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6 UrbanTech Innovations That Could Transform Our Cities

It is impossible to walk down the street in a major city without encountering myriad ways technology has transformed the urban environment. But many more technological advances are on the way that could change fundamental aspects of urban life, such as the way we interact with our sidewalks and roads, how we enter buildings and amenity spaces, and the method with which developers design and construct residential and office buildings.

Developers, technological entrepreneurs and city officials, speaking at the Dreamit x Bisnow Innovation Summit Tuesday and Wednesday in Tampa, shared several technologies they are using that could have a major impact on urban life. 

Smart Sidewalks

The Dow Chemical Co.'s Brian Ammons, Strategic Property Partners CEO James Nozar and Becker Lawyers' Michael Boutzoukas

The sidewalks pedestrians walk on every day could soon be made of much more than concrete. Dow Chemical, which last year merged with Dupont Fabros, is working on ways to heat sidewalks on a large scale, Dow Chemical Business Director of Smart Materials Brian Ammons said. The technology may not mean much to those in Tampa, Ammons joked, but it could make pedestrians in cold-weather cities more comfortable walking on the sidewalks. 

Ammons' team is also thinking about ways to put sensors into sidewalks that can gather data on the volume of pedestrians walking in an area and communicate that to autonomous vehicles and other systems.

"So now you've got an occupational type of sensor that can detect if there are a lot of people standing on the sidewalk, and the protocol that connects that information to the autonomous vehicles that are beginning to emerge, that's something we're thinking heavily about," Ammons said. "We can put electronics into any sidewalk you want to and allow that communication to flow to anything." 

Ammons said adoption of that technology is still years away, but cities and developers can begin preparing for it when designing streets. Strategic Property Partners CEO James Nozar, who is leading the $3B Water Street Tampa development, said he is doing just that. 

"We're working on the streets, and we don't know what the tech is going to be and what the needs are going to be, but we have pathways in place that we can tie that in at a later date," Nozar said. 

Drone Photography

Accenture's Vardahn Chaudhry, Feldman Equities CEO Larry Feldman, ZOM Living CEO Greg West and Bisnow's Bill VanGeldren

Developers of multifamily buildings are using drone photography to plan the design of their projects and to market condos and apartments as they near completion. 

Feldman Equities is planning a $350M mixed-use high-rise tower on Tampa's riverwalk with 33 levels of condos, 10 stories of office and five floors of live-work units. As it was designing the building, it sent a drone to take 360-degree photography to capture the views that would be available from every level. It then used that to design the shape of the building and its exact location on the site to offer the best possible water views to every condo unit.

"In this project, the views of the water are everything to us," Feldman Equities CEO Larry Feldman said. "That's the DNA of Tampa." 

When the developer begins marketing the condos, Feldman said it will utilize that drone photography to help potential buyers visualize the views from their condo.

"We're enabling condo purchasers to walk through their condo and experience it in 3D," Feldman said. "They can walk out onto the balcony and experience the actual drone photography and the view they will have from the exact floor, and it enables them to turn their head in different directions to see what that view will look like."

Connected Vehicle Sensors

Tampa Downtown Partnership's Karen Kress, Hillsborough County Aviation Authority's Gina Evans, Kaizen Health's Mindi Knebel and Becker Lawyers' Gary Schaaf

Cities are also beginning to experiment with sensors that will allow vehicles to communicate with the roads and street lights. Tampa is one of three cities in the county piloting a sensing technology that will be installed on a few major thoroughfares and connect to the city's streetcar system, buses and 1,000 personal vehicles included in the pilot. Tampa Downtown Partnership Director of Transportation Karen Kress said her car is one of those being included, and she had the technology installed Wednesday.

"Connected vehicle technology is basically infrastructure that would be in the roads talking to your vehicle," Kress said. "It will give messaging that might say something drastic like a wrong-way driver or alert me to a pedestrian up ahead." 

Buildings With Brains And Central Nervous Systems

Lumastream's Eric Higgs, Zinwave's Scott Willis, Rudin's John Gilbert and Iotas' Sce Pike

Commercial buildings have a tremendous potential for collecting and using data, Rudin Management Co. Chief Operating Officer John Gilbert said, but landlords haven't begun to take advantage of it to the fullest extent. Gilbert said Rudin has saved 55 cents/SF, roughly $5.5M annually across its 10M SF portfolio, by using data it already collected and correlating it with other data.

The company saves money on electricity by analyzing the occupancy of office buildings and slowing the fan speeds when people leave for lunch, Rudin said, and in residential buildings by analyzing patterns of water consumption and temperature. But he said the adoption of technology to make buildings smarter is still in its early stages. 

"The vision is 10 years from now, every building will have a brain," Rudin said. "That brain will ultimately be an operating system that will collect, remember, learn and share all the data that building has collected. That brain will be connected to the building’s heart, and then ultimately, we’ve got the central nervous system and we have the pulmonary system in terms of how that heart feeds that building with blood through the electrical distribution network. All of those networks are currently connected, but they can’t speak to each other."

Modular Construction

Steven DeFrancis

Housing affordability, one of the most pressing issues facing cities across the country, can be addressed in part by advances in the construction process. Cortland Partners, which owns over 49,000 apartment units, has begun working on modular construction, starting in the United Kingdom with plans to bring it to the United States. Cortland CEO Steven DeFrancis, who began his career developing affordable housing, said the process should make affordable construction easier. 

"There are a number of new technologies on the construction side that are coming in, not for the purpose of solving affordable housing, but ultimately that will help solve affordable housing," DeFrancis said. "There are a lot of efforts going on with modular 'componentized' buildings, which I think will naturally help on the affordable side."

Cortland Vice President of Construction Operations Steve Mauro, speaking on a later panel, said the company believes modular construction can cut the time contractors spend on-site by 40%, significantly reducing the cost of building new projects. 

"One of the biggest efficiencies you gain through modular manufacturing is the repetitive task associated with it," Mauro said. "Whether that's done through robotics or a very efficient process with humans, there's a significant savings in time and cost ... The efficiency of moving modulars is certainly a huge part of being able to provide a different and new way to do construction that we don't think is out there today." 

Bluetooth Building Access

Shearman & Sterling's Rob Colon, Chertoff Group's Bob Anderson and Doordeck's William Bainborough

Apartment renters once had to fiddle with keys to get into their buildings, but now many use magnetic fobs, and soon the process will be even easier. Developers are beginning to embed buildings with Bluetooth technology that will allow residents to enter the building and access each separate area with their smartphones. 

"The buildings we're finishing right now will be Bluetooth enabled, so no fob involved," said ZOM Living CEO Greg West, whose firm has nearly 20,000 apartment units in its portfolio. "You can control the entrance to your home with your phone. You can use that same device to get your car in the garage and to get yourself into amenity areas. The complete access to the building will be from your phone." 

Doordeck CEO William Bainborough, whose company created a keyless access platform for buildings, said the same trend is happening in the commercial office space. He said some of the security and authentication issues that existed when people were using physical keycards are no longer present when they can access buildings and services through their phones. 

"Physical credentials started out as the ability to open doors, and then people wanted them to activate the vending machine and photo copier, in reality what happened was we ended up with multiple cards for different environments," Bainborough said. "One of the things we do is imagine the one key you have: You have your cellphone, so we use that key."