Scientists have designed a “skin” that senses when concrete structures are damaged

Image: Bittbox via Flickr, reproduced under creative commons.

Concrete is pretty great, isn’t it? It’s strong, it’s cheap, it’s easy to use. Let’s hear it for concrete!

On the downside, though, it’s also prone to cracking – if there are swift changes in temperature, for example, or if it’s bearing too much weight. Cracks in concrete structure are annoying at the best of times, but if said structure is holding, say, nuclear waste, they can also be disastrous.

So a team of scientists from North Carolina State University and the University of Eastern Finland have developed plans for a “skin” that would flag up cracks or damage to the concrete’s surface. Their idea involves installing electrodes at the edges of a structure, then applying electrically conductive copper paint across the concrete. The electrodes would emit a constant, low-level current across the surface of the painted “skin”, monitored by a computer. If the surface was weakened, cracked or damaged, the paint would become less conductive, and the computer would sense a change in the signal. You can even analyse the data to produce a map of the damage.

Here’s a cracked piece of concrete, alongside a computer rendering of the damage:

Image: Aku Seppänen.

So far, the researchers have only tried the method out on small, 1m long pieces of concrete, but they’re hoping to test on bigger areas. Dr Mohammad Pour Ghaz, one of the paper’s co-authors, said the team were keen to show the method could work on “real-world structures”.

 
 
 
 

Driverless cars in London, solar power in Lisbon: Six European cities taking smart cities forward

Lisbon: one of Europe's smartest cities. Image: Getty.

The leaders of six major European cities have joined forces to explore how digital technologies can be used to improve the quality of life for their  citizens.

Sharing Cities, a new project led by London, Lisbon and Milan – with Bordeaux, Burgas and Warsaw participating as “fellows” – will boost the European smart city market by demonstrating that thoughtfully designed ICT-based solutions, based on common needs, can be integrated in complex urban environments. The six cities in this pioneering consortium will share ideas, know-how, assets and infrastructure, and involve experts, businesses and citizens in their quest for strategic ICT-based solutions.

The Sharing Cities project will last for five years, including two dedicated to monitoring its impact. The project draws on €25m in EU funding, and should trigger up to €500 million in private sector investment. As it develops it should also bring on board a further hundred or so municipalities from across Europe, and generate hundreds of new jobs.

The project will serve as a testing ground for new digitally enabled business models, which will prompt cities, industry and citizens to collaborate across cultures and borders. It’ll focus on a number of different work streams:

  • Changing behaviour and attitude to energy consumption through efficiency and conservation measures;
  • Implementing and testing sustainable e-mobility solutions;
  • Reducing emissions of air and water pollutants;
  • And increasing the supply of affordable social housing through new construction and the retrofitting of existing buildings.

The collaboration between the cities will be supported by an urban data platform built on open standards complete with a common reference architecture and shared service model.


Meanwhile, on the ground

Perhaps closer to home and easier to relate to is the plan to install intelligent street lighting systems that double as free wifi points. Electric car and bike sharing schemes, and even driverless vehicles, are also included in the plans. Across the board, the emphasis is on going digital – and going green.

In early January 2016, around seventy officials, experts and stakeholders from the six partner cities met in Brussels to launch the project. Eurocities hosted the launch event and, as a network of 135 local governments in over 30 European countries, we will enable the partners to share best practices, explore how to transfer these best practices into the local context, and help cities to choose the most efficient communications tools.

Each of the leading cities is designating one of their districts to act as a demonstration area. The Greater London Authority, for example, has designated one of its most strategic locations, the Royal Borough of Greenwich. The borough is home to over 250,000 people, and combines state-of-the-art attractions like the O2 arena with up-and-coming facilities for the local startup community.

Emphasising citizen engagement, Greenwich will undertake an extensive housing regeneration programme in cooperation with two local innovative SMEs. It plans to implement a low-carbon heat network to service new homes, and will investigate the potential to use waste heat. The council will launch a UK pilot on electric bikes and autonomous vehicles, and will expand its network of charging stations. By installing solar panels on homes, the council will aim to significantly reduce energy bills and carbon emissions.

Lisbon has chosen its historic 10km2 downtown area (population: 100,000) as the venue for a major ICT upgrade. The city’s focus is on refurbishing and re-inhabiting social housing districts, and promoting the use of photovoltaic and solar thermal systems to increase energy efficiency. Lisbon’s overall ambition is to implement an integrated energy management system, and also to use ICT tools to enhance it public transportation network. The widespread introduction of electric vehicles is also on the cards.

In Milan, the pilot area is a 216,000m2 brownfield and former railway yard in the Porta Romana/Vettabbia district, which is under complete redevelopment. Currently, 60 per cent of the city’s buildings have the lowest G or F energy class rating; Milan’s aim is to significantly improve this figure through innovative energy efficiency measures. Having adopted a “sharing policy framework”, the city will develop a comprehensive retrofitting intervention strategy based on public-private collaboration.

Meanwhile, the “follower” cities will do more than just listen and take notes. Bordeaux, a leader in the field of digital innovation and holder of the “French Tech” city label, wants to couple ICT use and sustainable development with its ambition to make cultural pluralism the cornerstone of social cohesion among its 750,000 inhabitants.

Burgas, Bulgaria’s fourth largest city with over 210,000 people, has been pursuing a number of major infrastructure projects, including an integrated urban transport system, a new waste management plant and a refurbished water supply and sewage network. For Burgas, drafting and implementing a responsible environmental policy is one of the project's key deliverables.

Warsaw, the largest city in Poland with a population of 1.7m, seeks to identify and eventually implement ICT-based solutions to help it reduce CO2 emissions and increase the share of renewable energy sources by 20 per cent by 2020. The digitalisation of the city's public transportation network and the introduction and adoption of electric vehicles are also on the Polish capital’s to-do list.

These ambitious plans inevitably raise questions, such as: can the six cities achieve all this in a matter of five years? As always, automatic progression is obviously not a given. But the stage is already set: these six cities are now learning to share – and sharing to learn.

Anna Lisa Boni is the secretary general of EUROCITIES, the network of major European cities.