We visited the Smart City Expo World Congress, the international main event on urban innovation, in Barcelona in November. Hundreds of countries, cities and companies were represented at the expo. The representatives of Finland included us, Forum Virium Helsinki, along with the City of Helsinki, City of Tampere and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. We picked up some trends that will be prevalent in smart urban development in 2024.
1. Now is AI’s ‘iPhone moment’
Using artificial intelligence (AI) has become a part of many knowledge workers’ routines in the past year as services like ChatGPT have made artificial intelligence more commonplace. At the Barcelona expo, AI was perhaps the most significant new and growing topic, especially from the perspective of cities and transport. Charbel Aoun, Smart City and Spaces Director at NVIDIA, even declared that now is the ‘iPhone moment’ for AI, meaning a moment when a disruptive new technology is rapidly gaining ground. The City of Helsinki was brought up several times as an example of a city that is already using and regulating AI.
AI will play a notable role in city planning and healthcare, among other sectors. It can be used to simulate different solutions for energy consumption or a city organisation’s decision-making, for example. Currently, AI is rapidly spreading to the public sector, which will require much education and training for city employees.
From the business sector, the American HaydenAI, a developer of urban transport solutions, was displayed at the expo. In these solutions, AI can optimise public transport or automatically monitor traffic violations in the surroundings of a police vehicle. However, AI that is capable of identifying individuals and crimes is problematic in democracies that value privacy. Indeed, many presentations highlighted the regulation of AI and the ethical side of data use.
2. Smart air-raid shelters and defence of democracy in Kyiv
The City of Kyiv was one of the exhibitors at the expo. Kyiv was showcasing how its residents use smart solutions while living amid the brutal war started by Russian aggression. For example, residents have access to a mobile application, Kyiv Digital, which alerts them of approaching air raids and helps them find the closest shelter. The digital solutions in Kyiv also ensure access to the internet in the air-raid shelters and help people find shops and pharmacies that are open.
The military industry is typically an early adopter of digital solutions. For Ukrainians, this is a matter of life and death. In general, many presentations at the expo emphasised the need to defend European values and democracy against the threat of Russia and the rise of populism and hate speech.
3. Diverse mobility is a growing trend
Diverse mobility is a constantly growing trend. New technologies are continuously entering the market, especially in terms of light vehicles. Operators aim to combine new modes of transport into a multimodal system in which people’s travel chains consist of various forms of transport. For example, travelling by plane may involve the trip to the airport by train, the flight itself, and the trip from the airport by taxi. A multimodal approach includes all modes of transport as a part of the travel chain, starting from electric scooters and city bicycles. Optimising such travel chains helps reduce the emissions from transport and create new business opportunities. The Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) model developed in Helsinki is largely based on the same approach. One of the remaining problems with MaaS is how to commercialise it. The best business model is still being sought.
It is noteworthy that the 2023 expo had its own section for water transport for the first time. Helsinki is a pioneer in smart boating, and the pilot projects of Forum Virium Helsinki have led to water MaaS innovations such as Callboats and Bout. Innovations for water transport have been developed in Helsinki as a part of the City’s maritime strategy for years.
4. Urban air mobility is increasingly common
Today, drones are being tested in many European cities, especially for urgent deliveries. Many cities reported that urban air mobility is such a new phenomenon that they have not had time to look into it. It is already known that residents are concerned about the safety and noise of urban air mobility. Aena, the authority that manages Spanish airports, reported that they are developing airports and urban air mobility jointly at the same time. The aim is to pilot the transport of passengers by drone from Malaga to Granada in 2025.
Forum Virium Helsinki is also at the head of research and development on urban air mobility. Helsinki has already tested drone deliveries of first-aid supplies and surveyed residents’ attitudes towards urban air mobility. AiRMOUR, the three-year innovation and research project by Forum Virium, will publish a guidebook on urban air mobility and recommendations for adopting drones for cities. The publications are due to be released by the end of 2023. The City of Helsinki is preparing for drones becoming more commonplace with the Urban Air Mobility Strategy that was introduced in 2023.
5. Number of batteries growing, wireless charging increasing
One of the main topics at the Barcelona expo was battery technology. As electric vehicles become increasingly common, the number of batteries will also grow exponentially. Their service life is not forever, which is why the recycling of batteries is about to become a significant business. The future of transport is electric. Currently, the most common and prevailing model is charging an integrated battery via a charging station. However, a new and rising phenomenon is the wireless charging of light vehicles. Several variations of this were showcased at the expo.
The discussion on replaceable batteries is still ongoing. The E-Mobility Rentals company showcased a system for cars and mopeds where the batteries are standardised and can be replaced in 30 seconds. The solution has already been piloted in Romania. However, the problem with replaceable batteries is the immense investments they require, the lack of standardisation and the extremely rapid development of battery technology.