Building smart cities needs more than just technology

building smart city, smart city sustainable
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There are questions to be answered on building smart cities: how should people be housed? How should they travel? How should waste product be managed?

Answering these questions is no easy matter, as the sustainable future of the planet relies on establishing good solutions to them all. The modern city faces a number of incredible challenges, such as experiencing population growth at a remarkable rate.

Cities are symbols of empowerment, bringing people together to work, socialise, learn and live. For some time, many have talked about the potential for cities to further galvanise their inhabitants by becoming smarter, more efficient and more sustainable.

Across the world, we’re seeing this discussion start to materialise; with projects that are beginning to realise the true promise of what a smart city is and how it can improve our lives as citizens.

Aside from technology, what else is necessary for a smart city?

Such projects go far beyond simply providing connectivity for all or offering access to information on public services, such as transport. Smart city initiatives are digitally transforming public services, completely altering the way in which the built environment is constructed and managed and the way in which we interact and live within these environments.

However, the smart city as a holistic vision is about more than just technology. Smart cities are about thinking smarter too, with the objective that they need to solve human problems. Smart cities need to solve problems like how to improve roads networks and transport infrastructure, or how we design and use our public spaces to make them more liveable and contemporary whilst integrating technology as opposed to laying it on top.

Whilst large technology companies typically grab the headlines when it comes to smart cities, the fact is that it requires much more than technological know-how to successfully design and execute a smart city initiative.

For example, one of the biggest issues smart city design must tackle is the heat island effect that is warming our cities. A result of the Sun’s radiation being trapped by urbanised environments, the heat island effect can have a significant impact not only on temperature but also pollution levels, unusual weather patterns and human health.

In combatting this effect, the built environment is implementing new approaches such as the adoption of new materials – such as heat reflective roofs and road surfaces – or the increase of green spaces and particularly the number of trees.

The Smart London Plan, which was announced by London Mayor Sadiq Khan at the beginning of London Tech Week 2018, is a great example of a proposal that recognises the need for engineering expertise. The plan references the need for collaboration between the worlds of technology and engineering, calling for a new generation of smart infrastructure through major combined procurements.

What are the challenges in constructing smart cities?

One of the most important challenges faced when it comes to constructing smart cities is doing so in a sustainable way. Non-governmental organisation Circle Economy recently launched The Circularity Gap Report 2019 that pointed to the fact that we only re-use nine per cent of global resources. Closing this gap would have a serious and lasting effect on our impact on the environment but doing so requires much more than cutting edge technology.

It requires a wholesale change in the way we think about designing and building new infrastructure, challenges that those in the built environment are accustomed to tackling.

There are roadblocks when it comes to coordinating smart city projects too. Consultancy Bloomberg Associates advocates for cities to follow the lead of London, New York and others to instate Chief Digital Officers that can manage and direct smart city projects. Whilst undoubtedly a great asset to those that have the resources, given the current public finance environment for local authorities it’s an asset that few can afford.

Here, city planners and local authorities should look to those in the built environment to provide guidance. Seeking out those that understand the marriage of engineering and technology can help local authorities fill the Chief Digital Officer skills gap, allowing them to take advantage of the benefits of logistical, planning, design and build expertise, without having to add it to their payroll.

Building cities that can cope with the rapid urbanisation that they are experiencing requires ambitious planning and innovative action. Problems such as waste management, urban heat islands, air quality and adopting a cyclical economy approach to resource management are not technology problems, they’re engineering problems. Whilst not all local authorities may be able to afford the luxury of a Chief Digital Officer, that needn’t hold back their planning or ambition.

By employing the experience of those who understand the marriage of technology and engineering skills, they can be well placed to turn precious public finances ineffective smart city initiatives that benefit local citizens and empower businesses to become more successful and sustainable.

Only when more smart city initiatives recognise these demands will we begin to create urban environments that will be resilient – to both current and future environmental and social change.


Rob Barling

Strategy & Development Director



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