Smart tech for the 15-minute city
While there’s certainly no need to rip up the playbook on smart cities, technology providers may need to reframe their services to suit a more people-centric and decentralized take on urban life. Planners in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Milan, Houston, Portland, and elsewhere, are finding success by experimenting with the concept of a 15-minute city where essential services are just a healthy stroll or comfortable cycle ride away.
It’s a vision that is less about autonomous sky taxis and helipads atop tall buildings and more about creating communities that fuse housing, work, food, health, education, culture, and leisure. Re-thinking local spaces gives urban planners the power to unblock congested city centers and provide healthier neighbourhoods that allow inhabitants to thrive.
One of the recognized leaders of the 15-minute city movement is Carlos Moreno – Scientific Director at the Sorbonne Business School in Paris, France. In his TED talk, which has been viewed more than 1.4 million times, Moreno makes the case for business districts that are more ‘human-sized’ and swap urban pollution for ‘garden streets lined with trees’ – bringing the best of urban life to all vicinities. He has no quarrel with cities as vibrant, dynamic, and innovative places. But just wants urban life to be a more pleasant and inclusive experience. “To do so, we need to make sure that everyone – those living downtown and those living at the fringes – has access to all key services within proximity,” he emphasizes to the online audience.
One of the first cities to adapt – according to Moreno – is Paris, where his ideas have inspired moves towards a decentralization of the French capital and a redistribution in services. More bike lanes have been created and there are plans to increase the number of green spaces. Key to the success of the 15-minute city format is finding opportunities for mixed-use facilities – for example, sports centres that can support fabrication or lab-based activities, and education buildings that can become community spaces in the evenings. Making each square foot of the city multipurposed, means that spaces can be much more efficient and stay relevant throughout the day and night, during the week, and at weekends.
The 15-minute city concept, which is built on four pillars – ecology, proximity, solidarity, and participation, is appealing to city leaders looking to reinvent urban areas. Some parts of our cities have bounced back quickly from the pandemic, but the recovery has not been universal. For regions that are struggling, 15-minute cities could be a breath of fresh air, turning overlooked and otherwise dysfunctional zones into bustling spaces with local appeal. And like many modern success stories, technology is very much part of the picture.
Digital solutions that give city-goers the confidence to ditch their cars will be central to the long-lasting success of decentralized urban life. Switching from fossil fuel to electric power will sweeten the air, but it won’t help with congestion as streets will simply become jammed with EVs instead. A smarter approach is the introduction of joined-up digital payment systems for buses, trains, and other modes of public transport that automatically provide passengers with the best fares and suit multiple operators.
The availability of live-timetabling and route-planning services are important too in winning the trust of travelers, who may be sold on the idea of strolling around their 15 minute city, but still want to go elsewhere without spending hours researching what bus or train goes where. And this includes e-mobility solutions as well, such as smart electric scooters, to fill in any gaps in the journey. Also important are digital tools that help to put nearby facilities on the map. Apps such as Flowplaces – available in London, and ‘coming soon to a city near you’, according to the developers – aim to help users locate co-working spaces during the day and find a gym after work, for example, and make metropolitan services available flexibly on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Global leadership groups such as C40, which links mayors from nearly 100 major cities throughout the world, are sending a strong message on the need to introduce more green spaces in cities. In 2021, 31 members from Berlin to Bogotá made a commitment to ‘further expand, restore and protect urban parks, trees, gardens, ponds, and lakes within their cities’. Green spaces, which are an important part of the 15-minute city’s manifesto, benefit the urban environment in multiple ways – helping to provide shade as well as mitigating the effects of heavy rainfall, to share just a couple of upsides.
Green spaces also play into agritech opportunities such as vertical farming and putting unoccupied urban sites to use for growing food – managed by a network of IoT sensors that can regulate requirements such as irrigation, lighting, and climate (for indoor operations). The green planning of public spaces is top of consultancy firm Deloitte’s 12 trends shaping urban living, with analysts noting that green areas feed into the measurement of UN Sustainable Development Goal 11, which puts the topic high on the agenda for city planners.