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What Are Smart Cities & How Will They Change Life as We Know It?

· Abigail Beall · Opinion

This is what our cities will look like in 30 years’ time.

The Headrow Project

The technology we create today will change our tomorrow.

It’s the year 2050. Leeds is zero-waste, robots are repairing our roads and traffic lights know whether you’re approaching in a car or on a bike. This might sound a little far-fetched, but these technologies exist already. In fact, they’re part of a plan to implement smart cities around the UK. The only question is when they will become a reality.

Leeds as a smart city

Leeds City Council Stephen Blackburn

The idea of a smart city might sound futuristic, but it is nothing new. Generally, smart cities make the most of the technology available to them to ensure every citizen has the best experience possible.

“Cities have always had to be smart, but populations are evolving and people are getting older,” Stephen Blackburn, Head of Smart Cities at Leeds City Council, told us. “For now, the real change is about how we can collect data and how we can re-use that data to inform our decision making.” Leeds City Council is focussing on finding ways to collect information that couldn’t previously be captured. Then, it will use this data to make the city work better for the people living in it.

Smart traffic

The Headrow Project

One great example of how data can be used well is in smart traffic lights. The council is starting to introduce technology similar to that used by Smart Motorways, but here, they’re using it to monitor traffic levels coming into the city and automatically change the traffic light phasing to ease traffic.

Since 2012, buses in Leeds have been fitted with onboard computers that provide their GPS location. This is used to estimate when buses will arrive but also to help smart traffic lights prioritise buses. They’re being installed as part of the Headrow Project, a £20.7 million revamp of the city centre. Not only can this tech help keep traffic flowing, but it could also make Leeds a safer place for cyclists, who could be given similar GPS trackers to inform traffic lights when they’re approaching.

Innovation labs

Leeds City Council Innovation Labs

As part of its work towards making Leeds a smart city, the council runs innovation labs every year. They start with a problem, then run a workshop with local businesses to find new ways to solve it.

The Leeds Bins app was created out of one of these workshops. The question was how can we as a city get more people to recycle and to use recycling bins correctly? The app uses council data to tell people in the area what to put in their bins and when to put their bins out. It’s been made in collaboration with local recycling centres to have maximum impact. As of July 2020, the app had been used over 1.7 million times and looked up over 15,000 postcodes.

Self-repairing cities

University of Robotics Pothole Drone

The University of Leeds is working on a project around self-repairing cities, with the aim to achieve “zero street works in the UK by 2050”. The first step looks at robots that can autonomously and automatically repair the infrastructure of cities.

One of the main inventions in the project is a drone that can melt asphalt, which will be used to prevent potholes. “It will use computer vision to detect cracks in the road surface, land on them and fill them with asphalt using the 3D printer,” Viktor Doychinov, a researcher working on the project, told us. The aim is to get to cracks before they turn into big potholes, saving money and avoiding road closures.

Autonomous cars

automated car stock

Our streets will look very different in the future. Aside from self-repairing robots, the roads are likely to be full of self-driving cars, which automatically keep a safe distance between themselves and the cars in front. Autonomous cars will be able to react more quickly than humans, making driving safer.

However, they’ll also need to be aware of pedestrians. That’s why the University of Leeds is working on a Multidisciplinary Pedestrian-in-the-Loop Simulator (PEDSIM). Pedestrians make up around a quarter of road accidents, and the new laboratory wants to bring this number down. The PEDSIM will include virtual reality simulators to allow participants to experience a variety of urban configurations while interacting with self-driving cars and urban robots.

Smarter ways of testing

Leeds City Council and Munroe K Living Lab

The council is currently working with Munroe K, owners of White Rose Office Park, to develop a new innovation hub where technology can be tested on a small scale before being implemented throughout the city. Using their office park, the council wants to create a living lab as an extension of their innovation labs.

The University of Leeds is also running a research programme called Virtuocity, to provide city simulations. Its visualisation tools are designed to make it easier for researchers to come up with solutions to complex logistical challenges, particularly when it comes to transport infrastructure. It allows different scenarios to be tested virtually, without needing to spend money building anything or risk anything in a real-world experiment.

Cover image credit: Leeds City Council