Using IT to make city infrastructure more efficient is the new way forward for the modern urban engineer. Marissa Lynch reports.
Urbanisation is rapidly increasing across the globe. During 2007 the world moved from having a majority of rural dwellers to a majority of urban inhabitants.
And this trend is not abating. By 2050, 70% of the global population will relocate to cities, inevitably putting strain on resources and planning.
Undoubtedly, the trend of urbanisation is something that has concerned the engineering profession for many years. Urban planning, sustainability and the clever use of resources have all been important factors affecting new city infrastructure in the past.
But as the world changes, so do the priorities of those working at the forefront of developing future, or smart, cities.
While planning and sustainability remain important parts of the modern city, increasingly important are new concepts that integrate and synthesise new technological developments.
“We looked at how citizens want to live and started to see technology as a driver of change to the way people work and live in the city”
Volker Busher, Arup
So what do these new cities look like?
For Arup’s head of smart cities, Volker Busher, the buzzword is “soft” infrastructure - the information and communications technologies (ICT) that help cities stay connected.
Smart and great
It’s technology like super-fast broadband and Wi-Fi connections, smart phones, tablet computers, smart meters and RFID location tags that seem to now have shifted the ideas of what makes a city smart and great.
Busher says providing useful real-time information to people is one of the most important developments cities can make to increase living standards and efficiencies.
“A few years back we looked at the issue of cities and the challenges they face around urbanisation and the challenge of resource consumption and how it will affect future growth,” he says. “We looked at how citizens want to live and started to see technology as a driver of change with regard to the way people work and live in the city.
“We studied trends around cloud computing, and we see now genuine availability of super-fast connectivity using not only smart phones and tablets but also interactive fabrics like bus stops.
“We sat back two years ago and began writing a paper around smart cities. It wasn’t meant to say “this is what you should do” but it was at the beginning of a change process to transform cities, inform leaders and those involved about what they need to do.”
He says a city needs to really be committed to coming into the digital age for plans to become harmonious.
Busher says it starts at the top, with city leadership needing information specialists to run entire departments dedicated to their function, rather than having technology placed in separate departments.
“Our in-house expertise has been honed on projects such as Masdar and Tianjin, where we are looking at cities as living systems”
Eddie Murphy, Mott MacDonald
He believes this can deliver effective communication, vital information and helpful hints for the city population.
“In London, there will be apps that tell you where the door for the exit is when you get off the Tube or tell you exactly when the train is coming,” he says.
“In New York, local crime data is published, which allows people to see whether insurance premiums and housing prices could be affected in their area, and they can even get police to be more active on the ground.”
While people are increasingly bombarded with information that is becoming more difficult to filter, having even moredetails about the smallest things begs the question: is it useful or more of a hindrance?
“The information will play a part on two levels: the executive level with the mayor and head of transport - those types of people who will get more real-time information - with dashboard and performance analysis to manage their systems better,” says Busher.
“This is quite complex and specific to their responsibility. The citizen will receive information in a very different way…the complexity will all be in the background and you will just receive the app and rich information there and then.”
Consultant Mott MacDonald’s strategy for the future city is to create one that is sustainable and self-sufficient. Its head of smart cities, Eddie Murphy, singles out well-known sustainable cities such as Masdar in Abu Dhabi and Tianjin Eco-city in China as some of his firm’s design successes.
Murphy says that having a turnkey solution in place is one of the clever concepts the firm has come up with - and globally it is extending the theories to other locations.
“Our in-house expertise has been honed on projects such as Masdar and Tianjin, where we are trying to look at cities as living systems,” he says.
“The cycle is ever-going and we have looked on natural systems as things that should be replicated in cities.”
One city he sees as exemplary for its vision is Sydney, Australia.
“Sydney has a plan for how it wants to develop by 2020 and beyond,” he says. “You’d be hard pushed to find another city coming up with the same sort of brave thinking. It wants to re-establish urban centres and connect them with rapid transport. That in itself is sustainable and makes it easy for people to live, work and shop as locally as possible. It’s going back to some old principles, but at the same time using new technologies to make life a bit easier.”