From the London Guardian:

When it comes to smart-city thinking, no idea is too improbable it would seem. From intelligent traffic cones to plant-based cities, ideas range from the innovative to the downright outlandish.

The iCone

A US company is developing a “smart” red and white traffic cone for roadworks. The iCone contains embedded devices which automatically monitor traffic speed and congestion before uploading the information to the internet.

Research clouds

The Institute for the Future, a California thinktank, says university research parks will give way within 10 years to “research clouds”. “Like the Oort cloud of comets that surrounds the solar system, invisible but carrying the chemical seeds of life, the research cloud is an almost invisible, but crucial mass, orbiting research universities,” IFTF says. “These spaces are the coffee houses of the 17th century.” Sensors in buildings will even “note the 15 minutes you spent mentoring a young entrepreneur and credit your reputation account.”

DIY streets

Cycling charity Sustrans and local communities are harnessing the internet in a “low tech” approach to city streetscape improvements in England and Wales, such as traffic calming and rubbish clearance. The DIY Streets programme uses websites, emails and videos to bring neighbours together and connect them with local officials, to redesign residential streets “in a way that puts people, safety, and street life first”. After piloting in 11 communities, organisers are planning to use the same technology to promote a more ambitious neighbourhood-wide scheme in the London Borough of Haringey.

The plant-based city

London architecture graduate Richard Hardy’s three-minute video, The Transcendent City, imagines a plant-like “future sustainable city” that will automatically adapt to its environment. Hardy says his vision of a vegetable-like structure with plant and animal motifs is developed for a society that is “currently not responding effectively to environmental dangers”. It is “an autonomous artificial machine that extends across the earth, adapting to the natural eco-systems it encounters while deriving its energy from the renewable resources available at each site.” One webviewer commented: “A beautiful vision, but one that doesn’t explain how this would function as a city.”

Green Spaces office park

Builders in India are working on a new office complex with 100% waste recycling, electric vehicle charging points, ventilated chairs and indoor vegetation to “grow” oxygen and remove airborne toxins. The Green Spaces office park in Delhi, scheduled to open next year, will claim to be the world’s greenest office complex.

Realtime river monitoring

IBM and water authorities in New York and Holland are developing smart sensor systems to control rivers, dams and sluices. The US system will allow “realtime” monitoring of water along the 315 mile-long Hudson river. In the Netherlands, “smart levees” will prevent flooding, and sensors will help farmers plan irrigation.

Redesign your bus service

Smart-transport consultants in Vienna have invented a game allowing passengers to redesign bus or tram services on the move from a smartphone. Consultant Andy Nash says: “Passengers are the people who actually use the service, and this will help them push politicians and managers into the right decisions.” The Bus Meister software is under evaluation and if successful, could be adapted by any of the world’s cities.

Motoring ahead: Folding cars

Progress has brought us the deckchair, the Swiss army knife and the fold-up bicycle. So, the next collapsible, space-saving technology for the citizens of the future should be the folding motor car. It is already here. But are we ready for it?

Academics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) certainly think so. Futurologists in the smart cities group at the renowned Boston campus have spent 10 years perfecting an automobile so small you could fit three into a regular city parking space. A functional prototype will be ready in January, and the car could be rolling off the production line by 2012.

The CityCar is a tiny electric vehicle about four feet in length, like a bubble car. But it gets even smaller. To park, you pull the passenger compartment forward over the front wheels, and tuck the back underneath. The whole car collapses into a tall, narrow package not much bigger than a wardrobe. Hey presto – a folding car.

There is more to this origami on wheels than a Smart car with a few well-placed creases, says project leader Ryan Chin.

With no central engine but four in-wheel electric motors, it can turn on a dime, and park sideways. It could be deployed as a car share scheme in city centres.

“Five years ago, car manufacturers would have laughed,” says Chin. “Now we are talking with a company in Spain and hope to start mass production in three years. The urban vehicle is here. Timing is everything.”