research. After decades of unsuccessful attempts across the world to transfer bioluminescence into plants, we’ve got it right. That’s right-by drawing on the bioluminescence attributes of fungi species, scientists have successfully spliced it into plants.

Whereas former attempts utilised animal luminescence, making it an unstable and hard to maintain phenomenon in plants, new research work has overcome that. The new smart plants produce more than a billion photons every minute, and – although that isn’t as dazzlingly bright as it sounds – it’s bright enough to illuminate a city street when large trees are planted along its length.

So, driverless electric cars might be ferrying you along smart city streets beneath naturally glowing street trees, eliminating the need for much of the lighting that currently drains the local power grid every night.

Beyond enhanced greenery, there are also advances in slow-burning technologies that are finally making them viable alternatives to traditional power generation, sewerage and waste handling, and other aspects of municipal life. Solar power, for one, is finally truly competitive with diesel or coal-fired power generation. It’s likely every future city will employ (mostly) flat building surfaces for solar panel installation. The cost benefits are beyond dispute, and the demand for clean energy is now mainstream.

Expect to see twirling wind turbines, too, as elevated city architecture takes advantage of thermal and other air movement within the city limits. It’s likely, in fact, that electric car charging stations and IoT devices will be the greatest (and final) consumers of conventional electricity supply in the smart city of the future – although even those aspects will likely convert to solar or other power within a short time frame.

Smart cities will contain many unknown wonders

We truly don’t know what aesthetic enhancements smart cities of the future might embody. However, what we do know is that innovation in technology is setting a breakneck pace, and future design will be informed by research in a host of disciplines.

Chemistry, physics, mathematics, biology, electronics (AI, especially) and robotic automation are all dynamic fields, and their advances will coalesce with electrical and mechanical engineering and other fields to produce-who knows what?

Returning to Avatar for a moment: are floating buildings and flying cars impossible to conjure in the near future?

Not in the case of the latter, where already several prototypes exist that are almost certain to become mainstream. Once a few dozen flying cars enter a city’s daily reality, that means floating highways and air traffic control within the city limits, an unprecedented innovation that we’ve only ever imagined in sci-fi movies to date.

Smarter, greener cities will change how we live daily

The reality is coming.

Hollywood is a prophet and often a template for what’s unfolding before our very eyes, and smart cities of the near future are likely to not only disrupt, but completely eliminate some modes of operation and systems we now consider standard.

Probably the biggest influence on design and function in smart cities of the future will be the IoT.

While we can map out much of the logical benefits of applying AI and automation to many functions of the current modern city, we can’t fully know what unexpected benefits will emerge as the IoT suffuses the urban environment.

We may set out to improve a system only to find that – with the IoT in place around town – it actually obviates its necessity. In other words, as the IoT becomes mainstream and standard, it too will brush up against thousands of other dynamic fields of endeavour, and give rise to improvements we cannot envisage yet.

We tend to think of smart cities as driverless cars, vertical stacking parking garages, and biometrically activated doors, elevators, and overall office environments – but maybe that’s naive.

Maybe there’ll be no doors, or no cars at all!

With all the 5G innovation currently happening today, we forget that other areas of research are producing some pretty stunning results right now, many of which would have eminent application to smart city design.

Indeed, smart cities can become more than simply smarter versions of our current paradigm on the back of ICT – they can become beautiful, too.

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash