Urban futures: Where science fiction meets reality

CU innovation helping to transport cities to a better tomorrow

The futuristic vision of cities, once depicted as flying tubes and smart-talking robots of “The Jetsons” or the fantastical space tech of “Star Wars,” is now a tangible reality in places like Denver. Perhaps, instead of relying on robots to manage your dishes, envision a future where a pocket-size computer drives the transformation of our urban environment.

The real world is sometimes stranger than science fiction, because today scientists at Minus Materials, Inc. are using microalgae to create carbon-negative cement, while the Smart Futures Lab is turning out innovators equipped to help those with disabilities navigate complex urban challenges, even as intricate as Denver International Airport (DIA).

The CU Denver-based Smart Futures Lab, under the visionary leadership of Dan Griner, is set to revolutionize urban landscapes as we know them.

Under the guidance of Griner, a leading figure in the fields of smart cities and inclusive design, the Smart Futures Lab thrives through strategic partnerships with influential organizations such as Innosphere Ventures and the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance. Innosphere Ventures, renowned for its incubation and commercialization programs, provides invaluable support to founders launching science and high-tech startups, while the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance serves as a statewide force, uniting government, businesses, and allied organizations to improve the lives of all Coloradans.

Together with CU, these partnerships form a dynamic ecosystem that fosters the growth of pioneering startups and drives civic innovation. Drawing from collective expertise and resources, the lab implements holistic solutions to address challenges, emphasizing collaborative innovation and long-term relationships.

With a commitment to inclusive practices, Griner envisions the Smart Futures Lab not only as a hub for innovation but also as a catalyst for social change. Through ongoing collaboration with its partners, the lab remains dedicated to driving progress through diversity, equity and inclusion.

Urban futures: Where science fiction meets reality

One notable participant in the inaugural Smart Futures Lab cohort is Lazarillo Holding Inc., under the leadership of CEO Rene Espinoza. Lazarillo is at the forefront of revolutionizing urban navigation through its innovative mapping platform and mobile app. The company’s mission is to enhance accessibility for all people, regardless of disabilities, by harnessing the power of cutting-edge technology.

At the heart of Lazarillo’s endeavor is the commitment to break down barriers and foster inclusivity in urban environments. Lazarillo is actively collaborating with major hubs such as DIA to make navigating the airport more accessible for individuals with disabilities.

Picture this: a traveler, visually impaired, navigating the airport with ease, guided by the intuitive interface of Lazarillo’s app. It's not just about convenience; it's about dignity, independence and a sense of belonging in a world that too often overlooks those with disabilities. With each step forward, Lazarillo is not only transforming physical spaces but also reshaping societal norms, challenging us to see the urban landscape through a lens of empathy and equity.

This partnership with DIA not only demonstrates Lazarillo’s dedication to revolutionizing urban navigation but also underscores a fundamental principle: Prioritizing the needs of individuals with disabilities results in an environment that benefits everyone.

“The Smart Futures Lab has been key to our growth, especially in learning how to work with cities and government,” Espinoza said. “It’s given us expert advice and helped us make important connections, like our big project with Denver International Airport. The lab has been great at bringing people together and moving forward projects that make a difference in our communities.”

Another organization committed to cultivating a future where smart cities prioritize purposeful design, environmental awareness, and stimulate innovation across sectors, including the construction industry, is Minus Materials, Inc. The team is integrating the biogenic limestone-based portland cement into the infrastructure of smart cities, so urban planners can ensure that every aspect of city development contributes to a cleaner, greener future. This approach not only reduces carbon emissions but also turns buildings and infrastructure into active agents for carbon sequestration, effectively turning the city into a carbon sink.

Urban futures: Where science fiction meets reality
Biogenic limestone-based portland cement brick.

“For the industry, now is the time to solve this very wicked problem. We believe that we have one of the best solutions, if not the best solution, for the cement and concrete industry to address its carbon problem,” said Wil Srubar, lead principal investigator on the project and associate professor in Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering and CU Boulder’s Materials Science and Engineering Program.

This resolution is not only scalable but also versatile because microalgae can be cultivated within city limits, providing a local source of construction materials while also serving as a renewable resource for biofuels and other co-products, fostering a circular economy within the city.

By incorporating this nature-inspired solution of biogenic limestone into urban development, smart cities can fulfill their purpose of providing livable, sustainable environments for current and future generations. These cities not only mitigate the negative impacts of urbanization but also actively contribute to a healthier planet, setting a new standard for urban development worldwide.