A Slice of Life in ‘Smart Metropole’

This is part 3 of ‘Living in the Material World’, a series presenting a vision of how smart materials can be applied to create more human-centric smart cities.

So far in the series, I introduced smart materials and discussed how they can potentially overcome the challenges associated with establishing more human-centric smart cities. Now, let me give you a glimpse into what our experiences with smart materials might look like in the future. Let’s look at a day in the lives of Amy, Bill, and Cathy, who are residents of the futuristic city of Smart Metropole.

A Peep into Amy’s Workday…

Top: Demonstrator of a ‘smart shoe’ using pressure-sensitive insoles; Bottom: Jenax flexible lithium-ion batteries

Amy is an active runner. Every morning, she puts on her smart shoes and heads out for her morning run. She also wears her foldable watch on her wrist. The watch’s flexible OLED display can unfold into a bigger screen when needed and is powered by a flexible, explosion-proof battery. The pressure-sensitive soles of her shoes provide information about pronation and supination in addition to step count and send this information to her watch in real-time, helping her improve her form and prevent injury.

As Amy sits down to eat breakfast with her family, cold chain integrity and freshness labels on the packaging assure her that her food was shipped in optimal conditions and is still fresh, helping them reduce food waste. The packaging uses inks that change color in response to changes in CO2 and temperature and can also detect the presence of E. coli and Salmonella.

Freshness labels from Insignia Ltd.

Amy then leaves for work in her solar-powered electric car. Thanks to the self-healing coating and self-cleaning paint on its exterior, she never needs to go through a car wash. If scratched, the elastic molecules of the clear coat rearrange themselves under ambient heat to their original state. Surfaces in the car’s interior also remain dirt and germ-free due to liquid-repelling, photocatalytic coatings that use mineral nanoparticles to continuously oxidize contaminants.

Left: The Lightyear One featuring integrated solar cells on the bonnet, roof, and hood; Right: Researcher from Accenture Labs developing self-cleaning surfaces

As Amy starts driving, her car seat warms up to her preferred temperature. Positive thermal coefficient heaters in her seat contain conductive particles that self-regulate, eliminating the risk of overheating. Transparent visors in her car contain suspended liquid crystal particles that selectively block sunlight from her eyes, without reducing visibility on the road. Smart tyres, pavements, and roads using embedded piezoelectric materials and nanosensors throughout the city detect traffic flow and vehicle speeds, providing real-time information to Amy to save time on her commute.

Intelligent, transparent visors from Bosch

Amy’s car is also equipped with fabric-based conductive materials on the steering wheel, car seat, and seat belt that noninvasively monitor her heart rate variability and breathing patterns. If fatigue is detected, an alarm goes off to ensure that she is always in control of the vehicle. As she reaches for the seamless dashboard, the previously invisible controls appear automatically and she turns on the music.

Buttons from nothing; morphing controls from Continental AG
The world’s first 3D printed office in Dubai designed by Gensler

Amy’s modern, sustainable office building was constructed with 3D-printed steel and concrete. The building is powered by transparent photovoltaic cells on the glass windows. These windows are also electrochromic, automatically tinting in response to the sun to prevent excess glare, conserving energy, and increasing employee comfort. Amy’s workspace is decorated with contemporary 4D morphing furniture. 3D printed flat with pre-engineered stresses, the furniture is shipped in flat packs and expands into its final shape when heat is applied.

Left: Dynamic windows by View Inc; Right: 4D Mesh furniture prototype at Morphing Matter Lab, Carnegie Mellon University
NFC enabled printed LED label by Nth Degree

After work, Amy stops by a store to pick up her favorite wine. As she brings her NFC-enabled phone towards the bottle, printed micro LEDs on the interactive label light up assuring her of its authenticity. As she shops around, the retail store learns about her preferences by tracking her product engagement through capacitive flooring. At home, Amy settles in with her family for movie night. Her couch uses conductive silver fabric that senses that she sat down and automatically dims the lights. By touching specific areas on her soft pillow, she adjusts the brightness of the lights and the volume of the speakers.

Keeping Bill and Cathy Safe and Connected…

Self-healing concrete developed at Delft University

Bill is a field operator in a chemical refinery. Buildings in the refinery are constructed with self-healing concrete that can repair cracks soon after they form, and pipes carrying chemicals and fuels have chemochromic tapes that change color in the event of a leak. Mechano- luminescent beacons in the refinery premises glow during strong winds and broadcast information about weather conditions so that Bill can stay indoors in bad weather.

Health monitoring garments from Athos

As Bill inspects the machinery, his heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration are continuously monitored through soft, yarn-based sensors embedded in his washable vest. The sensors are powered through energy harvesting and storage fabrics in the vest, eliminating the need for rigid, heavy batteries. Because Bill spends much of his day outdoors, his dynamic clothing self-ventilates and becomes more breathable when it is hot, and stores heat when it is cold. Bill also wears fashionable photochromic tattoos that change color to alert him about harmful UV exposure. His impact-absorbing vest uses shear-thickening fluids that can immediately harden if he falls and prevent occupational injury.

Self ventilating activewear prototype at MIT Media Lab

Bill’s mother Cathy lives in an eldercare home and suffers from osteoarthritis and reduced motor control. She wears a lightweight, soft, active knee orthotic that automatically stiffens around the knee when she puts her foot down, eliminating the need for a walker. Smart adult diapers that use RFID tags triggered by the conductivity of the hydrogel notify Cathy’s nurse when she needs assistance. Her room is installed with smart walls and floorings that use graphene coatings with ultra-thin sensors that passively detect falls and spills so that her caretaker and Bill are alerted in case of an emergency.

Left: Pixie smart UTI detecting pads; Right: Maricare Elsi Smart Floors

Towards a Smart, Secure, and Sustainable Future

Smart materials can make smart cities of the future self-sustaining and more livable by reducing the burden on our non-renewable resources and manpower. They offer privacy-preserving methods of collecting data through passively embedded sensors that can provide contextual and actionable information without identifying the individual. They can also enable minimalistic functional designs that allow us to interact with technology more naturally. Seamless integration of smart materials in our physical surroundings, wearables, and consumer products can engender personalized and inclusive healthcare for all.

Smart materials have matured enough to create an impact across industries. We’re at a point where technologists and researchers are looking at ways to scale the technology by developing necessary design tools to make these materials more accessible to product designers, investigating the biodegradability, toxicity, and biocompatibility of these materials to be used safely for personal care, and finally, ensuring that any data collected through these materials are stored ethically keeping individual privacy in mind.

If you enjoyed the series and would like to stay updated with our latest research on smart materials, check out the Future Technologies R&D group at Accenture Labs, and connect with me on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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Research Scientist at Accenture Labs. I like talking about smart materials and sustainable technology.

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Aditi Maheshwari

Research Scientist at Accenture Labs. I like talking about smart materials and sustainable technology.