The future of smart cities

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How can architects, engineers and construction professionals help to build smart cities that put the needs of citizens front and centre, ask Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells and Alexandra Whittington of Fast Future?

Across the disciplines of architecture, engineering and construction, three forces are coming together to drive the next waves of opportunity: people, intelligent systems and smart city concepts.

At the core of the opportunity is the notion of creating truly livable environments for humanity, designed using intelligent tools and d elivered and managed through a range of technologies that will help us bring smart city visions to fruition.

By ‘livable’, we mean cities that are human, vibrant, forward-looking, functional, smart and sustainable. The core tools underpinning their design will be those that can amplify human intelligence on a massive scale to interpret, predict and create solutions based on immense volumes of information about life in the city, gathered daily.

Holding it all together will be highly interconnected smart environments where people, government and business can live and work together effectively using emerging and exponentially improving technologies. These include big data, the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, hyperconnectivity, artificial intelligence (AI), robots, drones, autonomous green vehicles, 3D/4D printing, smart materials and renewable energy.

Theory and practice

While in theory, the potential of smart cities is exciting, in practice it can be very hard to develop a clear, inclusive and universally supported vision and strategy that delivers on everyone’s needs and leaves nobody behind.

Part of the challenge is that stakeholders’ goals are not always aligned. At the same time, every sector is being disrupted and all our assumptions are being challenged.


Hence, few of us can see precisely what the needs of businesses, localities or families might be in the next 12 to 24 mon ths, let alone in the five to 15 years over which a true smart city infrastructure might be rolled out. At the same time, that’s exactly what we must try to do. City governments must create inclusive processes that inform citizens about the forces shaping the future and the possibilities and challenges on the horizon; then engage the population in dialogue about the future we want to create.

This is where architects, engineers and construction specialists have an important role to play. They can help us explore and model what a livable city might mean to its people, and contribute to the articulation of a clear vision. Along the way, they must also offer insights into the ways in which the physical, digital and human elements of a smart city infrastructure might be delivered and managed.

New approaches, new tools

Increasingly, the tools available to architects, engineers and construction specialists are becoming more sophisticated and intelligent. From visioning to construction planning, increasing use is being made of the analytic and predictive capabilities of AI.

At the same time, the digital drawing board is coming to life through virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR), to create immersive experiences throughout design, planning and construction processes. Hence, the impacts of a development on its surrounding ecosystem can be modeled in more precise detail than ever before.

For example, the implications of a range of events – from emergencies to natural disasters to security incidents – can be simulated, to help ensure the robustness and workability of designs and to provide greater confidence in the rigour of risk assessments.

Furthermore, the capability of the technologies available will continue to amaze. For example, the combination of 3D printed structures and rapid building construction may lead to more agile forms of urban planning than exist today. By embedding sensors and detectors into assets and machines, we could also get vital insights into city life such as waste collection to traffic control, and better understand emerging needs in different areas of a city.

This idea of treating physical infrastructure more like software with builtto- suit homes, offices and public spaces might create cities that respond in almost real time to a range of behavioral fluctuations. Hence, smart cities might evolve to respond to demand fluctuations in much the same way that software applications do: sometimes requiring new functions or the withdrawal of older ones, sometimes relying on extra storage capacity or processing power or communications bandwidth.

This might mean that big events like the Olympic Games could be accommodated rapidly with largely temporary, ‘pop-up’ infrastructure and then disappear in a few weeks, rather than leave a permanent footprint and the costly challenge of ongoing usage and maintenance.

Another example of technology tools ‘on steroids’ can be found in the range of IoTbased home automation and protection products. For example, US start-up Vayyar is experimenting with the use of 3D imaging to see through walls, meaning that no structure would be impenetrable. This omniscient type of surveillance could put building designers and architects in the curious position of having to decide on the aesthetics and purpose of walls that are technically invisible.

Smart cities, smart decisions

This emerging class of intelligent cities is typically being designed to enable smart management decisions – capturing and interpreting massive amounts of data about the population and its patterns. This information gathering via different forms of surveillance results in what is called big data.

Within five years, the deployment of ever-smarter AI and advanced analytics will mean that analysis could be completely automated. The data might be collated from a constantly evolving and expanding IoT – from traffic lights, surveillance cameras, pollution sensors, building control systems, and personal devices – feeding giant data stores held in the cloud.

A leading example of a smart city in operation is Singapore, with its rapidly evolving ‘city brain’. With a backbone of technologies, this brain helps 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.

Ultimately, Singapore’s planners hope to discourage driving, and steer commuters towards greater use of public transportation. In total, the city is planning for 100 million ‘smart objects’, including smart traffic lights, lamp posts, sensors, and cameras on its roadways, which will be used to monitor and enforce laws.

Vendors and planners are already beginning to explore and model the possibilities presented by this trend towards total data capture. For example, a case study from India suggests that streetlights along the highways can offer both smart city and connectivity solutions. In addition to helping monitor road conditions, they could be fitted as high-speed data connections. Data is a critical element of the smart city/smart road future.

However, because this option will further expand the relationship between internet service providers, surveillance, and private businesses including advertisers, there are issues around privacy to be considered. Naturally, most would want the information from smart cities and roads to be used to keep citizens moving, healthy and protected. But should companies then be allowed to use this information to target users with adverts, when it was collected for other purposes?

Smart road systems

The smart roads that link up the smart cities of the future, we believe, are where planners can put into effect many of the ultra-efficient mechanisms that best characterise their vision. In general, the concepts around smart cities, smart roads and smart infrastructure are becoming less visionary and more strategic and sustainable by the day.

As cities grow in size and importance to the global economy, it will be increasingly important that they adopt the most innovative and forward-thinking design and sustainability ideas, particularly around road infrastructure. As a smart future unfolds, three important new technologies – big data, the IoT and renewable energy – are being used in parallel to transform the day-to-day.

South Korea, for example, is planning an entire network of smart roads by 2020. This will include battery-charging stations for electric vehicles (EVs), as well as infrastructure to handle autonomous vehicles. The introduction of driverless vehicles requires roads to be transformed into information superhighways, as vehicles will need to communicate with each other and the city infrastructure. Mapping, traffic signals and safety regulations, for instance, are all parts of the physical and digital infrastructure that will need to become highly coordinated for autonomous vehicles to function safely and effectively.

All this data will enable decisions that make efficient use of space, fuel, water, electricity and waste products, with an emphasis on sustainability. For example, anticipating major traffic jams to provide alternate routes could reduce journey times, cut fuel consumption and ease congestion.

Urban development evolves

The smart city movement has the potential to transform the organisation of people and physical objects, transcending urban development as we know it. The shift to smart infrastructure 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 relies on a smooth transition to cities that are more efficient, less wasteful and more conscious of the impacts of the individual on the greater good. This may involve a range of new negotiations along the boundaries of individual freedom and privacy; for example, replacing human drivers with self-driving cars in the hope of preventing death and injury in auto accidents, increasing traffic efficiency and removing environmental impacts.

Similarly, to reach municipal conservation goals, we might have to agree to invasive monitoring of waste generation, energy and water use in the home. These are the kinds of tensions with which future planners will need to wrestle.

The challenge and opportunity for architects, engineers and construction specialists is clear. The smart city shouldn’t be an apocalyptic future where citizens are stripped of their free will, and we cannot be seduced by the technoprogressive view that the pursuit of smart roads will lead to utopia.

However, it is now possible to create and deliver a city vision with citizens at its heart – one that is enabled by forwardthinking infrastructure planning, coupled with judicious use of enabling technologies. A well thought-out vision, enabled by a robust and well-executed smart city model, 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.

Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells and Alexandra Whittington are from Fast Future, publisher of books from future thinkers around the world exploring how developments such as AI, robotics and disruptive thinking could impact individuals, society and businesses and create new, trillion-dollar sectors. Fast Future has a particular focus on ensuring these advances are harnessed to unleash individual human potential.

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