First published in MEP Middle East here

By Hala Yousef

A smart city must be a city that capitalises on available technology to create a positive, social and economic environment for the community, utilising the minimum natural resources, but adaptable enough to embrace future technological advances.

For decades, science fiction has conceptualised what a future city, based on technological advancement, may look like, and over time, industries have succeeded, in recreating some of these technologies. With the current pace of evolving technology and our insatiable demand as consumers, these dreams are now very close to reality and sustainable smart cities are a possibility. Translating centuries of imagination to real life applications, has meant our lives have become inseparable from these smart technologies. Likewise, cities are also evolving to be inseparable and equally interdependent on technology.

However, while there is no doubt that we can feasibly create smart cities, it is very clear that to also be sustainable the whole concept of smart city development requires a change in our culture and behaviour, with political reinforcement in equal measure. Design can only achieve so much. Therefore, as users of smart cities we have to be invested in the objectives and take a moral responsibility for achieving a sustainable outcome.

Smart means giving people what they want but in a more creative and efficient way. For example, most people like the idea of a garden but don’t either have the time or desire to maintain it, and so creating a community with access to high quality well maintained communal gardens within easy reach would address this and also create a more integrated community.

“Access to reliable citywide wireless internet coupled with better technology facilitates remote working and less demand for permanent office space.”

We should be developing buildings to better serve demographic needs rather than simply responding to consumer trends. Flexible and versatile living and working arrangements are already being developed around concepts such as co-living and co-working. We need to challenge our perceived need for spacious living arrangements versus more creative and efficient living spaces. Access to reliable citywide wireless internet coupled with better technology facilitates remote working and less demand for permanent office space.

Considering all of these together, we have now dramatically reduced the size of what we are building, the resources required to build and operate buildings, the demand for land and the scale and operating demands of transport systems. This is inherently sustainable and can then be developed to be more sustainable through design, considering energy & water efficiency, choice of materials, incorporation of micro and macro renewable energy strategies and ultimately utilising education and technology to ensure efficient operation.

However, this focuses on cities and buildings, but not so much on suburbs or districts. There will always be a demand to live in quieter suburbs so it is equally important for each suburb to have its own identity. The diversity of the suburb gives a city its own uniqueness. These suburbs must be developed using similar concepts and should be seamlessly connected via all modes of physical and virtual transport to eliminate socio-economic, ethnic and cultural divides which can be problematic in major developed cities.

Equitable, intelligent and sustainable transportation and communication protocols form the link that securely assimilate the inhabitants of suburbs and cities’ collectively for greater inclusion across all geographical panes.

Much effort is being invested in developed cities to tackle parking issues and decreasing traffic congestion through smart parking systems and smart signal controls, but we all know that cars are simply not sustainable, and parking takes up valuable space and resources. New cities must therefore focus on the improvement to mobility in a sustainable manner that will cater to the current and future demands of the city. Many existing cities around the world are focusing on improving their public transport and with this shift we have seen many innovative ideas emerge in the market, such as sharing existing mobile phone network infrastructure data. The application of IoT has allowed transport providers to now sense demand, predict and plan seamless journeys for commuters using real time data. Other IoT benefits include the use mobile phones as digital tickets and payments which uses the location of the phone to calculate fare cost and financial synchronised applications to transact payments. The data shared across infrastructure platforms can also be used operators to monitor the health of the transport assets and respond before any disruptions to the network.

With this increasing demand on communication networks experts estimate that in the future the number of devices requiring connectivity will far outnumber the population of a city. Therefore, real-time connectivity is imperative to the blueprint of a truly sustainable smart city. If connectivity is the heartbeat of a smart city, then it is essential that infrastructure systems, operational policy and statutory regulation facilitates and ensures equitable and fair connectivity. Developments around enhanced connectivity in existing cities have already demonstrated significant commercial and social efficiencies, allowing cities to thrive with these technological developments in all aspects of society without geographical restrictions.

Our inseparability to smart technology has already had a big influence on IoT. Influencing everything in society, governments are able to strategically locate further expansion plans based on the population needs and movement patterns. They can monitor a wide range of community issues such as air quality/pollution, traffic congestion, weather, etc., and this information can be used to generate and implement precautionary measures in advance.

Using all the data captured, we are able provide more liveable, healthier and safe cities without the need of duplication of specialised systems but actually sharing of infrastructure for generic shared systems. Open data will allow government, private organisations and users to make the most of the available information. Private enterprises have and can continue to develop applications for smart cities such as fast routes of travel, best air quality for walking routes and other innovative initiatives.

However, this requires open source data and languages which are replaceable and upgradeable by any number of technologies, consequently monopolies in technology communication protocols have no future in smart buildings.

This does raise very sensitive issues around data privacy. Open data provides visibility, and with visibility comes accountability. We know in the sustainability industry that visibility and accountability are key drivers in ensuring buildings and organisations operate efficiently through transparent reporting and monitoring. Therefore, society as a whole will need to embrace open data but this requires greater cyber security.

There is a broader spectrum of security in cities that needs to address public safety in response to the potential threats of crime and terrorism. Smart physical and electronic solutions, coupled with smart applications, can be deployed to enhance security, providing operators with the ability to watch over most if not all of the city. Current technology systems can already intelligently alert the operator to a security event happening in real time. A new wave a technology has seen the use of artificial intelligence driven machine learning that can raise an alarm when something out of the ordinary occurs.

In development terms, the GCC is young both in terms of cities and population and as such there is an opportunity to harness the next generation of technological users and drivers, to innovate and propel the region’s cities forward. We are already seeing the use of cities across the GCC harnessing the sun’s energy on a city level to make use of the efficiencies of technologies on a shared infrastructure scale, while ensuring communication and transportation is accessible and available to all occupants.

As our greatest opportunity lies with our people, so does our biggest challenge. To have smart cities functioning sustainably we must have smart people that will propel this vision forward. We as an industry must expand our roles from consultants, engineers, designers, and planners and become educators. Governments can’t do this alone, neither can the industry nor the people, it must be a collective effort from all of us to turn our cities into smart and sustainable ones.

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Sustainability, Sustainable Design, Women in Engineering


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