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Building a Smart City from scratch – VIII

Singapore’s supertrees at the Gardens by the Bay, They host over 200 species of plants, act as solar energy harvesters and air exhausts for the Energy Centre and Cooled Conservatories. Image credit: Wilkinson Eyre Architects

8. Super-trees

Think about a tree: it captures solar light and convert it into chemical energy, it capture CO2 from the air absorbing carbon emission. What about the possibility of creating artificial trees that can do the same, better and even more?

Just few months ago I took a stroll in the new Gardens in the Bay in Singapore. The Gardens host 18 super-trees, 25 to 50 metres in hight (with two of them connected by an aerial walkway). They are architectures hosting over 162,000 plants belonging to some 200 species. Some of the trees are equipped with photovoltaic cells to produce electricity for the garden and others double up as exhaust funnels for the Energy Center. At night time the trees provides illumination to the garden and hidden projectors create fantastic choreographies of colours.

You can see these super trees as architectural landmarks but they are also making the point that architecture can become functional beyond the main, obvious purpose. And this is where the idea of super-trees at BleuTech Park plays off.

These artificial trees will be mixed with natural trees to provide shade, as well as to capture humidity (transforming it into fresh water) sunlight (transforming it into electrical power) and adsorb CO2 (using special materials). Additionally, these trees can play a role in creating a pervasive communication network, embedding (invisible) antennas, will help in monitoring the ambient by embedding sensors checking on air quality and cameras for security and safety support.

The real extent to which supertrees will be used in BleuTech Park is not clear at the moment and I suspect that over the 6 years of deployment planned there will be changes also deriving from technology availability.

What is important however is that it is not just about super-trees. It is about the way a city is built (and how new constructions are added to an existing cities). We have technology (and more so in the future) that allows the functional transformation of objects  to have them delivering functionalities that go beyond the reasons why they have been built and deployed.

Sometimes it is just about taking a step back and thinking out of the box. Take that little, ubiquitous object we call smartphone. It was designed to make calls, access the web, support apps… Yet, that same device can be used by a municipality to get tons of data on the way people move around, on traffic congestion, on the noise at micro level, on potholes in the road, and so much more. What it takes is to harvest the data that are already gathered inside a phone a make use of them. Of course, that also requires getting permission from citizens to do so.

Same goes for the variety of devices inside homes and building, like power meters, that can provide an amazing volume and variety of data. Throw in some machine learning/artificial intelligence and you can derive plenty of intelligence about a city.

Of course, if you are designing a city from scratch you can obtain much more. Use smart concrete to absorb CO2, use smart window panes to generate electricity and act like displays, embed sensors in tarmac to get info on type and volume of traffic, require shingles on roofs to double as photovoltaic panels and so on.

We have plenty of smart construction technologies that could be used in the making of a smart city. The usual problem is affordability. Even if they are getting cheaper by the day, non-smart construction materials are cheaper in the short term. It takes a strategic view and the capability (possibility) to take a long term view to see that increased cost as an investment that will be besr fruit over a longer term. This is where municipalities and regulators can -and have to- play a role.


About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.