Published on June 7, 2016

Our phones are smart, why not our cities? We dig out some urban innovations that we’d love to see more of in Australia.

Toronto, Canada, may be a medium-sized city in global terms, but as anyone who has lived there knows, it does a mean traffic jam. However, if the work of University of Toronto engineering graduate Samah El-Tantawy continues gaining traction, peak hour congestion may soon be a thing of the past.

The system, tested on 60 intersections in Toronto, ditches the traditional centralised network which controls traffic light timers. Instead, a combination of artificial intelligence and game theory work together to slash the time drivers spend waiting for the red to change.  Just as members of a sports team make decisions based on what’s happening with the rest of the players, the smart intersections ‘talk’ to nearby lights to decide whether to let the green run a little longer. The result? Intersections in the project reduced vehicles’ waiting time by 40 percent.

That’s not the only reason that the technology, called MALRIN, is currently being eyed off by urban planners across the globe: by continually adjusting its timing mechanisms and observing the impact on traffic, it gets even savvier over time.

Pedestrians who welcome the wait

Of course, not all those frustrated by red lights are in vehicles. Impatient pedestrians are unlikely to wait for the green to cross, although perhaps not in Lisbon, Portugal, where the makers of Smart cars have experimented with a dancing traffic light.

Fabulously, instead of the infamous ‘red man’ sitting static as pedestrians twiddle their thumbs, he busts out some dance moves to keep everyone captivated on the sidewalk. Even better? Those dance moves are real: the footwork of other passersby who’ve ducked into a nearby booth to entertain the crowds in real time. Lighthearted it may be, but the safety impact is real. During the project’s lifespan, 81 per cent more pedestrians waited for the light to turn green before crossing. For anyone keen to replicate this slice of toe-tapping street safety here in Australia, here’s how they did it.

Welcoming wonky veg

Cities are famously filled with discerning shoppers. No problem: unless, of course, you’re a farmer trying to sell a wobbly carrot or a less than perfectly-round tomato. In Australia, food waste is already being combated to some degree by not-for-profits like Oz Harvest and Melbourne’s Foodbank, but in the UK, supermarket Asda (owned by Wal-Mart) has started tackling the problem on its shelves, by selling “Wonky Veg” boxes at a discount.

While some wonder if the company’s war on waste is real, it does seem to be doing one thing: highlighting famously strict standards on what is deemed sellable in supermarkets – one blemish or a bend in the wrong place and perfectly edible food is destined for the bin even before it gets to consumers.

Smart pipes

The World Economic Forum calls “Waternet” one of today’s top urban innovations. Given the pressures on freshwater resources (demand is predicted to outpace supply by 40 per cent in less than 15 years), having an internet of pipes makes perfect sense.

After all, today’s water pipes already have the capacity for street smarts: when hooked up to smart sensors they can assist in reducing water loss and managing floodwater levels. The main players are start ups like Israel-based TaKaDu, which is using cloud-based technologies to connect water pipes to the Internet of Things so suppliers can identify weak points in their networks before major damage like blockages occurs.

In water-thirsty Australia, local companies are already cottoning on to this one. In Queensland Unitywater saved over one billion litres of water in just one year using the technique, while Yarra Valley Water has also saved millions by identifying and tracking leaks through TaKaDu’s smart software.

Looking to the future our pipes may up the ante even further by becoming savvy enough to detect outbreaks of infectious disease. MIT scientists believe that newly developed sensors in sewage pipes have potential to analyse bacteria and viruses which, when caught early, will save both lives and significant medical costs.

Green food trucks

The food truck movement took a while to reach Australia, but now that it’s here to stay (check them out in Sydney and Melbourne) perhaps the time has come to look back overseas and see how to make our street eats greener?

In New York over 5000 food carts operate across the city each day. But producing 1.2 million daily meals has an environmental price tag: most run on noisy propane generators.

One start up, Move Systems, reckons it has the answer. Its first eco-friendly food carts, running on compressed natural gas and solar, were rolled out in September 2015.  By the end of 2016, Move says there’ll be more than 500 carts on New York’s pavements. The pilot program, running in collaboration with the city’s council, promises vendors they’ll save on fuel by having “the most advanced cart on the street, at no upfront cost”.

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