Streets are getting smarter
The so-called ‘Internet of Things’ has been gaining a lot of momentum over the past decade. Integrating online features into everyday items has the potential to transform our society – even though it is sometimes added in seemingly pointless ways such as kettles which are connected to WiFi.
One area which has been crying out for innovation for decades now is the streets and roads that we use to get around. It is easy to see the built environment as something static and unchanging, but the truth is that it is as malleable as anything else and can be altered as we please to suit our needs.
Perhaps the most interesting way that smart technology is being integrated into the road system is the mass of sensors which will soon be automatically regulating traffic. This comes in two parts; the first is the infrastructure which is being built up to handle the self-driving cars which will be taking over our roads in the next 10 years.
The second is the monitoring of traffic flow. Most inner cities currently suffer from major traffic congestion which studies have shown is in large part the fault of human drivers and outdated management systems. Siemens is leading the way with this, installing a system of sensors along a Seattle road which sees 60,000 cars a day. Their adaptive traffic light system varies between red and green based on the volume of traffic coming down the road, rather than working to a predetermined routine. This allows for longer green lights where needed and has reportedly reduced congestion by a third along this route since its introduction.
Another way that smart management can be applied to improve our streets is in the realm of waste collection. The current process is almost laughably inefficient. A truck is sent down your road on a specified schedule whether your bins need emptying or not. Did you miss the collection? Bad luck; the collection truck will be back in two weeks.
However, there is a fairly simple way to improve this process. Simple sensors can be fitted on the inside of bins which alert rubbish collections crews of the need for a collection when a bin is 85% full. In this way, bins are not emptied unnecessarily and avoid overflowing – a better and more efficient way of doing things. Further additions such as a solar powered internal compactor which increases the amount of rubbish which can be stored in a bin could continue to improve this even further.
Finally, kinetic pavements are incentivising people to walk and generate electricity. The pavement system is being trialled on Bird Street in London, and it harnesses the energy of people walking over it to generate energy which powers nearby amenities such as street lights. In addition, users can download an app which shows how much energy their walk has generated and gives them discounts at neighbouring shops as a reward.
Whilst the initial London trial only covers an area of 107 square feet, it gives a good idea of what could be achieved in the future. The energy we use when walking around is wasted at present, so if we could take advantage of it and turn it into something else then everyone benefits.
This article does not go into all of the ways in which our roads and streets are being made smarter, but the examples given show that the built environment is set to look and act very differently in the future. Designers and engineers are creating systems which have a lot of potential to improve our lives. Now it is up to everyone else to invest in and implement them.