Cities of Tomorrow: Challenges and Smart Options

'Tomorrow’s cities will be where the physical world, sharing economy and digital ecosystems intersect for the majority of the world’s people so we need to take a connected approach', says Gavin English, Managing Director.

Wednesday 19 September 2018, Gavin English

Cities are engines of economic growth and hubs of trade and are therefore essential to national, regional and global development and advancement.

The pace of world urbanisation is unprecedented. Today, some 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas. By 2050 this is expected to grow to 68% – bringing another 2.5 billion people to urban areas after taking population growth into account. Close to 90% of this increase will be in Asia and Africa, according to new United Nations data.

The number of megacities with a population of more than 10 million inhabitants has tripled since 1990. By 2030 the globe is predicted to be home to 43 megacities.

More city dwellers will need more buildings, clean air, water, energy — not to mention mobility, convenience and wellbeing. Emerging technologies, increased internet connectivity and smart devices will help us cope. We’ll be able to develop, improve and connect infrastructure to create buildings with zero carbon footprint, end traffic jams, recycle and harvest clean water and air, create low cost and clean energy, enhance security and improve lives.

So what will the cities of tomorrow look like?

A few decades ago people imagined future space age cities with lightening quick flying autonomous transport systems and Flash Gordon buildings. Although we are not living in these types of environments quite yet, some cities do have a distinctly futuristic skyline – for example Tokyo, Shanghai, Dubai, Toronto, etc.

So some changes to the physical infrastructure are already here, but the biggest difference will be in the way we interact in a data-led ecosystem. The covert collection of data, rapid analysis and real-time response will transform city life in the future.

Our future smart cities will have fully integrated infrastructure, with smart transportation services including autonomous vehicles, internet and communication systems, water services, electrical and power grids and security systems and systems of systems all connected and unified. This will require mega city-wide systems with the computing power to process the massive amounts of raw data.

As technology becomes embedded within more and more everyday objects, the dynamics of city systems and lifestyles will evolve from a layered and linear approach to data collection, analysis and reaction, to a real-time exchange of sensing and response across all city services, operations and activities.

We will increasingly use algorithms and smart connected digital platforms to draw data from the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence programs.

The Internet of Things involves the interlinking of networks, devices and data and it is the collective power of these disparate elements that lies at the heart of the smart city. It allows us to connect people, things and places in new ways and to build new services combining assets and locations to respond to and enhance city living and share resources. It will help us co-ordinate public transport provision and access to ease congestion, reduce pollution and increase mobility.

The future smart city will need to employ purpose-built artificial intelligence programs and machine-learning algorithms to process the vast amounts of incoming data. These programs will leverage rapid improvements in computing and artificial neural networks in the coming decades.

Sensors — whether cameras, acoustic networks, and other wireless systems — will communicate information about the health and status of the city and its infrastructure. Satellites and orbital platforms will monitor the city’s atmosphere, pollution levels, weather systems, and local environment, with particular attention paid to potential threats from natural disasters.

Sufficient energy to power our smart cities will be generated from clean, renewable sources — wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, perhaps even fusion.

Masdar City, in Abu Dhabi, is an example of smart city. Credit: Raphael Iruzun Martins.
Masdar, in Abu Dhabi, is an example of smart city. Photo by Raphael Iruzun Martins made available on Flickr.

A key challenge will be to create multiply redundant infrastructure and technology systems, with numerous backups should one system fail, and the ability to isolate failures and prevent them from spreading. This will be crucial to limiting the damage inflicted by natural disasters and, malicious human activity such as war, terrorism, cyberattacks, etc. Unfortunately, a more connected city is one that is also more vulnerable to attack – a growing challenge for place makers of the future.

Cities are about people so we need to ensure our smart cities are environmentally friendly, pleasant, healthy and convenient places to live. And to do this we must understand the behaviour and desires of people. Such psychological studies need to be a prime consideration in the planning and design of our future cities.

As the population of our cities keeps increasing, feeding them will require more and more land. Vertical farming is a solution for sustainable growing in cities. Urban vertical farms will use building space to produce food in vertically stacked layers or other structures such as a warehouse or a skyscraper.

Our cities of tomorrow will require tremendous investment in infrastructure and technology.

Building one off smart cities like Abu Dhabi’s Masdar is one thing but in older established cities in developing countries, where the lion’s share of growth is predicted, the changes and innovation needed are even more challenging due to constraints of space; traffic congestion; environmental, energy and water problems; safety issues; poor urban governance and planning, etc. Growing urban cities in developing countries will need the right financing and urban governance and commitments in place to solve these challenges.

We are seeing increasing commitments from governments, multilateral development banks and international financial institutions to help finance the investments needed. For example, the recent commitment by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to finance infrastructure for the sustainable development of cities in Asia. Their aim is to support Asian cities to be economically, environmentally and socially sustainable, by being green, resilient, efficient, accessible and thriving (GREAT).

However, conventional infrastructure investment and development to support this rapid urban growth can’t keep up with the demand and we need innovative financing approaches such as financing by land value capture whereby the benefits of infrastructure projects are capitalised into land values to fund the respective infrastructure projects. In addition, pension funds, bonds, private sector and blended funding will be needed to help finance future investments.

The future is exciting and challenging. Smart cities will be where the sharing economy meets the digital and physical world, simultaneously and sustainably.

More than ever we all need to become masters of connecting hard and soft infrastructure, people, process and data to create smart – and GREAT – places to live.

Cover photo: Burj Khalifa, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photo by Arsalan Cheema on Unsplash.

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