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Smart cities will make urban living greener and healthier

Globally, the adoption of autonomous and electric technology will reduce pollution and increase the number of commutes made on foot, bike and public transport.

2018 will be the year of the smart city. We'll be reaching a point where the term ceases to be just a buzzword and becomes a reality for many living in the most progressive conurbations.

Climate change and resource scarcity mean that more than 55 per cent of the world's estimated 7.4 billion live in cities. A change to more efficient, healthier urban environments is a necessity. But the good news is that from Paris to Mexico City, Copenhagen to Shenzhen, 2018 will see many initiatives to make city centres that work for people, rather than cars and trucks with high emissions. Key progress will be made on reducing carbon and NOx emissions, increasing access for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport and by the rapid adoption of autonomous, electric delivery systems.

By the end of 2018, urban centres will be healthier and safer, and less traffic will mean that commuting by foot, bike or public transport will become the norm for many. Paris has already established a car-free zone near the Seine. In the autumn of 2018, the area will extend by 1km, with the addition of a guided bus route and extra bike lanes.

In Copenhagen, where more than 50 per cent of commuters already cycle to work every day, the city authorities are working on a huge infrastructure initiative to support more bike and pedestrian access. This includes the launch of 37 safe bike routes by the end of 2018. Shenzhen, cited in 2016 by the Urban China Initiative as China's most sustainable city at 353 square metres of green space per capita, is greener than US and European cities. It will continue to make swift progress in cutting particulates and sulphur oxide emissions, with investment in parks and an expanded metro system underway. Europe's greenest city, Vitoria-Gasteiz, in Spain, manages only 300 square metres per capita and New York survives on 26 square metres per person.

In London, local authorities will build on recent initiatives such as banning cars from the key Bank junction in the City's financial district. In 2018, London Mayor Sadiq Khan hopes to launch a new transport strategy which has "healthy streets" as a key objective. This includes targets for getting people out of cars to achieve an average of 20 minutes of exercise via bike or foot during their commute. Khan has already committed to making Europe's most polluted road, Oxford Street, fully pedestrianised by 2020.

My startup, Pavegen, has been involved in a pilot scheme there to convert a forgotten side road into the world's first smart street. Our technology harvests the kinetic energy of footsteps and converts it into off-grid electricity to power light and sound. We're also providing a data feed on power generated and rewarding footsteps via a smartphone app. Alongside air-cleaning startups such as Airlabs and Airlite, we have been able to show how technology can make urban spaces more exciting and interesting while improving health and environmental performance.

Trials of cleaner, electric autonomous personal transportation will increase throughout 2018. Safety means that autonomous ways of moving goods around are likely to be accepted by communities much more rapidly. Companies such as Starship Technologies and Dispatch are proving effective at surface level, achieving reliable last-mile deliveries. UAV specialist Flirtey is already delivering Domino's pizzas in New Zealand and Slurpees in Nevada. In addition, rival Zipline has been flying medical supplies to Rwandan citizens. For aerial drones, there will be teething troubles, especially in cities such as London, which has narrow streets and a haphazard layout. But being able to drop large quantities of goods closer to customers, avoiding traffic and with less emissions is inevitable, as Amazon's recent patent filings for drone "hive" fulfilment centres for aerial vehicles demonstrate. Expect a swarm near you soon.

These changes are being driven not by ideology, but by pragmatic business people, communities and the scientists and engineers that empower them. Like many great ideas, the smart city is an easy thing to say but a lot harder to execute. My prediction is that we'll look back at 2018 and ask ourselves why we didn't start to get smarter, sooner.


Photo Credit: Mike McQuade


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