“The 19th century was a century of empires, the 20th century was a century of nation states and the 21st century will be a century of cities” – Wellington Webb, Former Mayor of Denver, CO.
Population increase and rural to urban migration trends continue, unrelenting. Our already overcrowded megacities - urban areas with more than 1 million inhabitants - continue to expand vertically and horizontally to cope with the constant influx of new residents. As streets and public transport systems swell to the brim, life for each inhabitant becomes more difficult, nature is sacrificed and these urban marvels become unhealthy and unmanageable.
Urban expansion is imperative but it does not offer real solutions to the problems that population increase poses. We need a new way to understand and organize our cities. Rather than just increase space in cities, we need to make that space more effective. This is where the smart city comes in, a concept that promises to improve the health, well-being and day-to-day lives of urban residents and visitors.
Conceptual smart city drawings paint a picture of green, high-tech utopias where people stroll through open parks with the backdrop of shiny smart skyscrapers, but where are the tens of millions of inhabitants in this vision? How many can live in the city center and how crowded must transport systems be? How many green spaces will be left and wouldn’t they be full of people? For smart technology to be the savior in this story, it must focus its attention on futureproofing cities for the unstoppable increase of urban populations.
Over 200,000 people are born every day, that’s 83 million more people per year. There are currently more than 7.6 billion people on earth and that is expected to increase by 1 billion over the next 12 years, reaching 8.6 billion in 2030, then 9.6 billion by 2050, according to a United Nations report. The United Nations predicts that, between 2016 and 2030, the percentage of the world’s population living in cities with at least a million inhabitants is likely to grow from 23% to 27%, and the number of megacities is projected to increase from 31 to 41.
Cities are responding, currently there are 6,645 construction projects planned and ongoing in the world’s 31 megacities, with a total value of over $4.2trn according to GlobalData. Following a recent assessment of project pipelines in major cities worldwide by GlobalData, a listing of 50 ‘Construction Mega Cities’, discovers they each have a pipeline of projects with an investment value above US$30bn. This diverse list includes relatively new megacities, such as Dubai in top-spot, but also older megacities like London and Moscow in second and third place respectively. It includes cities on every continent, although half of the 50 cities are in the Asia Pacific region.
“The ranking of Construction Mega Cities in the Gulf states shows they are spending the most on major development projects relative to the size of their populations. Dubai, for example, has a population of 3.2m, but it holds the top position in terms of the value of the construction mega-projects pipeline per capita,” says Yasmine Ghozzi, Economist at GlobalData. “There are major differences among the 50 Construction Mega Cities in terms of the value of the project pipelines compared to the size of the economies.”
The smart city concept must be adaptable to fit all these types of cities and offer solutions to handle their population expansions. Smart transport systems must shuttle more people, further and quicker, while ensuring passenger comfort. Utilities must provide for more people across a wider area and do so in a green and reliable manner. Buildings must get bigger and homes must get smaller while maintaining resident safety and well-being. Cities must find more space while providing citizens the access to nature that scientists have shown to be essential to human health. The smart city might have to completely redefine our built environment to work such miracles.
Autonomous driverless vehicles offer comfortable personal transport but may be counter-intuitive in the fight against road congestion. You might think improving mass-transport is the ideal answer but both will play important roles. In a 100% autonomous vehicle future, cars and trucks hurtle through junctions at high-speed missing each other by milimeters, all controlled by an artificially intelligent central system that continually recalculates in real-time to send vehicles where they are needed in the most efficient way.
The recent emergence of personal transport drones suggests that urban sky-roads, where flying vehicles travel in air-channels stacked vertically one on top of the other, like in 90’s Sci-Fri Fifth Element, may not be that far fetched. These “skyways,” navigated by autonomous driverless vehicles, would reduce congestion and could even remove vehicles from street level altogether, creating a pedestrian-friendly ground level as a giant network of vehicles buzzes above. Giving people personal space within a potentially massive transport network.
“With so many sensors collecting data and communicating with one another, cities of the future will start to think for themselves,” says David Pescovitz, research director at the Institute for the Future (IFTF). “You'll start to see various forms of transportation almost as packets in the Internet getting switched around and routed to various places as they're needed."
While multi-tenant residential buildings can and will get taller, the rate of population growth suggests that micro-apartments will be unavoidable. This is where smart building design and technology comes into play, making living in a tiny space comfortable and healthy. Living in smaller spaces within bigger buildings is not just about design and technology, however, smart development must incorporate urban social and cultural changes. Both buildings and people must adapt to this crowded new world.
"Our future urban landscapes may in some ways resemble the cities of our past," says Paul McConnell, design director at Intersection who believes the current age of independent living is not in the best interests of the city and its inhabitants. "Multi-generational households could offset the growing cost of living in cities, while transforming community bonds in neighborhoods," he proposes. Where smart buildings would be tasked to find ways to offer privacy and community spirit to these crowded family homes.
Cultural shifts will also be necessary for our work lives. Smart commercial buildings may be finding innovative ways to increase productivity in the workplace but as rental costs continue to rise, businesses are increasingly exploring options where employees don’t need to be in the physical office all the time.
Greater connectivity has enabled easier remote working, meaning physical offices can become smaller and pressure on transport systems can be eased during peak commuter hours. The evolution of this technology means that one day we may not need physical offices at all.
“An office building does not necessarily need to be a physical structure made of bricks and mortar, glass and steel,” suggests our in-depth report – The Future Workplace: Smart Office Design in the IoT Era. “The office is, in essence, a place that companies utilize to bring all their staff together to facilitate the smooth operation of their organization, and that definition does not specify a physical space,” it continues. “The future workplace may, and is in fact likely to, be a virtual space.”
Smart Crowded Future
Projections show that urbanization combined with population growth could add another 2.5 billion people to urban areas by 2050, according to the UN. Cities are already cradles for crime and poverty, they can negatively impact health through stress, pollution, and injury, they place great strain on infrastructure and resources, and all this could increase exponentially with population growth.
Smart cities are not just a technology-driven development seeking to improve lives in exchange for money. They are a solution to these growing and potentially catastrophic urban problems. We must focus the sector’s attention to this crisis but also adapt our urban culture if we are to get the true benefits of our smart cities.