It can be difficult for Ironman to differentiate friend from foe when speeding through the skies. But he can easily do so with the augmented reality (AR) technology inbuilt in his suit, which automatically targets enemies and avoids civilians.

AR in the real world is still a long way away from science fiction films like Ironman, but progress in recent years is revealing use cases in various sectors. In Zurich, for example, AR is used to visualise how planned buildings will look before they are constructed.

David Weber, the Head of Smart City Zurich, shares how Zurich uses tech like AR, AI and digital twins to improve urban planning, increase citizen participation, and better citizen safety.

AR for urban planning

Zurich is using augmented reality (AR) to build the city. The urban planning department uses AR glasses to visualise future buildings and underground utilities. These features appear as semi-transparent 3D holograms when viewed through the glasses, explains Weber.

Tourists and citizens can also use these glasses to get glimpses of the future. Zurich runs guided tours that take them through the city with these glasses. On these tours, they can view how planned buildings will look long before construction begins with the glasses, he explains.

Besides AR, Zurich also uses digital twins to plan construction. Planning and building in a city is challenging, highlights Weber. “There are countless interconnected aspects that need to be taken into account: from traffic issues to green spaces, noise protection and safety,” he says.

Digital twins provide a precise view of Zurich and include details such as the terrain, height of buildings, and the presence of bridges and walls. This allows contractors to visualise and digitally test new building projects before execution, says Weber.

For example, environmental factors like noise, air pollution, and flood vulnerability can affect the quality of life and the planning of new residential buildings or school buildings, says Weber. Digital twins help contractors take these factors into account before beginning construction.

Zurich’s city administration is also using a 3D road map to create more efficient public roads and citizen services.

The map gives the city administration precise knowledge about the city’s road conditions, says Weber. It allows city staff to conduct road inspections online, saving time and improving efficiency.

AI to bolster citizen safety

Security is getting smarter in Zurich as the police force uses AI to predict areas with increased burglary rates.

The algorithm works by identifying patterns in anonymised police reports on burglaries. It operates on the assumption that burglars will break in again in the same area if the burglary is successful, explains Weber.

Once a pattern is identified, the AI highlights those areas at a higher risk for burglary for a 72-hour period. This informs police to increase patrols in the area, says Weber.

Since introducing this tech in 2013, burglaries in Zurich have reduced from around 6,000 per year in 2012 to less than 2,200 in 2020, he shares. However, it is difficult to ascertain how much of this improvement is due to the AI tech or other factors like the pandemic, he notes.

Zurich is also using a mobile app to improve crowd control in the city to improve public safety.

The city is home to multiple festivals such as the Street Parade and Zuri Carnival. During such events, several hundred thousand visitors congregate in the city centre.

Crowds getting too dense can result in highly dangerous situations such as stampedes and crushes, which may suffocate individuals. The crowd control mobile app is voluntary for citizens to download, and helps the police track the movement of visitors and detect potentially dangerous situations.

The police can then react in a timely manner to close street sections or disperse the crowds if needed.

How digitalisation bridges the citizen-government gap 

Zurich’s smart city vision goes beyond cutting-edge tech. It also uses digitalisation as a way to improve citizen participation in the city.

For instance, an online smart participation platform allows all residents to give their inputs on the city’s development.

“The residents of the City of Zurich know best what they need to manage their everyday lives and thrive,” shares Weber. “As an administration, we have to develop the city for the people and their needs,” he says.

Another online platform allows citizens to easily access the city’s services. For example, residents can make appointments for weddings, track their taxes, or register their children for music lessons at school all through one platform.

“This saves Zurich residents time and is efficient for the administration,” says Weber.

Residents can also report any damaged public infrastructure online via a smartphone app or web application, Weber reveals. Once submitted, the report will be triaged and assigned to the relevant department.

With this platform, city administration can detect and repair any damages to infrastructure more quickly. It allows the administration to monitor the infrastructure more frequently and broadly than employees on their own ever could, says Weber.

“It helps us to offer the population and businesses in the city a modern and functioning infrastructure,” he notes.

The Swiss army knife which originated in Switzerland is a symbol of multipurpose efficiency. The city of Zurich is embracing this spirit and using tech to great effect in improving life for its residents.