In 1950 only 30% of people lived in urban areas, now over 56% of people live in increasingly crowded cities - and that is expected to rise to 66% by 2050 as an additional 2.5 billion people join the global urban population. Urbanization creates numerous issues for citizens, including congestion, pollution, and poverty, but our crowded cities also create problems for the wider world. Cities currently consume 78% of the world’s energy and produce more than 60% of greenhouse gas emissions, but account for less than 2% of the Earth’s surface.
In response, we have seen ‘green city’ and ‘smart city’ initiatives emerge to tackle traffic issues by encouraging green transport and disincentivizing fossil-fueled vehicles. We have seen air quality monitoring systems designed to understand and address air pollution, video surveillance has increased to improve safety on the street, and broad data collection has inspired an array of urban design enhancements. However, the green and smart city movements have largely been separated from the biggest, most energy-consuming, and most polluting part of the city — its buildings.
“Smart Cities are conceived as a complex and layered interconnection of various systems designed to make the urban environment more intelligent. In this scenario, smart buildings are essential building blocks of smart cities, but how do smart buildings fit into the big picture of smart cities?” asks Rasa Apanaviciene et al. in their 2020 paper. “Smart building and smart city concepts were developed in different time frames and by different stakeholders and, thus, need to be realigned. The most important aspect is to employ in a smart building all the functionalities proposed by the smart city and vice versa by enabling the recommended features of smart materials, smart building services, and smart construction to serve the surrounding systems.”
It seems obvious that smart cities should be the driving force in connecting smart buildings across urban areas. When smart buildings connect with one another, it facilitates data, heat, and power exchanges that can drive efficiency and cost-saving to new levels. Rather than just be served by the urban electricity grid, smart buildings can become nodes of that grid, increasing their active prosumer participation to become an integral cog of an advanced green urban energy system.
Smart cities should probably play an even more significant role in driving the adoption of smart buildings as a whole, not just because buildings make up the majority of cities but because making buildings smarter is the best way to achieve urban development goals. More energy-efficient buildings will have the biggest impact on a city’s carbon footprint, vehicle to building (V2B) technology can be a game-changer for urban transport, buildings are the ideal mount for a wide range of urban sensory technology, and data sharing between buildings and cities would be hugely beneficial for both.
Today, at the door of the building, a new network begins, with a new set of applications, stakeholders, and an entirely different set of objectives. Citizens suddenly disappear off the smart city’s radar and reappear as occupants on the smart buildings network, each system strives to understand their people but only get half the story. Whereas, an integrated smart urban platform, that included buildings, would enable greener cities and buildings to bring about a seamless digital experience for ‘occupant-citizens’ that are ultimately one group of people.
Our cities and buildings are essentially one and the same. Urban growth means more buildings, more buildings means urban growth, and they are growing rapidly. Global building floorspace is projected to double by 2060, yet only 3% of investment in new construction is green and efficient, thereby locking in high emissions for the decades of a building’s life cycle. Furthermore, the renovation rate for existing buildings is barely 1%, less than a third of the rate needed to meet the Paris climate goals. This is where building energy efficiency becomes urban energy efficiency, and urban efficiency becomes vital for national or regional sustainability goals.
“Buildings are indispensable for reaching the EU’s carbon neutrality, energy efficiency and renewable energy objectives,” says Seán Kelly, an Irish member of the European Parliament and is the lead author of a parliamentary report on the energy performance of buildings directive. “Without significant increases in renovation rates, not only will we miss an opportunity to create millions of jobs, but also, more importantly, we will fail the next generation who will have to deal with the consequences of our inaction.”
75% of buildings require energy efficiency renovation, yet the renovation rate barely reaches 0.2% across the EU bloc. In smaller but affluent places where the city and the nation are one, such as the city-state of Singapore, we are seeing more integration. Singapore's 2030 decarbonization strategy aims for 80% of new buildings to be “Super Low Energy buildings”, triggering an 80% improvement in energy efficiency compared to 2005 consumption levels for best-in-class green buildings. Public buildings lead by example, with 20% of schools to be carbon neutral by 2030 and similar targets for hospitals and administrative buildings. Singapore is a good example of what can be achieved when buildings are incorporated into urban and national planning, and we must also bring smart grids into the discussion.
“Every dollar invested in energy efficiency saves about two dollars in energy supply, whether that investment is made in local, on-site generation, or at a grid level. It also reduces the total cost of future grid infrastructure to meet increased demand,” says Clay Nesler, Global Lead, Buildings and Energy at the World Resources Institute, in a WEF article. “While passive measures, such as increased insulation and higher efficiency equipment, can reduce overall electrical demand, active efficiency measures including automated demand response and dynamic energy optimization can provide demand flexibility to match intermittent renewable generation.”
We often talk of fragmentation within the smart buildings industry, but the divide created between smart cities, buildings, and grids is a much greater barrier to creating the smart and sustainable world that our planet needs. There are pure building, city, and grid applications, of course, but few that wouldn’t be improved by integration with urban networks. The funding, policy, standards, protocols, and software architectures of these three smart environments are almost completely separate, despite the inevitable goal being their integration. There are no cities without buildings, and there are no green cities without smart buildings, both must work together, and with the smart grid, if we are ever to meet our net-zero goals.
“Today, 82% of the potential means to reduce energy waste in buildings remains untapped. Clearly, cities are missing a major opportunity to make a meaningful difference to their energy usage and emissions. With no time left to waste as we must halve our CO2 emissions by 2030, we must seize the chance to make our buildings more energy efficient,” says Luis D’Acosta is EVP of Digital Energy at Schneider Electric, in an article for Tech Radar.
“Local authorities must adopt best practices throughout their own property portfolio, even developing smart city solutions of their own, and help educate the local business community about the environmental and financial benefits of controlling their energy usage. Local and national governments must not only set clear goals for the private sector, but also educate businesses on how technology can help speed them on their way to net-zero,” he continued. “If we’re to see net-zero buildings become standard, we need the public and private sectors to work together, fighting climate change.”