Closing the gaps

Water, transport and space exploration are three key areas currently being transformed by new ideas. Jessica Holland explores the gains to be won by driving innovation in these fields

Can the world’s most arid countries secure sustainable water sources? How will we move efficiently through increasingly congested cities? Will extraterrestrial resources help the human race flourish? Long-term, integrated thinking in all these areas is needed to meet the challenges ahead.

Three quarters of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, according to the UN. For cities to be free from deadlock and attractive to business, transport innovation is a priority.
In Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Crown Prince, has introduced a smart system of geographical coordinates called Makani, which gives every building and public place in Dubai a unique number to help people identify and share their location.

Space exploration should be a top priority for innovators

George Hitt, Assistant Professor, Khalifa University

Some of the most exciting developments are on models that already exist; for example, Japan is planning to export its bullet train, or ‘shinkansen’ to the US. Though there are trains that top the shinkansen’s 200mph speeds, none can beat its safety and efficiency. In the 50 years since its creation, there have been no accident-related deaths, and the average delay is just 36 seconds.

“Transport is a huge problem [in the Global South],” says ITDP’s Jemilah Magnusson, referencing businesspeople in the Philippines who create offices in their cars because it’s where they spend four or five hours a day. “You can’t build your way out of a congestion problem. Data shows that if traffic is bad, it will be bad if there are 20 or 30 lanes.”

Some of the most powerful ideas to combat this problem are readily available and low-tech.
 A flagship scheme promoted by the global non-profit Institute for Transport and Development Policy (ITDP) is the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, which has transformed cities such as Guangzhou, in China. Buses are quicker and cheaper to implement than rail or metro systems and can be just as efficient when there are priority lanes, cleverly designed stations and fares that are collected before boarding.

Far above the highways, space is a sector gaining traction with innovators and industry alike, in part due to the possibilities it holds for on-Earth issues. “Space exploration should be a top priority [for innovators],” says George Hitt, the Khalifa University Assistant Professor of Physics who recently won a Nasa competition to find a way of protecting astronauts from radiation in space. “When people are pushed to extremes, they often invent technologies of tremendous value.”

In 2013, a Chinese rover became the first object to soft-land on the moon since 1976, and an Indian spacecraft today orbits Mars, a feat previously only achieved by the US, Europe and USSR. Partnering with France, the UAE also plans to send its own probe to the red planet in 2021, making it the Arab world’s first unmanned mission to Mars.

No country has managed to send a manned mission to Mars, although Nasa has long-term plans, and the non-profit Mars One is accepting applications for voyagers to take a one-way trip to Mars beginning in 2025. While the long journey and the planet’s harsh environment pose challenges, Hitt believes “people can eventually inhabit Mars”, especially if scientists create a stable atmosphere by releasing greenhouse gases, melting Mars’ icecaps and releasing frozen water.

Which brings us full circle to one of the world’s gravest issues, water security. On managing worldwide water resources, “2015 is an important milestone”, says Olcay Ünver, Deputy Director of Land and Water at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. Dr Ünver defines water security as sustainable access to water that’s safe for drinking, hygiene and sanitation, plus access to water needed for food, energy and socio-economic development. Different world regions face different pressures; in the Arab region, the drought that affects more than 65 per cent of the land makes “climate change adaptation and drought preparedness an immediate necessity”, Dr Ünver says.

You can’t build your way out of a congestion problem. Data shows that if traffic is bad, it will be bad if there are 20 or 30 lanes

Jemilah Magnusson, Institute for Transportation & Development Policy

Innovation is under way in irrigation technology, wastewater reuse and desalinisation, which is less energy intensive than before thanks to new techniques involving membranes rather than thermal evaporation. In Abu Dhabi the Baniyas Centre for Agricultural Research promotes the use of soilless agriculture, which uses 90 per cent less water, and in India, the India Water Tool app helps companies map water risks in areas where they operate.

Innovation in water is vital, says Ünver. The FAO estimates that global food demand will grow 60 per cent by 2050, but says this demand can be met with available natural resources. Policy-makers just need to ensure that water scarcity is monitored and managed, and that the interlinked nature of water, energy, food and natural ecosystems is recognised by all.