Chris Fry, Director, Infrastructure & Regeneration, Ramboll explores how the infrastructural revolution is enabling smarter and more liveable cities
Our towns and cities are constantly changing around us. Containing a variety of buildings,
the UK’s towns and cities are based on historical foundations and an ageing infrastructure. With restricted budgets, a practical solution is required to keep up-to-date with the ever-changing world, so that the UK can continue to develop, transforming its towns into smart cities.
It is expected that the number of connected devices forming the internet of things (IoT) will rise from 15 billion to 75 billion globally between 2015 and 2025 (Statista), with devices becoming smarter over time. For example, we currently have self-weighing recycling bins that can identify and report when they need emptying, but in the future, we might expect bins to identify products that you have used and automatically reorder them for you.
There is a vast and ever-expanding range of possible applications and benefits of smart technology in our villages, towns and cities. Techniques such as modular and offsite construction are revolutionising productivity in construction, with significant savings in time and materials as well as safety improvements. At the same time, disruptive start-ups and established industry players are competing to innovate new products and services, making use of smart energy, smart buildings and smart mobility.
Smart technologies can also help us achieve cleaner and greener spaces. However, as noted by Matthew Farrow of the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC), “global cities are struggling to manage the pressures of growth, and while over time many of these pressures will be environmental, the most urgent have often been things like transport congestion”.
The goal itself need not be specifically achieving ‘smart’ solutions but should be improving places of work and living for people and society generally. Visionaries and planners of smart cities would be wise to closely follow their customers’ and local communities’ needs and wishes.
Social and economic empowerment can be achieved through smarter infrastructure, such as district heating, decentralised community energy generation or battery storage systems. Equally, mobility on demand could negate the need for cars, or even the ability to drive.
Nevertheless, providing affordable access will be challenging, given that disparities in opportunities and health between richer and poorer neighbourhoods are still widening in many places. Bristol, one of the UK’s leading cities in this arena, has a smart city and innovation strategy with a clear focus on citizen-centric solutions.
Rapid technological advancement is offering considerably more opportunities than were available before. A clear purpose based on an understanding of local needs is fundamental to success for smart city developments. Liveability and sustainability are notions that
could provide useful guidance in the search for this clarity of purpose. An aspiration for liveability has become well established in forward planning for the Danish capital, Copenhagen, leading to more integrated solutions including sustainable drainage systems and larger-scale ‘blue-green’ infrastructure solutions, such as green streets and multi-purpose public spaces.
As it considers the opportunities for creating a smarter city, Copenhagen is following an integrated and liveability- orientated approach. Exploring options for city-wide digital communication networks, enabling smart control of street lighting and traffic controls, soon to be expanded to the consideration of other opportunities, such as water management and keeping vulnerable citizens safe.
The issue of funding proves difficult for those pursuing smart city aspirations, mainly because in this interconnected world, there is no simple answer to the question of who pays and who benefits. The costs and advantages of ‘backbone’ digital communication networks, the smart solutions that utilise them and the ultimate beneficiaries (such as those with lower asset maintenance costs), may fall upon different operators at different
times. Technology companies and the public sector will also have varying expectations and restrictions on their investments that will affect their business models.
Whilst we have to consider our complex economy and ageing infrastructure, it helps to also keep practicality in mind. Ambitions for the medium to long term future are worthwhile, but a top-down smart city approach is unlikely to deliver any short-term results. Working to
upgrade existing assets and opportunities with smarter functionality, and integrating these alongside newer, fully smart interventions, is likely to be more successful.
By utilising artificial intelligence (AI) and analysing our existing operational data and digitalised design, we can help cities take immediate steps towards updating
infrastructurally and becoming smart. Adopting smart technologies, including future generations of IoT devices, with existing communications will allow for the expansion of city-wide wireless networks, which in turn will see our cities not just develop, but evolve.
Ramboll is an active contributor to the EIC’s collaborative Sustainable Smart Cities programme.
For more information see www.sustainablesmartcities.org