21st January 2011

The future is already here…


In the third blog for GeoVation Ivana Gazibara of Forum for the Future discusses solutions we can act on for a more sustainable future for urban transport.  We’d really like to know if these blogs have inspired you to think of ideas and enter the GeoVation Challenge, so please let us know what you think.

In Megacities on the Move – a scenario-planning initiative examining the future of urban mobility, we explored a number of critical questions.

How will people travel in cities in the future?  How will billions of city dwellers access what they need without putting intolerable strains on the planet?  How can we plan now for more sustainable ways of life in a radically different world?

As the famous science fiction writer, William Gibson, once said: “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” Our scenarios presented a number of areas of action for today, which we believe will critically determine the answers to these questions. We blogged about these ‘six solutions’ in our first entry, and now we would like to focus the debate on them once again – because we think they point to a better, more sustainable future for urban mobility, but also because they are all solutions we can act on today. The solutions framework we’ve created came out of extensive horizon scanning research and interviews with experts, all of which flagged a number of innovations already playing out, whether on the ground, in large research centres, backyard laboratories or global debates. They will hopefully provide some food for thought for you as you mull over ideas for the GeoVation Challenge.

1. integrate, integrate, integrate: Transport, urban planning, business, public services, energy and food supply can no longer be considered in isolation. We need to create truly integrated systems where people have choice, flexibility and seamless connectivity. When people travel, they should be able to connect much more smoothly and quickly between different modes of transport. Increasingly, there will also be a need to supplement this physical connectivity with online connectivity: the ability to check information before, and during, travel will allow people to optimise their journeys, and perhaps even substitute a degree of physical movement with virtual access to lifestyle needs.

MIT City Car

A stackable, electric two-seater car designed to be used as part of a mobility on-demand system – similar to a bike-hire scheme such as Vélib, where stacks of vehicles are available for instant short-term hire at key transport hubs such as train stations and multiple other points around the city. Three or four CityCars can fit in a standard parking space. Future iterations could be integrated with the urban energy supply system – stacks of parked cars act as batteries that could ‘smooth’ electricity demand in a city with lots of microgeneration such as solar roofs or small-scale wind turbines. https://cities.media.mit.edu/

London Garden

An award-winning concept for car-free mobility in central London that integrates bicycle, scooter and bus modes. A specially designed semi-electric bicycle is available for hire and can be ridden as either a bicycle or an electric scooter. When ridden in bicycle mode it generates and stores energy for the scooter mode. It can also be folded up and used as a bus seat – in this case the energy you generated and stored in your bike is credited to you and used as a currency to subsidise the cost of your journey. When not in use the bikes are stored on overhead racks at bus stops where they generate further energy via solar cells in their solid, hub less wheels.


2. make the poor a priority: Mobility systems must work for rich and poor alike, to ensure no-one is shut off from goods, services and employment opportunities. There are currently 4 billion people around the globe on low incomes.[1] Cities in particular have many low-income communities – this trend will increase as much of the world’s future population growth plays out in cities. Everyone in the mobility sector will have to design tailored mobility solutions that meet these people’s needs.

Chop’N Drop Worldbike

Worldbike is an international network of professionals in the bicycle industry, who work on creating affordable bike transportation and income-generating opportunities for the poor. The Chop‘N Drop bike is an open-source design, which is shipped to small-scale manufacturing facilities or skilled individuals in the developing world, who then construct the bike locally. https://worldbike.org/

Medellin Metrocable

Metrocable is an urban electric cable car system in Medellin, Colombia, that was installed as a complementary transit system to the Metro. It links poor hillside barrios directly to the city and the metro system, vastly improving access as conventional public transport could not negotiate the steep hillsides. It has eased the commutes of most of the inhabitants of the barrios and has also revitalised some of the areas that it passes through.



3. go beyond the car: The current growth rates of personal vehicle ownership are simply unsustainable in the future: there are already 1 billion cars in the world, a figure which is expected to grow to 2 billion within a few decades.[2] To avoid cities becoming further congested and car-dependent, it is critical that we design now for people, not cars. Architects and urban planners need to create mixed-use urban neighbourhoods with the infrastructure to serve local communities, dense developments in cities that prevent further sprawl, and a high degree of accessibility and walkability. These changes to the urban form would almost certainly alter the daily commute for many residents, encouraging less reliance on cars. Cities should further encourage a shift away from cars by promoting alternative modes of transport and creating alternatives to car ownership like flexible car renting.

Vancouver’s downtown travel plan: integrated travel planning and walkability

This is an example of a broad approach to accessibility and mobility, recognising that most journeys involve multiple modes of transport. The system was treated as a whole and multiple design improvements included simple but systemically effective actions such as: the widening of pedestrian crossings, new cycle lanes on major roads and the provision of cycle racks on buses, as well as the implementation of technological improvements such as the Sky Train (an automated light mass rapid transit system).


So Bi – Social Bicycle

This is an example of a system using geolocation and wireless networks for seamless travel and access rather than ownership. It uses ICT to enable a flexible, lower cost and distributed version of a bike-share scheme: “SoBi will be the first public bike share system with the authorisation, tracking, and security systems attached to the bicycle itself. SoBi uses GPS, mobile communications, and a secure lock that can attach to almost any bicycle and lock to any regular bike rack. The system does not require separate infrastructure and can be deployed at approximately one-third the cost of existing systems. Administrators will be given powerful tools to manage demand and map patterns of use. Users will enjoy door-to-door transportation and an interactive cycling experience that can track miles travelled, calories burned, CO2 emissions offset, and connections to other Social Cyclists.” https://socialbicycles.com/

4. switch on to IT networks: There are two key ways that IT networks need to be used to improve mobility systems: by substituting physical movement with ICT-based solutions, and by better connecting and integrating transport systems. People are becoming increasingly comfortable accessing services, information and social networks online. Mobility providers will need to introduce IT connectivity throughout urban mobility systems and develop sophisticated, user-centred online platforms so urban dwellers can access everything they need to maintain and improve their daily quality of life. In addition, transport systems will need to use technology to lessen traffic congestion and accident risks, for example interstate highways that feature lanes for cars and trucks controlled by computers. Cars will change too: leading companies are incorporating ICT into vehicles, and over the next thirty years this trend is likely to become much more mainstream.  

Nissan Eporo Robot Car

Nissan has designed a collision-free, zero carbon robot concept car. The design is biomimetic – the Eporo travels in a group of like-vehicles, mimicking the behavioural patterns of a school of fish in avoiding obstacles without colliding with each other. The technologies developed for Eporo are not just useful for collision avoidance but also aim to improve the migration efficiency of a group of vehicles and contribute to an environmentally friendly and traffic jam-free driving environment.


U-City Seoul

Seoul’s city-management is piloting a project called Ubiquitous Seoul, or U-City Seoul which offers real-time, location based services from multiple sensors around the city. Residents can use smart-phones to check air quality, get traffic information or reserve sports pitches at local parks. People with asthma can get pollution alerts. For mobility, there is a personal travel assistant app available that gives real-time transport information (such as when the next bus/train will arrive), and also provides a travel planner, carbon calculator, and real-time router to enable “seamless travel”.


5. ‘refuel’ our vehicles: We need to shift the way we power our vehicles from petrol to renewable, low-carbon fuel sources. Oil is one of the most threatened, and increasingly difficult to access, resources in the world. Even though we cannot say with certainty that we will run out in the next thirty years, extracting and delivering the remaining oil to market is becoming increasingly difficult.[3] Moreover, shortages and disruptions could occur for a number of other reasons, from policy to terrorism, warfare and natural disasters. The uncertainty over future energy supplies is, of course, compounded by rising awareness of climate change and the increasing possibility or regulation that will shift the way we power the global economy. As oil becomes more scarce, expensive and a security risk, we need implement greater energy efficiency measures, and shift the way we power our vehicles from petrol to renewable, low carbon fuel sources. Most vehicle technology experts agree that the potential to improve fuel efficiency with advanced technologies is enormous. At the same time, the market for low-carbon energy could treble to US$2.2 trillion by 2020.[4] We need significant investment in battery and fuel technology to take alternative energy-powered vehicles to scale over the next few decades.

Better Place – battery subscription

Better Place has been set up to counter the two main obstacles to mass adoption of electric vehicles (i.e. cars that solely use batteries, as opposed to hybrids). Better Place stations allow you to switch a used battery in your car for a fully charged one in a few minutes, avoiding the need for hours of recharging during a long journey. Better Place also allows you to subscribe to a battery service. This means that drivers don’t have to pay to own the battery – which is usually the most expensive component of a fully electric vehicle. Better Place is due to launch commercially in 2011 in Denmark and Israel, in partnership with Renault which has designed a switchable-battery electric vehicle. https://www.betterplace.com/

Biofuels from waste

First-generation biofuels from food crops are unsustainable and are unlikely to have a significant long-term future. However, second-generation biofuels from waste are in development, such as cellulosic ethanol. This can be distilled from plant waste headed for landfill such as corn stalks, timber chippings, even low-grade paper. It is estimated that cellulosic ethanol from these sources could provide a third of the USA’s transport fuel requirements; there is also potential for effective deployment in the developing world, where most plant waste is currently burned. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article. cfm?id=trash-based-biofuels

6. change people’s behaviour

Although planning and technology can do a lot to improve mobility, many of our future challenges are shaped by people’s values, behaviour and preferences. As well as switching from cars to more low-carbon vehicles, cities need to think about ways in which mass behaviour and social norms can be influenced to get people to think beyond their current patterns of travel and ways of living.

In fact, because of increasing urbanisation, cities need to be the key players in promoting low-carbon, healthier lifestyles. The most effective governments and businesses will engage in early planning to influence lifestyles rather than simply relying on additional road infrastructure and modes of transport.

No-driving days in Seoul

No-driving days are used in many cities around the world to check congestion. The system in Seoul is particularly notable as it is voluntary and popular: residents are incentivised to sign up to it by benefits such as insurance discounts, reduced–price parking and tax-breaks. Participants agree not to drive on one business day per week, and compliance is monitored via RFID tags attached to windscreens. The city benefits from having approximately 10,000 fewer vehicles on the road every day.


Whip car – peer-to-peer car rental

Whip car is the world’s first peer-to-peer car rental service. Car owners can rent out their own cars when they aren’t using them. Users can search for and hire cars in their neighbourhoods. This is a distributed and flexible system that uses existing cars, mediated by a trusted website with a ratings system, and requires no additional physical infrastructure. https://www.whipcar.com/

[1] WRI, The Next Four Billion

[2] Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon, Two Billion Cars, Oxford University Press, New York, 2009.

[3] Richard Heinberg, The Party’s Over, Peak Everything.

[4] James Murray, HSBC predicts low-carbon energy market will treble to $2.2. tn by 2020, GreenBiz.com, 6 Sept 2010, https://www.businessgreen. com/business-green/news/2269279/hsbc-predicts-low-carbon-energy.