Devices to purify the air on the urban road, such as the Smog Free Tower (in the image) or the Urban Air Purifier, are born in response to the challenge of city pollution. Credit: Studio Roosegaarde.

  • Innovation


Devices that filter the air and reduce pollution, satellite monitoring for infrastructure maintenance or the use of virtual modeling and big data to project urban improvements in smart cities are some of the most innovative ideas presented in the latest edition of the Smart City Expo World Congress held in Barcelona.


Autonomous vehicles are already driving along the streets of Detroit and police in some parts of the city are detecting suspects through facial recognition cameras. Toronto's hyperconnected neighbourhoods have modular paving slabs that can be removed and replaced, and a system of retractable awnings to keep public spaces dry when it rains. In the Korean city of Songdo, garbage is sucked from homes through underground tunnels to a recycling plant. Like these cities, many others are looking to technology to achieve better public management. Hundreds of them met in Barcelona in November at the Smart City Expo World Congress 2019. Here are some of the most innovative ideas presented at this international event of intelligent cities.

Machines that suck up pollution

Cities all over the world such as Madrid, Beijing and New Delhi have been suffering from serious air pollution problems for years. A dirty beret covers their skies almost permanently and improving the quality of air has become one of their main challenges. In an effort to tackle this problem, different companies are developing devices capable of reducing pollution to be installed on public roads. This is the case of the Smog Free Tower, which can already be seen in China and the Netherlands, a tower that uses positive ionization technology to produce pollution-free air in public spaces designed by Daan Roosegaarde. Urban Air Purifier, for example, has developed machines that, through a combination of filters, catalysts and chemical reactions, suck up polluted air and return it clean to the urban atmosphere. The company manufactures devices of different sizes to be installed on the street or in public spaces such as airports, shopping malls or subway stations.

Virtual Singapore is one of the so-called more developed digital twins, a city virtualization system that collects and analyzes data to improve urban life. Credit: National Research Foundation Singapore.

Sensors for sewer maintenance

While the urban population continues to grow, cities around the world are looking for ways to preserve the urban environment. They are using sensors to collect and analyse all kinds of data: from air quality, noise and temperature to which car parking spots are free on the streets or when it is necessary to water a park. These devices can also help to improve and reduce the cost of maintaining different infrastructure and services, such as the sewer system, for example. This is what the initiative called “Connecting satellite and operational data to trigger predictive maintenance for utilities” from Hexagon in Madison (USA) is all about. The project, a prize-winner in the Urban Environment category of the congress, monitors sewer pipes by means of satellite and different sensors to avoid ruptures due to subsidence or soil instability. These technologies improve the effectiveness of inspections by 40% and make it possible to anticipate future problems and act before situations deteriorate.

Digital twins to measure the pulse of the city

Monitoring the city and predicting possible incidents affecting its infrastructure and services is one of the biggest challenges facing smart cities. Some cities attending the congress believe they have the solution: digital twins. These are virtual models of cities that have become indispensable tools for taking the pulse of a city in real time. In addition to generating layers of information from data sources from buildings, public services, businesses and the movements of people and vehicles, they also allow for projects to be tested in a virtual world before being implemented. In this way, costs are reduced and any risk of failure can be detected. One of the most advanced digital twins currently in development is Virtual Singapore. Another is Yingtan, in China, which won the congress prize in the Digital Transformation category and is building the first digital twin city equipped with 5G+ NB-IoT (Narrowband Internet of Things) networks.

31 kilometers and 37 stations have the cable car that connects La Paz with El Alto (Bolivia), a solution to alleviate the traffic that has been awarded at this year's Smart City Expo World Congress. Credit: Kent MacElwee.

Cable cars as an alternative to urban transport

Ending congestion in large cities is one of the biggest challenges in urban areas. Elon Musk announced in 2018 his intention to build a system of underground tunnels in Los Angeles for cars to travel at 240 kilometres per hour. According to Musk, these tunnels would also have vehicles reserved for transporting pedestrians and cyclists, who would be given priority. In contrast, but also with the aim of improving urban mobility, there are those cities that opt for public transport through the sky. Various cities have built cable car networks, for example Portland (USA), Hong Kong and Rio de Janeiro. In the same vein, a cable car urban transit system links La Paz, Bolivia with the neighbouring city of El Alto. The system, which has 10 operating lines, 37 stations and stretches for 31 kilometres, has already been used by 242 million users and received the prize in the Mobility category of the Smart City Expo World Congress. The transport network has helped alleviate chaotic traffic in two of the world's highest cities and cuts the travel time of users by an average of 22%.

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.

  • Tungsteno
  • Smart cities
  • Megacities
  • Trash
  • Pollution

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