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Building a Sustainable City through Smart Innovation

  Published: 26 November 2017
  Theme: Smart Planning

The use of latest technologies, such as robotics, artificial intelligence and advanced computer modelling, in the urban environment were presented at the 2017 Urban Sustainability R&D Congress, held over two days in end-June at the Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre. 

(Prof Alberto L. Sangiovanni-Vincentelli speaking on Singapore as a living lab for urban solutions and sustainability. Photo: URA)

Towards a Sustainable City

Experts at the Congress emphasised that for a city to pioneer successful urban sustainability initiatives, experts must break out of their respective silos. Singapore was identified as an ideal city for collaboration between urban authorities, academics and industry players given its compact geographical size and advanced technological and research infrastructure.

One research priority is reducing urban ambient temperatures in the equatorial city-state. Researchers of Cooling Singapore — from the Singapore-ETH Centre, Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, TUM CREATE and National University of Singapore — aim to mitigate the urban heat island (UHI) effect by creating advanced computational modelling tools. They are also testing various heat-reducing measures such as reflective building surfaces.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) is also deploying the Quantitative Urban Environment Simulation Tool (QUEST) as part of its urban planning suite of tools to visualise how new additions to the built environment will affect thermal comfort.

Concurrently, studies and experiments are being conducted in areas such as developing strategies to mitigate urban noise pollution (primarily by improving sound-masking technology in urban residences), using virtual reality to investigate residents’ perceptions of safety in their neighbourhood, and identifying new building typologies with dense greenery to realise environmental, social and economic benefits in high-population urban centres. Researchers are also studying human behaviour to determine how policymakers should prioritise sustainable solutions.

Jointly developed by the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and ENGIE Lab Singapore, PowerZee is a smartphone app with game-based elements that track and reward eco-friendly actions. The app was piloted in 2015 and let city authorities spot gaps in green practices and create timely policies that bridge these gaps.

Smart Infrastructure Built to Last

Also showcased at the Congress: the integration of advanced engineering, robotics and intelligent systems with Internet of Things devices and deep learning, to enable cities to build and manage complex infrastructures efficiently.

To improve the reliability of public infrastructure, agencies are testing the viability of using robots and drones to detect problems early. Technologies such as thermo-acoustic sensors are also being deployed and monitored for track and joint inspection to ensure the safety of Singapore’s rail network.

(Research topics suggested by the congress participants. Photo: URA)

Data collected could be fed into intelligent systems capable of deep learning. The systems would generate actionable real-time insights in areas such as building maintenance, energy use and security — further enhancing infrastructure resilience.

Also presented were innovative engineering solutions such as renewable energy systems that could be seamlessly integrated with urban architecture. For example, flexible solar PV panels for curved surfaces, now in the prototype stage at the NTU Energy Research Institute, could allow buildings to be fully energy self-sufficient.

(Researchers explaining about their work to the participants. Photo: URA)

Seeing a City’s Future through Data

Urban planners are also working with the scientific community to predict future needs of cities by harnessing big data in innovative ways.

Cities are researching the potential of predictive analytics platforms, such as IBM’s Watson, to help solve urban challenges. These platforms could, for instance, assist healthcare professionals by rapidly analysing vast amounts of data from multiple sources to help diagnose and treat sick citizens early. This technology is expected to prove especially useful in urban populations with a growing percentage of seniors and could also help practitioners mitigate stress-related illnesses in urban residents more effectively.

To minimise urban mobility bottlenecks that impact both the economy and resident well-being, research by the Singapore Land Transport Authority and NTU’s Complexity Institute has been providing further insight into local commuter behaviour via agent-based modelling since 2016.

The team at the Complexity Institute analysed 2.5 million rail transit trips a day based on ticketing records and used the data to conduct simulations of multiple scenarios that would affect mobility, such as a sudden increase in commuters at one rapid rail station. This and other findings allow urban and transport planners to pinpoint critical loads, pre-empt tipping points, and accurately take into account possible behavioural changes when expanding the rail transit network.

Singapore continues to seek collaborative opportunities with academic and industry partners locally and abroad, and, where possible, empower citizens via choice-based planning approaches. A fusion of citizen input, expert knowledge and resource support would accelerate smart urban solutions that make sustainable cities worldwide a near-term prospect rather than a long-term possibility.