Smart cities in an advanced material world

3 min read

Materials will have a significant role in realising the smart cities of the future, says Max Petersen, AVP, Chemicals & Materials, Dotmatics

Our world is set to change rapidly over the next few decades, with plans to develop cleaner, greener places to live, in cities that need to meet the demands of interconnected devices and autonomous mobility. Indeed, the total value of the global smart city market is expected to exceed US$2.5 trillion in the next five years. When we picture this society of the future, it’s often the potential that a smart city offers to our society that regularly grabs the headlines, but we don’t often think too deeply about what it takes make this promise a reality.

Engineering a sensible smart city

We know technology is vital – from using the IoT to monitor our environment, to the 5G infrastructure to connect these devices. But the underlying technologies that make these innovations happen rely heavily on materials innovation, and this innovation is rarely driven by technology companies, but rather by chemicals companies that specialise in high-performance materials.

The city of the future

As more smart cities are built around the world, we are facing new challenges when it comes to collecting ever-more data and insights. The multitude of sensors and smart technologies that help manage assets, resources and services must be adapted to new environments and ways of living. Technology continues to have an impact on how IoT devices are built for applications such as utilities and infrastructure monitoring, but also to optimise other areas, including the development of lightweight materials for aerospace or automotive applications to reduce energy consumption. Getting to this point has required innovation in chemicals and materials to identify the necessary properties – whether that’s the combination of malleability and durability, an IoT sensor that is anti-corrosive, or a robust 5G semiconductor.

Energy is becoming one of the most important elements in the society and cities of the future, with developments needed to support sustainability and mobility. In e-mobility for example, we are already seeing shortages of lithium, currently used in batteries, which could threaten the production levels of electric vehicles. Similarly, there are shortages of indium, used in computer chips and solar cells, and cobalt, used to develop battery technology. The future of energy must balance delivering more efficient sources of energy, with reducing consumption and improving energy storage.

smart cities
Smart city (Image by Tumisu from Pixabay)

Developments in chemicals and materials can offer real solutions to these issues – from utilising resources in the best way, to creating more efficient recycling methods, to finding new applications for widely available elements. Recent examples include the superconductor borophene, which is showing potential for storing hydrogen and advancing miniaturisation, as well as continuing breakthroughs being made in self-healing materials. Without these solutions, it will become increasingly difficult to advance the energy industry and build truly smart cities.

Materials innovation and the R&D data intelligence challenge

From sustainability to energy and everything in between, it’s clear the chemicals and materials industry has a vital role to play in building the society of the future – and our reliance on skilled chemists and engineers will grow. It’s the responsibility of businesses and organisations in the sector to arm those researchers with the best technologies available, to support their innovative projects and research.

Today, research data not only needs to be captured efficiently and accurately, but also made available quickly to researchers to not only widen their research understanding but enable them to re-use existing knowledge and avoid duplication of efforts. This helps them make better decisions and provides them with a foundation for data-sciences approaches, including machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) applications. Digitisation helps engineers and accelerate innovation by changing the way scientists work – equipping them to work ‘smarter’ and more efficiently by leverage existing research data, IP and knowledge.

For the chemicals and materials industry, this means taking a data-centric, platform IT approach by adding a data intelligence layer on top of lab digitalisation infrastructure. Ensuring data can be accessed by different teams and its interoperability is especially important as these innovations typically combine different scientific disciplines like synthetic chemistry, polymer science and process development, which are each likely to have separate IT environments. To deal with this level of complexity and harmonise data silos, a holistic view must be taken. Once this happens, researchers can spend their time on collaborative analysis to advance the industry, rather than simply focusing on capturing or locating the relevant data in the first place.

When it comes to the innovation necessary to build today’s smart cities and develop the future of energy, we need to ensure the underlying processes and industries are being supported. Otherwise, innovation will stall and as a society, we won’t start seeing the benefits we expect from the future. Ultimately, having the right tools in place will help chemists and engineers to make the required breakthroughs, faster.

Max Petersen, AVP, Chemicals & Materials, Dotmatics