07 January 2016

The prospect of the ‘city of the future’ has long tantalised designers, writers and film makers alike. From the utopian ideals of the Italian Futurists to the dystopian rain-drenched canyons of Ridley Scott’s interpretation of Blade Runner, two recurring themes have been a constant. Firstly, that cities will be predominantly vertical, straining ever upwards into the troposphere; and secondly, that they will be built around futuristic technology. Precipitous monorails link mile-high skyscrapers like threads of gossamer; aerial rivers of flying cars ebb and flow like floodwaters through ravines, over the heads of the pedestrians below. The street, once the domain of circulation and interaction, has become the dirty underbelly above which all life has now evolved.

But what of reality? As fast as theorists predict the future, time inexorably catches up and passes: 1984, 2001, 2019… yet our environment still appears superficially unchanged. Yet large advances are made in small steps, and it would be folly to ignore the pace of change when viewed in a wider context: the 20th century saw society progress from the motor car to the moon, and computers have migrated from the conglomerate to the wrist. And now this same ‘smart’ technology is beginning to underpin and power the cities in which we live. There is a growing school of thought that believes that improved access to public information, services and transportation can enable improved management of the urban realm. In other words, that technological innovation can improve quality of life.

Concept and definition

In order to examine the smart city, it is first necessary to understand the definition. According to a 2013 UK government report (.pdf, 0.5Mb) , a smart city is one that not only streamlines transactional relationships, but empowers the citizen to more extensive participation in their community, and the services from which they can benefit. It goes on to observe that the concept of the smart city is dynamic, and suggests six characteristics:

  • Modern, digital infrastructure with secure but open access to users
  • Collaborative, shared, user-focused delivery of services
  • Intelligent infrastructure, that analyses data, to question and inform decisions
  • Sharing of knowledge and a commitment to innovate
  • Transparency of service performance
  • Visionary leadership that is committed to constant improvement.

In the realm of public service delivery, five key service utilities are identified:

  • Intelligent transport systems (including congestion, parking and traffic light management)
  • Assisted or independent living (including telecare and digital participation services)
  • Water management (including consumption, waste and environmental systems)
  • Smart energy networks
  • Waste management.

Another source identifies eight possible criteria for a smart city, of which they suggest a minimum of five should be met:

  • Governance and education
  • Healthcare
  • Building
  • Mobility (i.e. transportation)
  • Infrastructure
  • Technology
  • Energy
  • Citizens.

The centrality of the consumer has become increasingly prevalent as the digital revolution has progressed, and the internet has taken an ever greater presence in everyday life. Traditional marketing and business models have had to be superseded – even those of national television stations – as the consumer has become the critic. Coupled with the recession, this has had perhaps the biggest impact on the supply and delivery of goods and services. Even seemingly-invincible powerhouses have not been immune to the effects, and once-household names have been consigned to history. Contemporary shopping patterns now rely on customer feedback, and the UK government report suggests that the same should apply to the public sector as well as the private.

One broad aim of the above could be said to be the development of ‘liveable’ cities, which are low in resource consumption, sustainable, and maximise the wellbeing of their citizens. The underlying premise, however, is that technology is the key to providing this liveability.

Approaches and governance issues

So how does one create a smart city? Two obvious strands to this question are immediately apparent. On the one hand, there is the question of adaptation of an existing urban area; on the other, the planning and construction of a new city. In the UK it is the former which is more likely to be applicable, due to scale, and lessons can be learned from overseas, in cities such as Delhi or, closer to home, Amsterdam.

In Delhi, a new Smart City Project was unveiled this summer by Prime Minister Modi, that will see decades of unplanned development curtailed and rationalized by the pooling of land for the formation of a number of ‘sub-cities’. These will be allowed to develop according to strict zoning policies (including commercial, residential, industrial and utility areas, for example). At the same time, development will be controlled by legally-binding adherence to the Government of India’s ‘Guidelines for Smart Cities’ which will require the inclusion of:

  • 24-hour water and power supplies
  • High-speed Wi-Fi connectivity
  • Efficient solid-waste management
  • Green buildings

Development will also be required to follow a ‘transit-oriented development model’; ensuring access to public transport is maximized. It is anticipated that once implemented successfully in Delhi, the initiative can be applied to the National Capital Region.

With typical mainland European progressiveness, Amsterdam has taken a lead in implementing smart and intelligent systems and technology-rich projects. The Amsterdam City Project in the enabling mechanism through which energy, transport and governance projects are being realized in the form of a 50:50 public-private model that is jointly funded by the EU, the city government and private investors. This then leads to the question of funding, since, in these post-recession times of austerity, the public sector does not readily have access to the level of resources to be able to invest in projects of this scale. It is anticipated that a variety of such shared-risk, shared-reward models will be utilized, including:

  • Build, Own, Operate
  • Build, Operate, Transfer
  • Build, Operate, Manage
  • Open Business Model.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the latter is expected to afford the most opportunity for innovation, but however such ventures are funded, the scale of opportunities cannot be underestimated. Cities such as Brussels, Seoul and Bogota are now accountable for over 40 percent of their respective country’s GDP. And according to estimates by Frost and Sullivan, there could be a combined market potential of $1.5 trillion globally for energy, transportation, healthcare, construction, infrastructure and governance projects in smart cities.

With regard to new cities, a number are currently at varying stages of planning or construction including Masdar in Abu Dhabi, designed by Foster and Partners. With a planned land area of 6 km² housing a population of 45 to 50,000 people and 1,500 businesses, it is being built around renewable energy and is intended to be a centre for ‘cleantech’ companies (i.e. those with a focus on developing technologies for clean energy systems). However, as much as the definition of a smart city is open to debate, so the question of whether or not these new developments can constitute smart cities is also challenged, due to their relative small size.

Meanwhile in the UK, plans are under way for unlocking the economic potential of smart cities. In 2013 the Smart Cities Forum was inaugurated by the then Minister for Cities Greg Clark, with the aim of developing plans to support the creation of smarter cities in the UK. According to David Willetts, the opportunities for the UK could amount to a £40 billion share of the market by 2020. The Technology Strategy Board invested £50 million in a Future Cities Catapult in London, to assist businesses with product development; and £24 million to create a future cities demonstrator in Glasgow. It is intended that this will demonstrate the positive economic benefits of integrated services in the fields of health, transport, energy and public safety. Since the general election, responsibility for smart cities has been given to the Rt Hon Ed Vaizey MP, as Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy. He is currently co-chair of the Smart City Forum.

Smart elements

When it comes to our everyday lives, smart technologies are being exploited in a variety of innovative and, sometimes, unusual ways. Besides applications such as telecare for the elderly (where support and assistance is provided remotely, by means of electronic devices including panic buttons, monitoring equipment and detection), other, more idiosyncratic uses are being found. One such application is the idea of ‘responsive street furniture’ which can adapt to different passers-by, thanks to communication via smart phones. Uses being explored include automatically-brightening street lamps, and variable timings on pedestrian crossings for people with walking difficulties. In another experiment , a device aimed at reducing traffic congestion is fitted to vehicle windscreens and will not only detect traffic lights from up to 100 metres away, but request priority for the oncoming vehicle (or vehicles, if it is part of a line of traffic).

On the ‘green’ front, too, smart technologies are being employed in an increasing number applications. For example, smart meters are fitted to gas or electricity supplies. These send usage data to the suppliers automatically, but also enable users to monitor and control their energy use. Similarly, home heating remote controls operated by smartphone are now becoming more commonplace.

Cultural implications

But as the high-tech, data-rich progression of the world’s super-cities marches relentlessly forward, care needs to be taken to ensure that tomorrow’s smart cities are truly inclusive cities. Technology and, in particular, information technology, is a double-edged sword; and there can be a heavy price to pay for overlooking this truism. Mobile communications have streamlined business efficiency, but at the expense of blurred distinctions between the ‘work’ and ‘private’ domains.

Technology is often associated with affluence in the form of materialism; and this can easily become a slippery slope into exclusivity and isolation. The Indian economist Laveesh Bhandari has warned that smart cities could be in danger of becoming “special enclaves”, which could risk excluding the poor by virtue of inflated prices and zealous surveillance. Keen to qualify his points in the face of social-media backlash, he explained that financial inducements from government to private enterprise could, without due consideration for low-cost housing and governance, lead to enclaves of “privatised governance”. Technological advances, therefore, need vision in their application. And whereas this argument might seem, at face value, to be rather alarmist, it is perhaps interesting to consider how many day-to-day tasks these days require access to the internet.

Closer to home, but perhaps no less relevant in any part of the developed world, is the impact of technology on society – or, more specifically, on social interaction. The growth of the internet, and of sophisticated portable computing, has led to the emergence of new social patterns. Research has shown that social networking websites and mobile applications have had a significant influence on the way that people interact with one another. Traditional forms of communication such as letter writing have all but disappeared, and even telephone calls would seem to take second place to text- or media-based messaging. Face-to-face interaction, particularly on a social (rather than professional) level appears less common, particularly among the younger generations. And whereas occasional news reports have highlighted physical health concerns arising from these patterns, it is perhaps for time to determine whether there will be any impact on interpersonal skills.

Implications for the industry

Faced with such prospects for growth, and support from the public sector, the opportunities for those involved in the construction industry should, in common with their counterparts in the medical, technological, transportation and energy industries, look very promising. However, the challenge will come in the form of private sector support. Whereas those who are backing smart initiatives will be wholly ‘plugged-in’ to the cause, secondary or even tertiary-level projects may need additional encouragement (or coercion). Schemes such as BREEAM, or the late Code for Sustainable Homes, have demonstrated that there is ample opportunity to build to ‘best practice’. Consumers, too, have become savvier: purchasers have become thriftier since the recession, seeing the benefits of costs-in-use as opposed to capital expenditure.

When planning future development, more considerations will need to be accounted for, such as an increased emphasis on access to reliable and efficient public transport links, or wiring infrastructure to accommodate high-speed internet connectivity for example. If the 2015 event ‘Britain’s Smart Cities’ was anything to go by, where Ed Vaizey spoke of the need for technology to facilitate sustainable development, then the future for smart cities – and the political support for their continued development – would seem to be bright. As with other issues such as energy use and efficiency, policies may find their way into planning legislation or the Building Regulations in future.

But whether legislation is the driver for change, or best practice certification schemes raise the bar from a market perspective, it would be prudent for all stakeholders involved in the construction process to keep themselves abreast of innovative changes. While smart cities may not look outwardly very different, the city of tomorrow may well be closer than we think.