Light fidelity (Li-Fi) graphic

20 technologies to change the world

Will nuclear fusion ever happen? Can the world be monitored using ‘smart dust’? These and 18 other technologies could be the ones that disrupt life as we know it.

Technology has changed society almost out of recognition. And while there may be some nostalgia for simpler times, the ‘realtimers’ of today are aghast at our primitive past and relish the changes that lie ahead.

What, though, are these changes? Engineering consultancy Arup spent nine months trawling through roadmaps and interviewing experts to determine the technologies that are likely to define the future, particularly with reference to the built environment.

The project was coordinated by Marcus Morrell, Arup UKMEA Foresight leader, who explains that certainty was, along with relevance and impact, one of the main criteria. “We are reasonably confident that these are the technologies that are very likely to happen,” he comments. “You can see from the timeline many are at the stage of being trialled.”

While admitting it was an obvious choice given the current interest in the subject, Morrell believes that the most disruptive technology on the list is likely to be autonomous vehicles. He says: “I personally believe that autonomous vehicles, especially when they are electric and shared, unlock massive disruptive change for the way people and goods get around – potentially increasing safety on the roads and possibly reducing congestion. ”

However, Morrell believes that to take each technology in isolation is missing the point: “The power of this is to see how all these technologies will play out together, and together create something very disruptive. I think one of the main clusters would really fit around the fourth Industrial Revolution and the Internet of Things: the sensing equipment touched on in ‘smart dust’; the communications supplied by Bluetooth 5.0 and 5G; and the abilities of quantum computing  or artificial intelligence to give us the opportunity to learn from that data, analyse it and make more informed decisions around the built environment.

“What is happening with all these technologies playing out together is a highly disruptive new world of information, fusing the world of physical, digital and biological – the natural world. I think this research is spelling out what we may see as these technologies combine and are much greater than the sum of the parts.”

1 Autonomous vehicles

Definition

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are cars or other vehicle types that take users from one point to another without any human control. Safer and more fuel-efficient than conventional vehicles, AVs rely on GPS and sensory observation of their surrounding environment in order to navigate. By 2035, the widespread use of autonomous vehicles is expected to reduce the need for parking spaces in the US by 5.7 billion square metres and will free up nearly 50 minutes a day for users. As well as improving land use, the mass adoption of AVs promises to lower accident rates, reduce carbon emissions and improve mobility access.

Relevance

Cities and urban spaces will dramatically change as a result of AVs, with the design of roads, neighbourhoods, public transport and freight systems all affected. Current infrastructure will need to be retrofitted or reused as part of the transition to a fully autonomous future.

Case study

Nvidia’s self-driving car uses machine learning as a basis for autonomous operation, rather than pre-determined algorithms. The system analyses footage taken from cameras mounted on human-driven vehicles, using AI to learn and replicate observed behaviours. The benefits of this approach include the system’s ability to tackle adverse weather conditions, imperfect road markings and night-time driving.

 

2 Augmented intelligence

Definition

Augmented intelligence describes the use by people of intelligent tools that are designed to enhance the human brain’s capacity to calculate, assess, prioritise and create. It builds on advances in artificial intelligence (AI) that have radically optimised how machines are trained, and which result in very high degrees of speed and accuracy. As such, augmented intelligence is moving from everyday applications such as autocorrect to more specialised uses, including real-time translation and live visualisation.

Relevance

Augmented intelligence will help engineers and designers make better informed decisions at quicker intervals. Users will be able to transcend traditional cognitive constraints, to more effectively assess insights generated through advanced data analytics. This will enable individuals to develop a deeper understanding of complex systems.

Case study

Google’s Neural Machine Translation (GNMT) system has used machine learning to enhance the speed and accuracy of translation. Research carried out in late 2016 shows how GNMT began to perform “translation between language pairs never seen explicitly by the system” by creating its own interlingua informed by its own learning.

 

3 Passenger drones

Definition

Passenger drones are a mode of aerial transport carried out by an autonomous vehicle capable of delivering individuals or small groups of passengers to a desired destination. Various concepts and prototypes are in development for use in high-density urban environments, where they are seen as a complementary mode of transport that would be far faster than ground-based modes. If practical, passenger drones could complement helicopters as a viable mode of autonomous transport.

Relevance

Increasing urban density relies on the growth of multimodal transport systems. Beyond the development of connectivity and autonomy in ground vehicles, aerial transport – if feasible –would appear to be the next logical step. This would affect the design of buildings, public spaces and power systems, as well as transport infrastructure. Dubai has already begun trials of a passenger drone service.

Case study

In collaboration with ItalDesign, Airbus is developing a hybrid car concept called Pop.Up. It would operate on the ground as a drivable smart vehicle, while its core passenger pod could be detached and picked up by a large quadcopter to fly over traffic. The project is being developed in response to rising urban density and traffic congestion by providing a new multimodal transport solution.

 

4 5G mobile internet

Definition

Next-generation mobile internet, called 5G, is expected to handle much more data, connect more devices, reduce latency and provide increased network reliability. 5G is being seen as a transformational technology that is likely to have a major impact on the engineering and construction sector and a wide range of industries including energy, transport and healthcare.

Relevance

5G will be key to unlocking the ‘fourth Industrial Revolution’, underpinning the development of smart homes and cities, cloud computing, machine-to-machine communications and the Internet of Things. Sensor networks and high-speed connectivity will enable real-time monitoring of buildings and structures, helping to better understand operational aspects and post-occupancy performance. It will facilitate developments in autonomous vehicles and ‘mobility as a service’ models.

Case study

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has established the world’s largest 5G test field at an outdoor site in Beijing. Here, the MIIT and industry partners including Huawei and Samsung have established the feasibility of the technology, with further trials now planned in cities across the country.

 

5 Blockchain

Definition

A blockchain is a fraud-proof, distributed digital ledger that records transactions in a peer-to-peer network. Transactions are permanently recorded in the form of ‘blocks’, with each one ‘chained’ together, from the very first to the latest block. The benefits of this system include a very high degree of security, redundancy of intermediaries, reductions in transaction cost and time, and global accessibility for all users.

Relevance

Blockchain could affect the building industry through smart asset management, where a single distributed ledger would provide improved security and efficiency for the large number of assets and stakeholders involved. Blockchain could also speed up the adoption of smart grids with its ability to validate the authenticity and source of transactions, thereby helping users to better choose their suppliers.

Case study

FOAM is a prototype demand-driven marketplace that connects investors to a physical asset. Built with blockchain and smart contracts on cryptocurrency Ethereum, this platform would allow fractional ownership of urban developments from concept to built asset.

 

6 Bluetooth 5.0

Definition

By 2021 there will be nearly 48 billion connected devices worldwide, and Bluetooth 5.0 is the wireless connection standard through which many of these devices will communicate. Offering an 800 per cent increase in data broadcasting capacity, Bluetooth 5.0 doubles the speed and quadruples the range of its predecessor, while its power consumption remains very low. The technology is expected to underpin adoption of the Internet of Things, support industrial automation, and pave the way for the proliferation of dense sensor networks (see ‘Smart dust’).

Relevance

Bluetooth 5.0 will improve the ability of sensors to exchange data, helping the industry to better monitor everything from noise volumes on construction projects to ongoing corrosion levels. Its increased range – from single-room to whole-building coverage – will support the improved performance and incorporation of smart devices in both the home and the workplace, helping to enhance building and system efficiency.

Case study

An ongoing study by Propeller Health in Louisville, Kentucky, uses Bluetooth-enabled asthma inhalers to generate a living map of the city’s air quality. The anonymised data on inhaler use is then used by health professionals and city planners to inform medical treatment and air pollution reduction strategies.

 

7 Quantum computing

Definition

Quantum computing uses subatomic particles to store information. As subatomic particles can exist in more than one state simultaneously, quantum computers have a processing power many times faster than classical computers based on binary logic. Quantum processors operate in a super-cooled, high-vacuum environment, and future widespread access is likely to be facilitated through cloud services.

Relevance

Complex problems and geometries will become easier to calculate with quantum computing, opening up new possibilities for design. It could also underpin the next generation of transport or logistics automation and remote-sensor management.

Case study

Lockheed Martin, one of the largest defence contractors in the world, has an ongoing relationship with quantum computing developer D-Wave. Its 1152-qubit D-Wave 2X will help to verify and validate aeronautics systems, design life-saving drugs and debug millions of lines of code.

 

8 Smart dust

Definition

Smart dust will enable the wireless, real-time collection of data via miniaturised low-power sensors, transforming our understanding of structures, systems and the environment. An evolution of wireless sensor networks, the advent of smart dust will see the distribution of billions or trillions of devices, each capable of transmitting specific feedback including data on vibrations, sound, temperature, pressure or chemistry. Powered by battery or kinetic energy and measuring just one cubic millimetre, smart dust could be deployed across vast or hard-to-reach areas.

Relevance

Used as a new instrument for survey work and quality control of sites and construction programmes, smart dust would allow continuous real-time monitoring of projects and structures. In addition, environmental monitoring via smart dust would inform new approaches to urban resilience, while wireless seismometers spread over large areas could give advanced warning of earthquakes.

Case study

HP Labs’ Central Nervous System for the Earth (CeNSE) is researching the development of a global sensing network using billions of nanoscale sensors. The data gathered on biological, environmental and structural changes could help to improve the efficiency of global resource use. The programme is currently working with sensors embedded within buildings and bridges in order to extend their lifespan.

 

9 Foam batteries

Definition

The unique 3D architecture of foam batteries allows for increased energy and power density by using high-surface-area substrates such as copper or carbon foam together with thin film electrodes. 3D foam batteries promise to be cost effective to manufacture, faster to charge, smaller and more lightweight, as well as being safer and less toxic than traditional 2D batteries.

Relevance

3D foam batteries could lead to entirely new energy storage applications that take account of their flexibility, light weight and almost limitless variety of physical shapes. Over time, the technology could develop to provide energy storage solutions for building- or grid-scale use, and for new applications in consumer electronics, transportation and industry.

Case study

Prieto Battery, a start-up backed by Colorado State University, has developed what it claims is the world’s first 3D solid-state battery that can hold and discharge power. It uses a copper foam substrate, reducing the distance that ions need to travel. The foam is electroplated with copper antimonide (the anode), while the cathode takes the form of black ‘slurry’ coating. This approach is expected to result in power densities of up to 14,000W/l and energy densities up to 650Wh/l. They also charge more quickly and are cheaper to produce than standard Li-ion batteries.

 

10 Li-Fi

Definition

Light fidelity, or Li-Fi, is a form of Visible Light Communication (VLC) that uses LED lighting to provide local wireless communications at very high speeds via the visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. The visible light spectrum is 10,000 times larger than the radio waves used for conventional Wi-Fi. It is estimated that the technology could achieve internet speeds of up to 224Gbit/s, far faster than standard Wi-Fi. As light cannot pass through walls, it makes the transfer of data more secure than conventional Wi-Fi.

Relevance

Li-Fi could allow for a much greater take-up of the Internet of Things, unlocking new opportunities for businesses, industries and cities. Retailers, for example, could transmit data to multiple customers’ mobile devices quickly and securely. Other applications could be found in transportation (traffic management, vehicle-to-vehicle communications and in-flight connectivity), hospitals (medical instruments) and in urban environments (free connectivity at specified access points to provide internet, audio and video streaming).

Case study

Estonian tech company Velmenni develops smart lighting solutions for workplace environments that provide users with access to the internet through light. The company has trialled Li-Fi in both an office and an industrial site in Tallinn, reporting that it has achieved data transmission speeds of 1Gbit/s.

 

11 Fusion reactors

Definition

Fusion occurs when a gas is heated up enough to separate into positive ions and electrons. When the ions get hot enough, they can overcome their mutual repulsion and collide, fusing together. This ‘fusion’ releases massive amounts of energy – about one million times more powerful than a chemical reaction, and three to four times more powerful than a fission reaction. It could potentially provide safe, clean fuel with no radioactive waste.

Relevance

Fusion power could revolutionise established models of energy generation and distribution. The vast amount of energy produced by fusion reactors would transform the transport landscape and other energy-intensive industries, but would also power increased material consumption and resource use.

Case study

Lockheed Martin’s Compact Fusion concept proposes the use of magnetic field pressure to make a fusion reactor that is ten times smaller than other prototypes. By creating a magnetic ‘bottle’ capable of handling extremely high temperatures, the contained fusion reaction could be released as heat energy. This could then replace conventional combustion chambers in turbine generators, for example, which in turn could produce electricity or propulsive power for a number of applications.

 

12 Transparent solar panels

Definition

Transparent solar panels use organic salts to absorb light wavelengths that are invisible to the human eye. This enables the panels to be fully transparent, unlike current translucent photovoltaics, and as such could replace window glass.

Relevance

Transparent cells have the potential for mass adoption and could transform any surface into an energy-harvesting system. Their clear appearance provides designers and engineers with a huge range of potential applications from tall buildings to acoustic barriers.

Case study

The MIT start-up Ubiquitous Energy has created a solar cell that is transparent to visible light but absorbs ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths to produce electricity. Although the prototype can only achieve a 1 per cent efficiency rate, it is anticipated that the design could achieve up to 5 per cent efficiency, compared to the 7 per cent achieved by current panels.

 

13 Pollution digesters

Definition

Incorporated into the urban fabric, pollutant digesters are capable of removing, filtering or transforming harmful airborne contaminants in order to improve air quality. Various approaches have been developed to achieve this, including large-scale air ionisers and photocatalytically active substances. If used within building facades, hard surfaces or installed as standalone mechanisms across the city, these could help combat air pollution.

Relevance

The dangers of urban air pollution are increasingly apparent. With growing levels of urbanisation globally, the reduction and removal of airborne pollutants is becoming a critical challenge for national governments and city authorities. Designers and engineers will need to have an awareness of the role that pollutant digesters could play in improving air quality and human health.

Case study

Added during concrete manufacture, Photoment can turn large areas of concrete paving into surfaces that actively reduce the amount of airborne pollutants. The powder-like substance is photocatalytically active and reacts with sunlight to break down toxic airborne nitrous oxide into non-toxic nitrates. The small quantity of nitrates produced poses no threat to the environment and is easily washed away by rain.

 

14 Deep mapping

Definition

Deep mapping is the layering of multiple types of geo-tagged data within a GIS (geographic information system). Data is compiled from sources such as remote sensor networks, aerial and satellite imagery, active and passive crowd-sourcing, smartphones and site survey vehicles. The localised data sits ‘behind’ the map, showing a range of information. A form of integrated cross-platform surveillance, deep mapping relies on accurate integration and visualisation of the data to provide richer understanding of places and structures.

Relevance

With its synthesis of various datasets – for example BIM (building information modelling) or sensor data – into a single interface, deep mapping will support integrated design approaches and enhance visual analysis. The layering of information, both historic and real-time, will also improve decision-making, helping to reduce construction and maintenance costs.

Case study

Google’s Ground Truth data acquisition project combines aerial and satellite imagery with data collected via its fleet of Street View cars and its other sources of data. The mapping process begins with extracting information available at the street level, including street numbers, local business names, traffic restrictions, building dimensions and photographs. These geo-tagged datasets are then combined and merged with satellite images, crowd-sourced and open source geo-tagged data to generate a virtual replica of the mapped areas.

 

15 Mixed reality

Definition

Mixed reality is the integration of digital information into a real-world environment, allowing live interaction and feedback. Unlike the complete immersion provided by virtual reality, or the overlaying of content onto the real world achieved by augmented reality, mixed reality uses transparent lenses to make virtual objects both appear and interact with real ones. This ‘hybrid reality’ is made possible by advances in sensors, eye tracking, spatialised sound, optics and mobile network capacity. The integration of haptic technology will also provide virtual objects with a realistic sense of touch. As well as underpinning new computing interfaces, mixed reality promises to transform how people access information and share experiences.

Relevance

An inherently spatial technology, mixed reality will drastically affect design, construction and maintenance of projects across all sectors. New tools and interfaces will overlay images and information, for example BIM, on to building facades or construction sites. This will allow onsite evaluation and real-time design variation, reducing inefficiency and costs.

Case study

Microsoft’s HoloLens is a headset that allows users to view and interact with scalable, photorealistic and responsive 3D holograms overlaid on the user’s visual field. US construction firm Gilbane is using HoloLens to inspect 3D renderings of site plans to identify potential design issues prior to construction.

 

16 Multi-sensory interfaces

Definition

Multi-sensory interfaces enable communication between humans and machines through physical gesture and speech. They are set to replace conventional computer control systems by allowing humans to interact with digital interfaces using eye movement or movement generated by our hands and fingers. Conversational interfaces are also being enhanced to combine voice recognition and natural language cognition to create more effective speech-driven interfaces. These pave the way for real-time cross-language communications. Current constraints include limited processing power, complex input methods and comprehensive joint and movement recognition.

Relevance

Developments in digitally enhanced environments (see ‘Mixed reality’) will require a new generation of user interfaces and experiences. Multisensory interfaces will form a key part of this, fundamentally altering our experience of human machine communication. In the near-term, these changes will influence design tools and experiential interfaces, with the potential to affect design processes, and construction or building operations.

Case study

A patent filed by Samsung in South Korea details a blink-detecting contact lens, equipped with a display, camera, antenna and movement sensors. If realised, this lens could transform how humans interact with virtual and augmented environments. By projecting an image directly onto the retina, the technology could achieve higher resolution while minimising physical impact.

 

17 Nanomaterials

Definition

Nanomaterials are defined as being smaller than 100nm in any of their dimensions and include nanotubes, quantum dots, aerogels and graphene. As well as strength and conductivity, they have been shown to demonstrate a huge range of useful properties including self-lubrication, creep resistance and self-organisation. Nanomaterials need to be used in composition with other materials in order to be applied. Leading this technology is graphene, which is an excellent thermal and electrical conductor.

Relevance

There are many potential use cases for nanomaterials in the built environment due to their inherent strength, light weight and insulating properties. Additional applications under development include corrosion-free steel, low energy LEDs, ultra-thin PV cells and advanced coatings.

Case study

Zenyatta, a mineral exploration company, has partnered with concrete producer Larisplast to develop graphene-infused concrete. As well as preventing premature failure, anticipated benefits include faster curing times and improved mechanical performance with smaller volumes.

 

18 High-performance materials

Definition

A range of high-performance materials is being actively evolved, driven by application-specific demand. Generally, high-performance materials maintain their essential properties while providing additional capabilities such as enhanced durability, lightness, strength, tensility, conductivity, insulation, roughness, or resistance to high radiation and temperatures. Examples include titanium foam and transparent wood.

Relevance

High-performance materials offer enhanced properties that help to improve performance in specific contexts. In recent years industry has had some success in developing advanced performance materials, including in the construction sector. For example, high-performance materials are driving new opportunities for insulation with products including aerogel and vacuum insulation panels offering improved applications. Other sectors using such materials include aerospace, automotive and the nuclear industry.

Case study

Developed by Cabot, ThermalWrap uses aerogel particles as part of flexible nonwoven fabric with highly insulating properties. These aerogel blankets are ultra-thin and can be easily cut and shaped for insulating buildings. They can also transmit and diffuse light while being water-repellent and low-dusting.

 

19 Bio-based materials

Definition

Bio-based materials contain substances derived from plant-based or other renewable sources and include bioplastics, bioconcrete and resin-free biofabricated wood. With their reduced environmental impact these materials have a broad range of future applications, for example replacing fossil-based plastics.

Relevance

With increasingly ambitious carbon reduction targets and a growing interest in the use of organic waste as a resource, bio‑based solutions could provide a valuable and sustainable alternative to conventional materials. Already a significant trend in the packaging and furniture industries, the building sector will soon be affected through tighter environmental legislation. Likewise, growth in the circular economy and greater awareness among designers and engineers will help to accelerate innovation and the practical adoption of bio-based building materials.

Case study

Designed by The Living architecture studio, Hy-Fi was a 13m-high cluster of towers built from 10,000 compostable bricks and installed in summer 2014. The zero-carbon bricks were created from corn stalks and mushroom mycelium, and coated with a light-refracting film to naturally light up the interior of the towers. Once disassembled, the bricks were composted and the soil returned to local community gardens.

 

 

20 Programmable Materials

Definition

Programmable materials are materials that are formed and pre-programmed to transform into engineered geometries. In essence, physical objects are able to change their shape due to a combination of specific material properties, the programmed geometry, and a change in their environment, for example temperature, moisture or movement.

Relevance

Applications of programmable materials spread across infrastructure, production lines, construction and asset operation. In the near term, engineers will be able to design new operational behaviour for products, and improve the efficiency of assembly processes. Advances in the scale and complexity of our ability to program materials could eventually support a new generation of structures that respond dynamically and automatically to their environment.

Case Study

A project developed by the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT is using shape-shifting carbon fibre in a racing car spoiler. The spoiler reacts to environmental change, morphing into its most efficient shape and improving the car’s aerodynamic performance.

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