Humans have lived in cities for over 5000 years. Over that time, the technologies that allow people to live in cities have evolved. But there are many elements that are common to ancient settlements and today’s modern cities.
Safety, sanitation, privacy, community, purpose, movement: these have been the key requirements of cities and urban settlements throughout time. Sadly, as cities have grown, achieving some of these requirements has become difficult. Unwieldy sanitation and waste disposal are problems causing disease, unpleasantness and pollution. Privacy is hard to find and communal spaces become overcrowded. Routes between spaces are congested and frustrating. The overcrowding results in unemployment and low standards of living, leading frustrations to spill out into crime.
But with the advent of the fourth industrial or digital revolution we are seeing something better. In the 21st century digital age technology is combining with new ways of designing buildings and infrastructure. Cities are evolving from cramped, dirty and difficult places to live into “Smart Cities”, sustainable spaces that promote individual wellbeing.
Designing smart cities
A smart city is an urban area that uses digital technology to deliver a better city environment. The process of designing these cities starts right from the ‘master planning’ stage. For instance, minimising the effect of solar heat in the south orientation by introducing trees and plants which connect with nature, minimising use of vehicular movement through strategic planning of essential and emergency services thus reducing the use of fossil fuels, and use of smart technologies like kinetic tiles to generate electricity.
At the heart of it are sensors that collect data about life in the city and computers that analyse this data to provide insights used to manage assets, resources and services efficiently and to predict future needs. The intention is to develop cities that are environmentally sustainable, less polluting, and have lower requirements for non-renewable natural resources. At the same time, smart cities aim to make life better for the people who live in them, increasing safety, promoting physical and mental health, providing employment and recreation, and reducing the problems that are common in cities such as overcrowding and pollution.
Smart city projects are happening around the world. India, for instance, is planning to build 100 smart cities over the next decade. And in the UAE, a number of sustainable cities are being developed such as Masdar City and the combined living and working community Dubai Silicon Oasis.
Smart cities have sustainability at their core and address the social, economic, and environmental needs of demographics and communities.
Social needs are addressed through a focus on security and safety with intelligent lighting and monitoring and street designs that avoid people being funnelled into dead end spaces where others cannot see them. Physical well-being is promoted through a reduction in pollution and easy access to health services. Mental well-being is enhanced through community harmony and closeness to nature, facilitating relaxed living and working atmospheres.
Economic needs are addressed through planning that lowers congestion, enabling people to move around without wasting time queuing, and reduces energy costs. Attention is focussed on providing the skills needed in a digital world. A contented and healthy workforce with a better quality of life and lower levels of stress, will be a more efficient workforce. Additionally, smart cities provide net zero buildings, and lower operational costs through renewable energy and waste recycling, enabling affordable housing and low cost living for the citizens.
The environment is also supported with buildings designed to be sustainable. This will generally involve the use of renewable energy technologies such as solar, through the use of high efficiency solar panels and BIPV systems like solar glass; wind energy, and a reduction in the energy needs of buildings through materials (such as reflective coatings) and special design (to eliminate draughts or encourage natural ventilation). Energy storage technologies can be implemented to minimize the energy wastage and balance peak demand without energy wastage. In addition, water is treated as the scarce and vital resource that it is, with the need for water reduced through water collection and a reduction in leaks and evaporation, and through the reuse of water such as grey water for cleaning and irrigation.
There are challenges to this approach, of course. There is often a resistance to new ways of thinking. Practical issues around the ownership of the data smart cities generate will combine with ethical issues such as the loss of privacy that constant monitoring and sensing causes. In addition, investment in smart city technology doesn’t deliver positive returns overnight; and while the returns can be surprisingly rapid there is still a need to avoid short term thinking. And getting the balance right between social good and environmental sustainability can be hard: cities are after all built for people.
And people are another challenge. Cities may be built smart; however, it is the citizens who make it smart by actually understanding their responsibilities and participating actively. No city can be truly smart and sustainable if the population refuses to accept the benefits. Therefore there is a requirement for education that persuades engaged, empowered and enlightened citizens to behave sustainably and in a neighbourly fashion so that the city as a whole benefits.
Role of services design in smart cities
Services design is key to achieving smart operations for any building, community or city. Services design includes the facilities that a community utilizes, i.e. transportation, sanitation, lighting, water, waste-management, and security.
Similarly, in a smart city, services design is responsible for how the city functions – the way that waste is removed, street lighting and traffic flow managed, water and other utilities provided to residents and businesses. This responsibility starts in the initial planning stages.
When a smart city is conceived there will be several overarching ambitions. Is it going to be a zero waste city, a carbon neutral city,or a 15 minute city where everything a citizen needs is within 15 minutes walking? Services design has a central role. How will traffic be managed during the day to reduce pollution and maintain air quality? How will buildings be placed so that wind tunnels are not created and people benefit from sunlight or shade as appropriate? How will waste collection be enabled so that unsightly and smelly garbage doesn’t build up before it is removed? And how will we know we are succeeding: what sensors are needed to measure the effect on the planet, and how will we measure the wellbeing of the people who live in the city?
One sustainable design specialist, Consistent Engineering Consultants, has been at the forefront of enabling sustainable smart communities and cities. One example of the work they do is the Vishv Umiyadham Temple in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. The temple, which will be the tallest temple in Asia when completed, is part of a larger smart city project. The temple itself has many sustainable elements such as natural venting and passive cooling, solar PV panels, paving that generates electricity for lighting when walked on (kinetic tiles), a water filtration system that works without chemicals or power, and renewably powered solar cookers. Apart from this, the premises also contain a 5-star hotel, a residence for devotees, a private university (with hostel accommodation for the students), as well as a large community center, sports facilities and more. All of these elements will be designed to collect data and provide the best experience for the permanent as well as temporary residents, effectively making this temple community a smart and sustainable dwelling!
Proposed Design of Vishv Umiyadham Sustainable Temple and Community, India
The evolution of smart city thinking
Sagar Kulkarni, the Managing Director of Consistent Engineering Consultants, believes that smart cities need to be viewed as part of a wider movement. “When we talk about smart cities, it must be as part of a larger integrated process, starting with smart homes and buildings, followed by smart communities and neighbourhoods, then smart cities, and extending as far as smart countries. The ultimate ambition, of course, is to have a smart world where mankind lives sustainably with a minimal impact on the planet, but at the same time living happy, purposeful lives in harmony with their neighbours as well as with nature.”
Resilience is another quality that needs to be designed into the cities of the future. It is clear that buildings need to be capable of withstanding natural disasters such as earthquakes, storms and flooding. We can get better at this. It is perhaps obvious that electrical and mechanical equipment should not be located in basements in areas that are at even small risk of flooding; but this goes against conventional practice.
But we also need buildings and cities that are capable of coping with change such as continued global warming and unexpected events such as the pandemic we are currently living through. This requires cities to be flexible with, for instance, communications infrastructure that mean businesses are not tied to a single location, transport systems that can be re-configured to meet changing access requirements of patterns of use.
Can our ambition go further though? With the right technology, smart cities can help to heal our earth. We don’t just need to move to transport that no longer uses fossil fuels, we can employ vehicles that actively purify the air. We can plant more trees to counterbalance our carbon emissions but we can also construct artificial trees, placed on top of buildings perhaps that actively scrub the air for CO2. We can design cities that promote biodiversity by providing habitats for threatened flora and fauna and that reduce energy requirements by incorporating agriculture into open and closed spaces.
And from a human perspective we can create urban environments that promote wellbeing, by encouraging exercise, reducing stress and giving people more contact with the natural world, environments where people are safe, prosperous and fulfilled, and where citizens have been consulted and included in the planning process and positively engaged with the principles behind sustainable living.
Regenerative cities are the truly smart cities of the future and sustainable design will be core to their success.