Growing urban areas require us to come up with creative ideas that can take the pressure off the urban infrastructure and resources. As these five inventions prove, both high-tech and low-tech could play a part.

Pavements that turn footfall into power

A good stroll can unveil the wonders of a city. But did you know it could also contribute to growing energy demands?

British clean-tech startup PaveGen recently installed a 10 square meter (107 square foot) smart pavement in the heart of London. The cleverly designed tiles turn footfall into electric power. As people walk across the path, their weight causes a generator underneath to spin, creating energy through a process known as electromagnetic induction. This energy can be used to power street lamps.

The tiles also collect real-time data and can track location and the number of steps taken. The PaveGen installation is linked to a smartphone app that can be used by passers-by to monitor step count and even use it as a digital currency, exchanging steps for discounts at nearby shops.

We shouldn’t need an excuse to walk and explore our cities, but being rewarded for doing so is a nice bonus. And it can make us feel like we’re active participants in our urban habitat.

Intelligent trees that help cities breathe

One of the challenges of living in cities is the lack of green canopies. As green foliage is essential for cleaner air, the lack of trees in some urban spaces can be felt.

Say hello to CityTree. The structure stands about 4 metres tall and looks like an electronic billboard with one difference: Its surface area is covered in rich green moss, enabling the CityTree to clean of dust and invisible nasties, such as nitrogen oxide, from the air. One of these structures can have the same environmental impact as 275 trees.

Green City Tree at a public space
The CityTree puts green into the concrete jungle.
Photo: Green City Solutions

The team behind the invention – an architect, a horticulturalist, a mechanical engineer and an IT specialist – are the co-founders of Berlin-based Green City Solutions, a company striving to help urban areas breathe again. As a frequent reader of this magazine, you may have heard about the innovative start-up through last year’s smart urban pioneers idea contest. The CityTree has also been designed to act as an intelligent filter by connecting to smartphones and tablets and providing data and analyses on environmental performance.

Temporary buildings popping up in unexpected places

As our cities’ populations become denser and with outskirts keeping growing into the countryside, we have to be ready for unexpected natural catastrophes. Fires, floods or earthquakes may occur in even the most developed metropolises. But sometimes, the most high-tech solutions are needless, when people just need a roof over their head for the night.

pop-up buildings by Ten Fold in a green landscape
Ten Fold envisions temporary pop-up buildings like this one.
Photo: Ten Fold Engineering

A British engineering company, Ten Fold, has developed a way for temporary buildings to be deployed easily. The mobile structures can be put up in under ten minutes using just a hand-held, battery-powered drill. Its modular design means that room size, windows and doors can be adjusted depending on what the building is being used for.

How might we see such structures being deployed in the future? Most likely as medical units or to provide accommodation to citizens affected by an unpleasant, unforeseeable calamity.

Shelter in the concrete jungle

Life in the city has countless advantages but brings about the stress of near-constant buzz. In order to find an oasis of calmness right in the middle of the urban landscape, a Dutch designer had the idea of turning ordinary benches into personal cocoons.

park bench with a white shelter
Turn a park bench into shelter.
Photo: Thor ter Kulve

Thor ter Kulve, who has proven his eye for rethinking and redefining public spaces many times before, equipped his “Park Bench Bubble” with the bare essentials a home needs, including an obligatory USB charger for your smartphone and a weather-proof cover.

“I combined known and existing materials and techniques ranging from cabinet construction, woodworking, inflatable sewing and DIY electrics”, ter Kulve states on his website, calling his bench bubble a “prototype of thought”.

inside the white cocoon
The cocoon from the inside.
Photo: Thor ter Kulve

Switch off, but stay connected

It’s good to put your smartphone down every so often and explore what else the city has to offer, particularly its green spaces. But with urban environments becoming more connected, we often rely on the internet for information and important news, so we’re also glued to our devices whether we like it or not.

Generally, parks don’t have WiFi signals. Admittedly, the main feature of parks, as intended by urban planners, is a quiet atmosphere to switch off and relax.

However, this disconnect means that visitors and tourists who go to parks might not be able to get the information they need, such as the latest travel or weather updates. Now, a New York City park has come up with a solution, with the help of architecture firm Studio KCA: a pop-up, mobile WiFi hotspot. The unique set-up includes seating and is transported by bike, ideal for those in need of information.