What does the future of cities look like?

Self-healing buildings are not too far off in the future. Photo: 123rf.com

Did you know that Malaysia is one of the most urbanised countries in East Asia?

According to a 2016 World Bank report, 75% of Malaysia’s total population live in urban areas. We’re actually ahead of the global trend of rapid urbanisation: As of 2017, 54% of the world’s population lived in urban areas, a figure that is expected to increase to 66% by 2050, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

With burgeoning urban populations, what does the future of cities look like?

In an article at businessinsider.com, futurologist Dr Ian Pearson predicts that this year, drones will be used for delivery, and by 2045, buildings will be run by artificial intelligence, and there will be vertical cities comprised of mega tall buildings.

Such assumptions are not far off.

“Multiplicity” by John Wardle Architects is a vision laid out for Australian city Melbourne, in which multiple cities are built into one huge development comprising various layers and levels.

At the top, a canopy serves as an overlay that cools the space below while providing an area for farming and rainwater harvesting. Transport airships also form part of the picture.

Futurologist Dr Ian Pearson predicts that buildings will be run by artificial intelligence and vertical cities will exist in the form of mega tall buildings in the future. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Meanwhile, our very own Medini City in Iskandar Puteri, Johor, is already winning awards for being green and smart. The flagship township of Iskandar Malaysia’s urban park developments won awards at the International Greenery, Recreation, Infrastructure, Parks Conference and World Urban Parks Asia-Pacific Congress last year. It won the Green Champion Award in two categories: “Emerging Green City” and “Smart and Green Infrastructure: Greenfield Development”.

Scott Dunn, vice president (strategy and growth), AECOM South-East Asia, says the smartest cities of the future all share these important attributes: a clear, focused vision, and a holistic development approach in growth and planning. (AECOM is a global design, engineering and construction company.)

“They are introducing innovations that are sensitive to the needs of the people and the environment, including better waste management, energy efficient buildings, comprehensive traffic planning, and pollution reduction, while promoting new economic opportunities for the younger generation,” he says.

He adds that smart city development trends around the world involve connected, intelligent, resilient and sustainable infrastructure; at the same time, there is also an emphasis on ensuring each city’s authenticity and character is maintained.

“Kuala Lumpur embraces this approach, as evident by its commitment to large urban rejuvenation projects like the River of Life, which aims to increase mobility, promote new commercial activity, and clean river waters.

“Beyond physical development, cities such as Chicago, Amsterdam and Singapore are using emerging technologies – from data analytics to sensors and the Internet of Things – to run their districts more effectively and to manage the environment,” he says.

Dunn feels that one of the key elements of a futuristic city is resilience.

“For one, all cities need more durable elements like resilience and sustainable infrastructure if they want to continue thriving. With the threat of climate change – particularly acute here in South-East Asia but increasingly also emerging in major urbanisations around the world – cities need to be ready to adapt and respond to things like weather volatility, water stress, energy shortages, sea level rises and natural disasters.

“City planning and growth need to take into account these factors when designing things like transport infrastructure, housing, schools and the various public utilities,” he says.

Self-healing buildings

Mushrooms are considered a superfood nowadays thanks to their high protein content, antioxidants, fibre, vitamins and minerals – they’re just generally good for human immune systems.

Now, the fantastic fungi’s benefits are extending to buildings!

According to a recent report, a type of fungus called Trichoderma reesei can be used in a new technique to fill the cracks that develop in concrete to create a self-healing process. If successful, it will be a low-cost, anti-pollution and sustainable material.

self-healing buildings
Self-healing buildings are not too far off in the future. Photo: 123rf.com

The fungi works on micro-cracks, which are often the start of much larger structural problems found in buildings and bridges. If micro-cracks expand and reach steel reinforcement, it will jeopardise the stability of the concrete as well as the reinforcement.

“The steel is exposed to outside elements like oxygen, water, carbon dioxide and chlorides, which causes the reinforcement to rust and break down more quickly. By filling in these micro-cracks, the fungi would ideally be a permanent self-healing solution for the concrete,” explains Dr Jin Cong-rui in the report. Jin is an assistant professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department of the State University of New York at Binghamton.

This idea was inspired by the human body’s natural ability to heal from cuts, bruises and broken bones. At the independent, academic and research-based news and views site in Australia, theconversation.com, Jin explains that with concrete, the proposal is to mix fungal spores in with nutrients during the initial mixing process when building a new concrete structure.

When cracks occur and water seeps through, the dormant fungal spores will germinate and, as they grow, act as a catalyst within the concrete to “promote precipitation of calcium carbonate crystals” (mineral deposits) that can fill in the cracks.

Although the technique is still in the early stages of research, it has great potential to be a main force in construction.

Passenger drone taxis

Getting to your lunch meeting or grocery store using an e-hailing service is quite the norm these days. But can you imagine travelling in one that is not only driverless but also airborne?

That is what some cities, such as Dubai, are working towards.

Volocopter's flagship two-seater drone is designed for use as an autonomous air taxi in large cities. Photo: Reuters

As reported in Sky News recently, Chinese UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle)-maker Ehang was the first company in the world to test-fly a passenger drone taxi with its single-seater Ehang 184 in Dubai in September last year.

The Ehang 184 is described as the world’s first autonomous passenger aircraft. The single-passenger vehicle can fly 40km and works like a supersized drone, equipped with eight propellers.

Meanwhile, German drone manufacturer Volocopter took its first passenger for a ride in its flagship two-seater drone during the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, according to Telegraph.co.uk.

The drone is designed for use as an autonomous air taxi in large cities and the company has said it has plans to make its first piloted routes within the next three to five years.

Meanwhile, established ride hailing platform Uber also plans to launch an autonomous drone flying taxi service in Los Angeles by 2020, having signed a deal with US space agency Nasa (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).

Looks like taking to the skies will be a walk in the park pretty soon....

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