Reconciling Humans and Technology through Smart Materials

Aditi Maheshwari
4 min readJan 11, 2021

This is part 1 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.

As we move towards an increasingly connected and automated world, our cities are transforming into complex, versatile organisms — ingesting huge amounts of raw data through a plethora of IoT devices, that travels via high-speed networks and is processed using sophisticated AI algorithms. These smart cities can see, learn, adapt, and respond to the patterns of millions of people, holding significant potential to improve our lives by enhancing productivity and security. However, the success of smart cities relies on their ability to innovatively tackle challenges around privacy, digital overstimulation, inclusivity, and infrastructure sustainability.

Technology that penetrates our environment raises crucial questions regarding personal privacy and anonymity. Powerful mass surveillance networks constantly watching and cataloging people are uncomfortably reminiscent of George Orwell’s Oceania. But the proliferation of public cameras and AI systems for data-driven governance such as Alibaba’s City Brain proves that they are no longer a dystopian fantasy. Certainly, there is a need for alternative methods of data capture and sensing that can provide useful, actionable information without having to trade our privacy for security and technological progress.

While it is imprudent to replace cameras everywhere, there are scenarios where non-invasive, perceptive technology such as smart pressure-sensitive flooring and conductive walls can track individual presence, movement, and location in real-time without identifying the individual. This can be immensely useful in senior homes, retail stores, office buildings, and other institutions.

Wall++ by Disney and CMU enabling passive sensing through walls to capture motion data and preserves user privacy.

At the same time, smart cities are faced with the issue of digital overstimulation. Studies show that one in three people feel overwhelmed by the profusion of technology around us, oftentimes causing anxiety and depression. This is why HCI researchers have been pushing for calmer designs and less obtrusive interfaces to engage more naturally with the technology embedded in our physical environments. Yet another aspect of a smart city is inclusivity. Products and services tailored to citizens with special needs and the elderly enable them to live happy, healthy, and productive lives.

MUI Lab Calm Design Interface allows technology to communicate in calmer and more natural ways.

In coping with increasing populations in urban hubs, proactive monitoring, management, and upkeep of infrastructure are likely to be daunting tasks. Utility companies are struggling with equipment upkeep, leading to catastrophic fires and personal losses. To ensure durability and sustainability, it is imperative that urban infrastructure possess a degree of autonomy — the ability to perpetually self-power, self-monitor, and self-repair without human intervention.

Nanoseptic Self Cleaning Touchpoints are a great example of autonomous infrastructure for continuous upkeep and sustainability of our physical environments.

What if our future cities could gather and display data without the need for omnipresent cameras, digital screens, and rigid electronics, without compromising on our privacy? What if the physical materials that constitute our environment become sensors and displays in and of themselves? Could they somehow self-maintain? This is where Smart Materials come into the picture. Smart Materials can allow us to tackle the challenges faced by our future smart cities by:

Providing less invasive methods of capturing data

Communicating in natural, more seamless ways

Enabling personalized products and functions

Adding a degree of autonomy to physical objects

Stay tuned to read more about what Smart Materials are and how they can enhance our daily lives by improving comfort, privacy, and productivity.



Aditi Maheshwari

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