Towards the city of the future

© Ivana Bilz
From 2022, Fraunhofer IAO has been working with local partners in Werksviertel-Mitte, Munich, to research and test ideas and concepts that will make city life more sustainable, from urban farming to innovation zones.

Cities play a crucial role in the journey to climate neutrality. Fraunhofer IAO is developing future scenarios and concrete solutions for sustainable and resilient future urban and mobility systems.

In the city of the future, sheep, chickens and bees live on a large, flat roof and the paths, which are lined with raised beds sprouting herbs and lettuce, belong to pedestrians and cyclists. Though this might sound like a setting from an Astrid Lindgren book, it is actually located in Werksviertel-Mitte. The creative quarter measures around 10 hectares and is currently in construction close to Munich East Station. From rental accommodation to start-up hubs, elementary school to clubs, and urban gardening to a concert hall: There is a little “city within a city” growing in Werksviertel-Mitte, where new modes of urban life, mobility concepts, technologies and ways of creating value will be tested.

Fraunhofer IAO demonstrated how this might look in the context of new mobility as part of a collaboration with IAA Mobility 2021, from September 7–12, 2021. With the help of demonstrators and VR glasses, visitors at the exhibition learned about mobility, supply and vehicle concepts for the future and developed and discussed their own ideas for solutions at workshops. “We wanted to collaborate with individuals in co-creative processes to design the urban mobility of the future,” says Sebastian Stegmüller, head of the Mobility and Innovation Systems research division. “This type of mobility is focused on people and their needs, and not around cars.”

Previously, the opposite was more often the case. Cities across the world complain of congested streets, polluted air, expensive housing and lengthy commutes. The situation is compounded by the rapid growth experienced by urban centers. According to calculations from the United Nations, approximately 55 percent of the world’s population — around 4.2 billion people — lived in cities in 2018. By 2050, this share is expected to reach 68 percent — approximately 6.7 billion people. This is a development which demonstrates that the battle to protect the climate will be won in the cities.

There needs to be a change of thinking in many industries — from mobility to housing, trade, logistics and energy supply to urban planning. Compact, mixed-use architecture reduces land consumption and shortens the daily commute, for example. Reducing the use of private transport means that parking lots can be taken away in favor of environmentally friendly green spaces, to the benefit of both people and the climate. “There are more than ten thousand cities across the world and they will play a central role in reaching the climate protection goals,” says Steffan Braun, head of the Urban Systems Engineering research division. However, real transformation will only be possible if the populace is actively involved. “That is why it is so important to design innovations with the help of the people who live in the districts and cities.”

The “elastic” city

The ways that the ideas of citizens will be integrated into scientific scenarios of the future are demonstrated by the #ELASTICITY. Experimental Inner-city and Public Spaces of the Future study from the Innenstadt 2030+ | Future Public Space innovation partnership, which Fraunhofer IAO is participating in. The study, which was published in 2021, gathered together the wishes of over 1,000 representatives of municipalities and inner-city residents. It also identified a range of spheres of action that relate to change. Changes arising as part of the Covid-19 pandemic were also taken into account. In the end, the elastic inner-city became the lead scenario that could be used to derive specific recommendations for actions for urban designers.

“It is important to factor the wishes of the population into the equation, to think ahead and to demonstrate possible futures,” says Stefan Braun, who is also a co-founder of the Fraunhofer initiative Morgenstadt, which also led to the development of the #ELASTICITY study. The study shows that until now, the influence of inflexible structures and monofunctional spaces on cities has been too great. The city of the future needs to be more multifunctional and versatile, i.e. “more elastic”. “We need public spaces where new ideas can be tested out,” says Braun. From vertical farming to innovation zones: The city of tomorrow needs to offer its inhabitants the opportunity to test out and experience different future scenarios. “In this way, it will become the stage for a new social and sustainable form of cooperation.”

“In order to make basic changes to urban systems like mobility, supply or trade, we need to develop a deep understanding of the processes behind them,” says Florian Herrmann, deputy institute director of Fraunhofer IAO. Here, the interests of different players also play a role, as does the potential of new technologies. According to Herrmann, in a nutshell, it comes down to using new solutions that are useful on an ecological, economical and social level to enhance or entirely redesign traditional systems. “For this reason, we are using collaborative approaches to research and digital tools to investigate urban and mobility systems and to develop realistic target scenarios to change them.”

Bringing innovations from the laboratory to “real-life” streets

Beyond that, the institute is developing solutions for cities and businesses that want to make their way towards a climate-conscious future. For Pforzheim, for example, researchers at the institute have conducted data-based research into where mobility hubs should be located — parking garages, where commuters can change from using their cars to local public transport, car sharing services, bicycles or e-scooters. Together with service and retail trade, these types of “hubs” could help to avoid trips — as such contributing to the transport transition.

Another example is the “street of the future”. As part of the project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), Fraunhofer IAO and IGB are supporting municipalities in planning and implementing resource-efficient road infrastructures. There is a focus on the storage, processing and use of surface water. Research is also being conducted into the circumstances under which streets can act as testing areas for trying out new mobility and logistics solutions, a sensor infrastructure for optimizing vehicle flows or to measure environmental data. New model solutions are being tested alongside partners from science, industry and administration in Erlangen and Ludwigsburg.

Another product concept from Fraunhofer IAO, the “Core” electric motorcycle, was even awarded a German Design Award in 2021, in the “Excellent Product Design” category. The motorcycle was developed for city use, combining suitability for daily use with the demand for sustainability and “smart” features. “In order to successfully place products and services on the market, it is necessary to strategically convert the great number of requirements into solutions. Here, the language of design serves as a tool to communicate the roles of new technologies, depict customer values and desires, and ensure acceptance of new products,” says “Core” project manager, Franziska Braun. 

Cities worldwide are bracing themselves for climate change

The Morgenstadt Global Smart Cities Initiative (MGI) from Fraunhofer IAO and other institutes has set itself the task of preparing cities to handle the consequences of climate change. The three-year research project of the German federal government’s international climate protection initiative is helping the cities of Kochi (India), Saltillo (Mexico) and Piura (Peru) — which have all been affected by climate change in different ways — to develop and implement sustainable transformation processes. The long-term goal of the initiative is to develop globally scalable strategies to increase resilience to climate-related risks.

In Kochi, India, for example, locals are able to store their food in solar-powered cooling units and strengthen economic cycles on a neighborhood level. In this way, they will be less dependent on fossil fuels and supply chains. A new master plan for water is expected to regulate water supply, groundwater protection and wastewater management in towns plagued by extreme weather events in the future.

A campus for the climate

Examples that show the great extent of the tasks faced by society worldwide include: The city — the “natural habitat of modern humans” — must be reinvented. This challenge can only be resolved if people work together across industry and disciplinary boundaries. In order to encourage cooperation between industry and science and to holistically plan ahead and implement new concepts, Fraunhofer IAO is aiming to build a real-virtual research platform for climate neutrality. This should create a sphere of action, based on the concept of the “metaverse”, which is at once a pool of data, communication platform and working environment — thus allowing for the simulation, comparison and decision-making regarding the variety of options for future use in the real world.

The initiative will take place physically at the Fraunhofer campus in Stuttgart. In reality, however, it is based all over the world, whether utilized in global research projects or in real-life districts like Werksviertel-Mitte: As a real-virtual research network, it offers all kinds of players the opportunity to work on joint projects in real-time, thus contributing to climate neutrality. “Our goal is to make use of the opportunities for real-virtual collaboration that are arising as part of the burgeoning metaverse,” says Florian Herrmann. “In this way, we want to help accelerate the transfer of knowledge and drive forward innovation on many levels.”