Social Innovation Trend Canvas

Disruptions in Urbanization: The Role of Roads in a Smart City

Roads might soon do much more than physically connect people and goods; they might disrupt urban planning as we know it by becoming the main arteries powering the urban city of the future.

For thousands of years, roads have been a centerpiece of urbanization, making it possible for people, markets, and merchandise to be connected over vast distances. Over time, technology has evolved to make roads stronger, more efficient, and safer, but may soon connect us in new ways.

Roads to produce distributed power. Last October, France’s major civil engineering and road construction firm Colas announced the launch of its solar road technology, Wattway. Wattway is the world’s first ever photovoltaic road surface which uses new road-building materials to produce energy to contribute to a city’s power generation. According to the firm, one kilometer of Wattway-paved road can provide the electricity to power public lighting in a city of 5,000 inhabitants; equipping just one quarter of France’s public roads would make the country energy self-sufficient.

Harvesting sustainable power wirelessly. Going further, solar roads can also power electric vehicles via wireless induction charging, as demonstrated by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) with its prototype of the Online Electric Vehicle (OLEV). The UK government has also just announced its intention to invest £ 500 million to implement induction charging roads with Highways England, the government organization responsible for operating England’s motorways. Induction charging might solve our dependency on fossil fuel for ground transportation, and be the first step towards carbon-free transportation and carbon-free urban development.

Dynamic roads as lean infrastructure. Idaho-based start-up Solar Roadways is working on smart solar road materials which not only produce and channel solar energy to wherever it is needed, but can also melt snow, sense pressure to identify unexpected obstacles, display information using LED-integrated technology, dynamically adjust traffic lanes based on live data, and transfer data though the Internet. Once commercialized, this technology could replace road sign painting, obstacle signaling, snow removal systems, and even Internet transmission networks.

These innovations enable us to make the roads safer, and will one day replace energy production and distribution, Internet transmission networks, and road signs.  We have been using roads for millennia, but are only starting to scratch the surface of in understanding how they can not only connect us, but also power tomorrow’s cities and urban landscape.