Science to make mega-cities smarter, on a shoestring

Not so long ago, the recipe for transforming any emerging market metropolis was to commission huge, often technically-backward infrastructure projects designed to improve collective urban wellbeing – that generally came at huge cost.

No longer: inspiration for today’s Smart City is almost the opposite, allowing innovators-turned-entrepreneurs to help rebrand of the metropolis with a scattering of “small is beautiful” schemes.

Confronting the chaotic legacy of yesterday’s uncontrolled economic growth and profligate use of resources, today’s city managers are recruiting scientists and innovators for small-scale transformative schemes that promise a bigger bang for a much smaller buck.

Frugal new innovation projects for Smart Cities include remote tracking for municipal garbage trucks and recycling bins, or eco-efficient “on-demand” street light that’s triggered when passers-by need it. Bicycle use has become symptomatic of healthy cities all over the globe – but the numbers of riders and their flow patterns need monitoring too.

Smart City symbols: weekend riders on São Paulo's Avenida Paulista

Smart City symbols: weekend riders on São Paulo’s Avenida Paulista

More and more, the reinvention of such cities resembles a David and Goliath contest. Old-fashioned and costly “hard engineering” of road, rail or mass housing schemes designed to meet unsustainable ambitions conceived in another era, are giving way to hi-tech mini projects that can improve collective urban wellbeing out of all proportion to their cost.

Brazil is no exception. Its major cities – Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo – are studded with the semi-abandoned white elephants of what is now a bygone era of budgetary optimism, punctured by two years of deep recession.

Rio’s still-unfinished Metro extension was designed to link the city and the 1970’s style extra-urban resort community where the 2016 Olympics were held. In the post-Games hangover, these rail and mass transit bus links to a middle-class enclave now look incongruous – as do the empty and unused stadiums.

Likewise the completion date for São Paulo’s long-promised elevated monorail system has been kicked into the long grass. While the Silver line will be shortened by 16 km and eight stations, the Gold line will have 11 stations fewer and 10 km less track. Meanwhile, mighty Paulista traffic jams still inch their way down roads located under the mothballed pylons.

Monorail to nowhere: São Paulo's trophy transport  project partly mothballed

Monorail to nowhere: São Paulo’s trophy transport project partly mothballed

This is exactly why a new generation of innovations designed to meet the needs of the Smart City – all frugal on resource use – represent an important new development for applied science in Brazil. “Bold and ambitious” is the criteria for those projects seeking a marketplace and now parading themselves before Smart City planners focusing on São Paulo, says Douglas Zampieri, an expert member of the PIPE/PAPPE Programme, which issued a funding call for Brazilian scientists-turned-entrepreneurs in April.

PIPE/PAPPE is a joint venture between the Brazilian federal government’s (Finep), funding agency (Financiadora de Estudos e Projetos), and the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP). These agencies – more used to funding pure or early-stage research – are now turning to innovative research in small companies, to “smarten up” Brazil’s cities.

Monitoring garbage trucks   and recycling bins saves budget:  Image Eco Urbis

Monitoring garbage trucks and recycling bins saves budget: Image Eco Urbis

Fabio Kon, a FAPESP delegate on the project, believes “Smart Cities have great potential for generating positive impact on society and the economy too.”

Ten companies were selected for the two-year project in São Paulo. You can find the full list (in Portuguese) by clicking here . Here is a sampling:

  • Rede Resíduos. This project uses telemetry to track the whereabouts of the city’s garbage trucks, to monitor how garbage are filling up bins and to record the progress of waste materials as they are transformed from rubbish into recycling. Project leader Francisco Luiz Biazini Filho, says the project could result in real financial gains for cities across Brazil that typically spend 5% of their budget on waste management.
  • SmartBike/Pullup uses the ‘internet of things’ to monitor frequency and flow of bicycle use on the city. Conrado de Vitor, one of its champions, says in the first stage of project mobile phone apps and LED lights will be distributed to bikers, allowing travel information transmitted by each rider to be collected. Data mapping then will allow city planners to create new cycleways based on analysis of real journeys.
  • Desh Technologies/Wireless grid control, is a system allowing authorities to remotely control public infrastructure such as street lighting. According to Douglas Malvar Ribas, a partner in Desh, lighting is just the start. “Our aim is that the same infrastructure used to control street lighting, could also be used for traffic lights, parking, traffic flows, and measuring energy or water consumption across the city. To achieve this goal, Desh will need to develop a system of control towers, as well as the software management system.
  • Disaster/Risk management for city infrastructure.
  • Eco-friendly “Green “ roofing for city buildings.
  • “Parking intelligence” to give real time online information about available spaces in city parking lots.

The PIPE programme in Sao Paulo has been running since the 1990s, and during this time has made significant contributions to both innovation and the management of innovation within companies.

You can read articles (in Portuguese) by Brazilian journalist Maria Fernanda Ziegler about the Smart City projects that received funding by clicking here, and here and here.

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