‘Precisely because things are going so well in Brainport Eindhoven, it is important to link the power of today to the challenges of tomorrow’. Arnold Stokking, Managing Director Industry at TNO and initiator of the future exploration of Brainport Eindhoven,¬†explores the opportunities for the region when it comes to innovation and new business models in 2038. In this biweekly column, Stokking and those directly involved explain the important aspects of that foresight.

Indian cities are overcrowded. Not only during rush hours in the morning and evening but all day long cars, buses and mopeds drive slowly and close together through Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Also, the trains and metro lines are bulging daily to bring millions of people to and from and within the city. A study conducted earlier this year by the Boston Consulting Group for Uber calculated that traffic jams alone cost Delhi $9.6 billion annually, as much as 12% of the city’s GDP. It seems that the ship is far from turning ashore. The rapidly growing middle class is causing the number of cars in India to increase by double digits every year.

The overcrowded cities cost the Delhiites, Mumbaikars and Bangaloreans not only many hours of extra travel time per day. It also drives up the prices they have to pay for breakfast and dinner. The congestion causes major problems when transporting food to and from the cities. It is estimated that currently about a third of the food that India produces never reaches an Indian kitchen but is lost somewhere in the logistics chain.

Traffic problems in Indian cities may be extreme but they are certainly not unique. Urbanization causes personal irritation in small and large cities worldwide and poses major social challenges. Not only in India, but also in and around European cities, people regularly complain about the many hours they are forced to spend in traffic jams.

Daily reality is still far removed from futuristic visions of the future in which mobility is a ‘low-interest convenience product’. Your own ‘smart assistant’ arranges the transport needed to arrive in Neerpelt on time for your appointment the next morning. Exactly at 8.17 am you step into a ‘single cabin’ in which you first go through the latest financial reports together with a colleague in Finland. Because you don’t have time for a run in the park later, a bicycle is ready for the last seven kilometres. The hydrogen car that takes you back after your appointment, drives next to one of the many autonomous trucks on the highway, almost unnoticed, to pick up the parcel you bought online on the way there. When you come home, the groceries for dinner in a cooled microcontainer are already at the door. Curious about what you’re going to eat, you open it immediately and are pleased to see that this time it’s your favourite pasta with lots of zucchini for extra vitamin C.

Congestion in and around cities is one of the greatest social challenges of our time. Here, it will not lead directly, as in India, to spoiled food but daily traffic jams cause countless hours to be lost that most of us would much rather have spent differently. Self-steering or autonomous cars do not solve this problem, on the contrary: if people can work on the road or watch a film while driving to work or to an appointment, the traffic jams around cities will become longer rather than shorter. Despite the many advantages that new technologies bring, they do not solve persistent problems by themselves. Much more is needed than just very smart cars to reduce congestion in and around large cities.

If we, as a Brainport region, want to continue to play an important role in the future with new technologies, we need to think carefully about the systems that are needed to tackle the major challenges of our time. New technologies such as connected vehicles can play an important role, but tackling congestion and optimising logistics chains requires much more than that. The rapidly growing number of cars and trucks in the right direction also requires very smart infrastructure that constantly communicates with road users, autonomous or not. Detailed analysis can help to predict traffic flows and advise users to wait a little longer to reduce their travel time. In order to influence people’s behaviour, we need to know how people react to this and whether they feel like sharing Uber cars with others once or more times a week.

However smart we may be in mobility as a Brainport region, we cannot solve all the traffic congestion problems in the world. By working well together with the right partners, the new technologies we are working on can play an important role in this. How beautiful would it be if much less food had to be thrown away in India as a result?