The Human, Smart, and Sustainable Future of Cities
- Published on August 9, 2019
Rohit Talwar – Futurist Speaker
By Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells, April Koury, Alexandra Whittington, and Maria Romero
How might future cities best reflect our prevailing social and economic priorities and take advantage of technological possibilities?
The city of the future is a symbol of progress. The sci-fi vision of the future city with sleek skyscrapers and flying cars, however, has given way to a more plausible, human, practical, and green vision of tomorrow’s smart city. Whilst smart city visions differ, at their heart is the notion that, in the coming decades, the planet’s most heavily concentrated populations will occupy city environments where a digital blanket of sensors, devices, and cloud-connected data is weaved together to build and enhance the city living experience for all. In this context, smart architecture must encompass all the key elements of what enable city ecosystems to function effectively. This means everything from the design of infrastructure, workspaces, leisure, retail, and domestic homes to traffic control, environmental protection, and the management of energy, sanitation, healthcare, security, and a building’s eco-footprint.
The world’s premier cities and architects are competing to design and build highly interconnected smart environments where people, government, and business operate in symbiosis with spectacular, exponentially improving array of technologies from artificial intelligence (AI) to renewable energy and the Internet of things (IoT). The architectural promise of future smart cities is to harmonize the benefits of these disruptive technologies for society and provide a high quality of life “by design.” Some have already implemented smart city architecture and, as the concepts, experiences, and success stories spread, the pursuit of “smart” will become a key driver in the evolving future of cities as communities and economic centers. Here we explore some of the critical trends, visions, ideas, and disruptions shaping the rise of smart cities and smart architecture.
Smart Cities – Purpose, Engagement, and Vision
The evidence to date from smart city and smart architecture initiatives around the world is that the best results come when we have a clear sense of what the end goal is. However, in a fast changing world, it can be hard to develop a clear future vision and strategy when stakeholder goals are not aligned, where every sector is being disrupted, and all our planning assumptions are being challenged. A city vision might take 5-15 years to roll out—but for many businesses and individuals it is almost impossible to think about their needs 24 months from now. However, the challenge must be overcome.
City governments have to work together with architects to create inclusive processes that inform citizens about the forces shaping the future and the possibilities on the horizon. The next step is to engage the population in dialogue concerning the kind of future city we want to create. We have to explore what a livable city means to its people and be clear on how we will design and build the structures to support that vision. Alongside this, we need to articulate a clear vision and direction around education, environment, public services, access to justice, city administration, and civic engagement. These pillars then provide the guiding requirements which will, in turn, influence the design of the physical, digital, and human elements of the infrastructure and building architectures that enable a smart city.
Big Data: Smart Architecture to Power a City
Smart cities are designed to inform decisions by capturing massive amounts of data about the population and its patterns, such as water use and traffic flows. This information gathering results in big data, which is essentially gathered via different forms of surveillance. The ease and affordability of cameras, sensors, AI, and advanced analytics in the future will mean this data gathering function may become completely automated. Indeed, the data will be collated from a constantly evolving and expanding IoT, encompassing traffic lights and cameras, pollution sensors, building control systems, and personal devices—all literally feeding giant data stores held in the cloud. The ability to crunch all this data is becoming easier due to rampant growth in the use of predictive algorithms and AI application software that run on networks of high performance computing and storage devices.
Singapore is a leading example of a smart city, and is constantly evolving its “city brain,” a backbone of technologies used to help control pollution, monitor traffic, allocate parking, communicate with citizens, and even issue traffic fines. Singapore’s “brain” is also attempting to modify human behavior. For example, one system rewards drivers for using recommended mapped routes, and punishes those who do not. Now imagine expanding this use of big data to human foot traffic around and within the buildings of a city. For some time now, companies like Pavegen and Veranu have been developing flooring that harvests the energy of walking and converts it into electricity. By analyzing foot traffic patterns, smart architects may be able to design entire buildings powered solely by their inhabitants’ movements.
Internet of Things: Redesigning Spaces
Smart cities rely on advanced technology to make sense of massive arrays of data. Indeed, the amount of information on the internet is expected to grow exponentially as a result of the Internet of things. Essentially IoT means that everything (“things”)—and potentially everyone—will form a network of beacons and collection devices, gathering data on ambient and behavioral patterns from our surroundings, feeding this information to the city brain in the cloud.
Hence, after data, the IoT is the second driving force behind the rise of smart infrastructure: For everything from air conditioning to parking meters to function effectively and seamlessly in a smart city, microphones, sensors, voice recognition, and all sorts of other high- tech gadgetry must be hooked up to the IoT.
Architects and planners are already exploring the possibilities— indeed, technology players like IBM, Hitachi, and Cisco are all betting big on IoT-enabled smart buildings. Exhaustive monitoring of internal building conditions offers the potential to provide future occupants with seamlessly and continuously optimized living conditions while reducing energy and space wastage. Today’s smart sensors can recognize occupancy patterns and movement to switch on the air conditioning or lights for a person before they even enter a room, and shut off these systems as they exit. The more we know about the specific individuals, the more we can tailor those setting to their personal preferences.
In the near future, buildings will potentially be built on a smart IoT grid that monitors, controls, and automates smart lighting and intuitive heating, ventilation, and air conditioning to create the perfect environment while drastically decreasing energy wastage. Further- more, IoT devices combined with big data analysis may help architects redesign and readapt buildings to minimize energy wastage, and maximize space usage, both shrinking resources in our ever-growing cities. Single use facilities like meeting rooms—traditionally unused for periods of time—may be redesigned as multipurpose spaces that support a whole host of day-to-day business activities based on analyses of data gathered via the IoT. A smart building may even take on the management of meeting rooms to sell vacant space to third party users on a per minute basis: For example, a row of meeting rooms by day could become a nightly pop-up market.
Sustainability: Smart Building Materials
Finally, from an architectural design perspective, all this data and awareness should enable decisions that make the best possible use of material resources with an emphasis on sustainability. This is a very logical outcome and benefit of the merging of big data, AI, and the IoT feeding into the rise of smart architecture.
Given that the UK has recently broken energy use records with solar meeting almost a quarter of energy demands, there is significant potential for the sun to become a mainstream power source in current and future building designs. There is also a new scientific forecasting tool to predict solar weather, which will make the rollout of solar on buildings (and in homes) a more feasible option. Eventually, with a growing array of such distributed power solutions, a centralized energy distribution grid for homes and businesses may not be necessary.
Additionally, the exponential growth in, and reduced cost of, solar technology may lead to entire cities designed to generate their own electricity. Rather than glass windows, skyscrapers could be covered in transparent solar panels that, through IoT monitoring, turn slightly opaque as the sun moves over them throughout the day. This would allow the darker panels to not only gather more energy, but also shade the building’s inhabitants and decrease cooling costs. Researchers at RMIT University in Australia are currently working on a solar paint that absorbs moisture from the air and turns it into hydrogen fuel, one of the cleanest sources of energy available. Soon, architects may begin designing buildings based around maximizing the benefits of these next generation “smart” materials.
Cities Get Smart
The smart city movement has the potential to transform the organization of people, materials, and physical objects in a way that transcends urban development as we know it. The shift to smart architecture is not simply fashionable or aspirational; in many ways, it appears to be a critical enabler of the future sustainability of cities. It can be argued that the future of human life on the planet rests on a smooth transition to cities that are more efficient, less wasteful, and more conscious of the impacts of the individual upon the greater good.
It is now possible to create and deliver a city vision with citizens at its heart, and that is enabled by forward thinking infrastructure coupled with judicious use of enabling technologies. A well thought through vision, enabled by robust and well-executed smart architecture, could provide a foundation stone for the next stage of our development, where science and technology are genuinely harnessed in service of creating a very human future.
- Which social values would help ensure a very human vision of tomorrow’s smart city?
- How can we encourage people, businesses, and governments to create human-centered cities?
- What are the critical infrastructure elements required to enable a smart city?