future view

Changing cities, delivering innovations

2 June 2016 • 8 min reading time

Cities are constantly changing – they always have. Innovations in particular are accelerating these changes and amplifying their impact. TNO is helping cities and stakeholders bring the future closer, by giving the most promising innovations a helping hand, and by integrating them.

Leo Kusters, Managing Director of Urbanisation at TNO feels that “There is a lot of talk about innovations and plenty of ideas are being tentatively floated but, ultimately, what really matters is that they must be of genuine benefit”. “Changing cities, delivering innovations means that we are backing innovations that can really cut it, and that have a real impact on the larger scale. We are focussing on this, for instance, by examining cities in great detail.”


Cities traditionally function like magnets. Social, cultural and economic networks attract more and more people to urban areas, because people have an almost intrinsic need for such networks. Yet this very success is putting cities under pressure. There are growing challenges in terms of land use, mobility, use of raw materials, energy and air quality, each of which affects the others. The solution lies in the smart use of infrastructure, of the region’s specific capacities, and of data. Mr Kusters adds that “The models we are developing here can be used to demonstrate the impact of any innovation – such as a self-driving car – on land use, on road safety or on the health of the city’s residents. On the one hand we are enabling the magnet to become an even stronger magnet. On the other hand, we are helping to keep the adverse effects under control, as far as possible. Our goal, on balance, is to improve the situation.”

“Social, cultural and economic networks attract more and more people to urban areas”

Quite a different light

“Take the issue of energy transition,” says Leo Kusters. “We can see very clearly that something as fundamentally important as a city’s power supply is subject to radical changes. Another example is internet and communication technology. Telephone boxes have disappeared from city streets, because these days we are all carrying mobile phones. Another upcoming change is self-driving cars. That will have a huge impact. Then there is the matter of public transport. The government takes the view that, by 2025, every bus operating in the public transport system must be electrically powered. Then there are internet companies that mediate between passengers and operators, which casts taxi companies in a very different light.”



Virtual world

“The things that are vital to us, as human beings, are linked by social, cultural and economic networks,” adds Mr Kusters. “Internet is helpful in this regard. On the one hand, the virtual internet is ideally suited to help us find out what we ‘want’. But linking the demand this creates to the associated sources of supply usually involves a physical response. How do the new shoes you saw on the internet get to your home? At Urbanization, we are committed to aligning the physical dimension as closely as possible with the virtual dimension, with what we want. For example, you want to be able to shop and to buy things at any given place and time. Companies have to find a way to translate this into a physical process, so that orders can be delivered or picked up at any time.”

Smart control

“This growth in physical services must, of course, not take place at the expense of the environment or of smooth traffic flows. For this reason, we are examining ways of doing this in a smart way, such that packages are moved from a to b while, at the same time, inflicting as little damage as possible. Instead of having a whole load of vans deliver all sorts of goods at arbitrary times, you arrange for a single van to deliver all such packages once every two hours. That results in less environmental damage, especially if it involves electrically powered transport. That way, you can align the physical world more closely with the internet world, where we are constantly online and want to be served. One option would be a flat fee, where you pay once and use the delivery service as often as you want. Drones and automatic cars may also have a part to play here. In short, just as it does in the virtual world, data plays a very important part in building optimal physical networks.”

“Data plays a very important part in building optimal physical networks”

Travel and work

“What is true for the logistics world, where services are always available, will also apply to people’s mobility”, predicts Leo Kusters. “Future mobility systems will make optimum use of each modality. If you want to use a car for part of the journey, then one will be available. You may not own it, but you will be able to use it. In this system, train services will link seamlessly with the road system. You will also be able to continue working while travelling (by means of automatic driving, for example). When travelling by train today, you will notice that people use their travel time as quality time. Eventually, this will apply to all modalities. Thus, the growth in virtual meetings and remote working will continue. This will give rise to a combined image of travel and work.”


Increasing amounts of information will give us a great amount of freedom in terms of time and place. “Ever cheaper local sensors will tell us all about the air quality in a particular place at a particular time. Just as we now calculate the average air quality of a city, we will have a more differentiated picture and will be able to adapt our behaviour accordingly. For instance, if you suffer from asthma, you will have a better idea which parts of town you should avoid, because health standards have been temporarily exceeded. We incorporate information from sensors into our models, and present the results at ever more local levels. At the aggregate level, this results in TNO issuing a recommendation to a city or an environmental agency, which can then use policies or special measures (buttons on the dashboard) to influence the course of events more effectively.”

Energy balance

Mr Kusters goes on to say that “In time, houses will become energy producers, rather than energy consumers”. “Solar panels, solar water heaters, energy storage in the form of heat and electricity are very important. In the Netherlands, we use a lot of heat in the winter, while we have plenty of heat to spare in the summer. You could, for example, temporarily store the summer season’s heat in a heat battery, which could be a standard part of your house. You can also store power in your electric car, for a few days. That will enable you to balance your energy needs at local level, in a way that is linked to clean mobility. That all sounds great, and it is great. But it does not mean that there are no loose ends. We expect that the government can play an important role in this. This can involve regulations (sometimes more, sometimes fewer) or bringing parties together, from suppliers of solar panels to the managers of the power grid.”

“In time, houses will become energy producers, rather than energy consumers”

Internet of Things

Ultimately, the physical world will become more like the internet. “Communication is the backbone of the internet, and it will become the backbone of the physical world. A lot of stuff, equipment, goods and travellers will make use of it. Systems exchanging information and searching for optimal solutions: the Internet of Things. Almost every entity in the city is able to exchange information, and often does so locally. That can be scary – do I still understand it all and do I still have control over it? I want to control the technology, but could it be that the reverse is now true? For this reason, this very theme is a common thread running through all aspects of TNO’s work. In all of our research and development activities we put people first.”

Human scale

Leo Kusters explains that “The mass that we create, especially with data and with ever cheaper means of communication, will make a great deal of customization affordable. So the colossal scale of the internet and big data on the one hand, will make customization possible on the other. Data will play an increasingly important role. Using models, we can turn data into information. Something you can use, which can help you make the right choices – the human dimension. Yet, if we are to exploit the full potential of that data, it will be necessary to reach agreements on the security, privacy and value of such data. Nor should we forget that data and interfaces need to speak a common language, if they are to be understood.”

Bringing together

“If all these improvements are to be achieved, more and more parties will be needed - in varying combinations. While it is important to consider new technological capabilities, there is more to it than that. We also need to link the respective networks and ecosystems together. TNO’s role in the physical world is expanding into the network world and vice versa. We seek connectivity options and bring stakeholders together. Sometimes we even bring parties together who had no idea that they needed one another.”

“We seek connectivity options and bring stakeholders together”

Pushing changes through

At Innovation Expo 2016, which took place in Amsterdam on 14 April, TNO announced the results of a cooperative venture with the City of Amsterdam and Google. Mr Kusters adds that “We have once again invited interested parties to help us identify innovations that we could usefully develop. Consider air quality, for example. Or the increasing traffic flow of fit and healthy cyclists in Amsterdam: how can we keep this safe and under control? With the assistance of a number of car manufacturers, we transported various ministers to the Expo site by ‘automotive’ means. We also signed an agreement on the maintenance of infrastructure and engineering constructions. This is an opportunity for us to combine sensing techniques with big data. Delivering innovation means targeting specific innovations and giving them a helping hand. In that way you can really accomplish those changes in the city.”