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This is how we develop the city of the future

Franca Delmastro and Raffaele Bruno design systems at the service of smart cities, from environmentally friendly mobility to sustainable buildings

Shared electric cars, tailor-made pedestrian paths, buildings capable of suggesting virtuous behavior to optimize energy savings. When it comes to smart cities, the technologies that come into play can be the most varied. The examples above in particular tell us something about the projects of Franca Delmastro and Raffaele Bruno, both researchers of the Ubiquitous Internet research unit at the IIT-CNR, who develop systems to make smart cities increasingly more efficient.

On the move efficiently

“One of the lines of research that we have developed more in recent years concerns shared mobility”, begins Bruno, showing us the images of a very special car, designed and built as part of the European Esprit project.

Taken individually, the newly developed Esprit cars look something like two-seater city cars. But their peculiarity lies in the ability to rapidly connect themselves with one another to form a single car, reminiscent of a train with several wagons. This feature makes it possible to make the car sharing system more efficient.

“One of the biggest problems of car sharing is economic sustainability,” explains Bruno, “because cars follow the flow of people’s movements and tend to be concentrated in places where it is difficult for someone to get them”. Above all, in the suburbs, where cars remain unused for a long time, effectively depriving city center workers of the service during the day.

“To be truly efficient, a car sharing service must have operators who regularly collect cars from the suburbs to bring them back to where they are needed. But all this has a cost, which is not always sustainable”, he continues. Hence the intuition of the researchers, who have designed a system where a single operator can drive a train consisting of eight electric vehicles to areas of the city where there is greater demand. “Our task within the project regarded the development of simulation systems capable of showing what would have happened in practice,” he specifies, “in addition to the development of decision and control systems, which aim to better manage the system, so minimizing costs”.

From this experience other projects arose, including Replicate, a study to understand the impact of the introduction of electric cars in Florence. Here, researchers assessed the efficiency of the charging stations in the city, discovering that there are still several aspects to improve, including charging times, which are still too long. In addition to the Tuscan capital, the cities of Bristol and San Sebastián are among the protagonists of this European project that studies mobility and energy efficiency.

A tailor-made lift

“We also have an ongoing project in Pisa, which is aimed at efficient mobility on home-to-work and home-to-school journeys, both with carpooling and with pedestrian services”, explains Franca Delmastro.

“However,” and Delmastro is particularly keen on this point, “the real strength of our research lies not so much in the applications (there are commercial services that are already very successful in bringing together supply and demand for rides and car-sharing) as in the technologies and algorithms that we develop”.

Take, for example, what computer scientists call “recommendation systems”, the automatic programs that suggest new friends to add to a social network or the next book to buy in an online store.

The same systems can also propose the carpooling lift that best suits our needs. “We have developed innovative recommendation systems that are able to discover user preferences based on how they behave when they are checking through all the potential lifts. For example, we discovered, although they had not declared it anywhere, that some people did not like smoker drivers, because they tended, more or less consciously, not to accept changes from smoker profiles”. In short, the algorithm had managed to discover some user tastes that were unknown even to the users themselves.

Monitoring the city

The reasoning on efficiency also applies outside the field of mobility. In an urban context, such as an Italian city, there coexist a series of sensors, for example, environmental thermometers or soil moisture sensors used in irrigation systems. These continuously produce data. If we add to these the data of smartphones of citizens, who are managing, recording and sharing a mass of information, we see clearly the complexity of the work to be done to make the most of all this data.

“In practice there are several obstacles”, explains Bruno, “and one of these concerns the excessive amount of data, which are often redundant and difficult to manage. For this reason, a data broker is often used. This is a device that acts as an intermediary between the sensors that produce the data and the computers analyzing them, filtering only the useful information”.

Among the data brokers developed by Bruno and his team there is a platform capable of collecting data relating to the energy management of a building. “For a project with the Tuscany Regional Government we have developed a system to collect and manage information regarding the sources and activities of people in the offices, with the aim of improving significantly energy efficiency”.

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