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The Intelligence Premium – Smart Models for Smarter Living in the Smartest Cities

By Steve Wells, Rohit Talwar, and Alexandra Whittington
How might exponential technologies help us design and deliver an enhanced city living experience?
Unlocking the Intelligence in Our Cities

Across the disciplines of architecture, engineering, and construction, three forces are coming together to drive the next waves of opportunity in the built environment—namely people, intelligent systems, and smart city concepts. At the core of the opportunity is the notion of creating truly livable environments for humanity, designed using intelligent tools, and delivered and managed through a range of technologies that will help us bring smart city visions to fruition.

Livable means creating cities that are human, vibrant, forward looking, functional, smart, and sustainable. The core tools underpinning their design will be those that can amplify human intelligence on a massive scale to interpret, predict, and create solutions based on the immense volumes of information about life in the city that is being gathered daily. Holding it all together will be highly interconnected smart environments where people, governments, and businesses can live and work together effectively using emerging and exponentially improving technologies such as big data, the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, hyperconnectivity, artificial intelligence (AI), robots, drones, autonomous green vehicles, 3D/4D printing, smart materials, and renewable energy.

Aligning Stakeholder Goals and Visions

While the potential of smart cities is exciting, in practice it can be very hard to develop a clear, inclusive and universally supported future vision and strategy which delivers on everyone’s needs and leaves no one behind. Part of the challenge is that goals are not always aligned across the stakeholders and, at the same time, every sector is being disrupted and all our assumptions are being challenged. Hence, few can see what the needs of their business, locality, or family might be in the next 12-24 months let alone the five- to fifteen-year period over which a true smart city infrastructure might be rolled out. However, that’s exactly what we must do. City governments have to create inclusive processes that firstly inform citizens about the forces shaping the future and the possibilities and challenges on the horizon, and then engage the population in an open dialogue about the kind of future we want to create.

This is where architects, engineers, and construction specialists have an important role to play. They can help us explore and model what a livable city could mean to its people and contribute to the articulation of a clear vision. They can also offer insights on the ways in which the physical, digital, and human elements of a smart city infrastructure might be delivered and managed.

Technologies Transforming the Design and Implementation of Tomorrow’s Cities

Increasingly, the tools available to architects, engineers, and construction specialists are becoming more sophisticated and intelligent. From visioning to construction planning, increasing use is being made of the analytic and predictive capabilities of AI. At the same time, the digital drawing board is coming to life through virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) to create immersive experiences throughout the design, planning, and construction process. Hence, the impacts of a development on the surrounding ecosystem can be modeled to much greater detail than ever before. For example, the implications of a range of events from day-to-day emergencies to natural disasters and security incidents can be simulated to help ensure the robustness and workability of designs and to provide greater confidence in the rigor of risk assessments.

Over time, the capability of the technologies will continue to amaze and astound. For example, the combination of 3D printed structures and rapid building construction may lead to a more agile form of urban planning than can exist today. The spread and embedding of sensors and detectors could also provide vital insights into city life—indicating emerging needs for different parts of the city—from waste collection to traffic control. This idea of treating the physical infrastructure more like software with built-to-suit-and-adapt homes, offices, and public spaces might create cities which respond in almost real time to a range of behavioral fluctuations. Hence, smart cities might evolve in much the same way as businesses add and withdraw software applications, functionality, storage capacity, processing power, and communications bandwidth to suit demand fluctuations. As a practical advantage, this might mean that big events like the Olympic Games could be accommodated rapidly with a largely temporary pop-up infrastructure that then disappears a few weeks after the event, rather than leave a permanent footprint and the costly challenge of ensuring the continued usage and upkeep of facilities.

Another example of these technology tools on steroids is the emerging range of IoT-based home automation and protection products. For example, USA start-up Vayyar is experimenting with the use of 3D imaging to see through walls—meaning no structure would be impenetrable. This omniscient form of surveillance could put building designers and architects in a curious position of having to decide on the aesthetics and purpose of non-load-bearing walls that are technically invisible.

This emerging wave of intelligent cities is typically being designed to enable smart management decisions—capturing and interpreting massive amounts of data about the population and its behavioral patterns, such as water use and traffic flows. This information gathering via different forms of surveillance results in what is called big data. Within five years, the deployment of ever-smarter AI and advanced analytics will mean this function could be completely automated. The data can be collated from a constantly evolving and expanding IoT of devices as described earlier—all literally feeding giant data stores held in the cloud.

A leading example of a smart city in operation is Singapore, with its constantly evolving “city brain.” This backbone of technologies helps control pollution, monitor traffic, allocate parking, communicate with citizens, and even issue traffic fines. Singapore’s “brain” is also attempting to modify human behavior; for example, one system rewards drivers for using recommended mapped routes, and punishes those who do not. Ultimately, Singapore’s planners hope to discourage driving, and steer commuters toward greater use of public transportation. The city is planning for a physical environment of 100 million “smart objects” including smart traffic lights, lampposts, sensors, and cameras on its roadways, which will be used to monitor and enforce laws.

Integrating the Internet of Things

In order for everything from air conditioning to parking meters to function in a smart city, an array of high-tech data gathering gadgetry must be hooked up to the IoT—including cameras, microphones, voice recognition devices, and a variety of sensors and gauges. Vendors and planners are already beginning to explore and model the possibilities presented by this trend toward total data capture. For example, a case study from India suggests that light poles along the highways can offer both smart city and connectivity solutions. In addition to helping monitor road conditions, the light poles could be fitted as high-speed data connections.

Data is a critical element of the smart city/smart road future. However, because this option will further expand the relationship between internet service providers, surveillance, and private business including advertisers, there are several issues around privacy to be considered. Naturally, most would want the information from smart cities and roads to be used to keep citizens moving, healthy, and protected. However, should companies then be allowed to target users with adverts based on this information when it was collected for other purposes?

Smart Roads and Smart Mobility Management

Within and between the smart cities of the future, smart roads in particular are where planners can put into effect many of the ultra-efficient mechanisms that best characterize their vision. In general, the concepts around smart cities, smart roads, and smart infrastructure are becoming less hype-laden and more strategic and sustainable by the day. As cities grow in size and importance to the global economy, it will be increasingly important that they adopt the most innovative and forward-thinking design and sustainability ideas—particularly around road infrastructure. As a smart future unfolds, three important new technologies—big data, the IoT, and renewable energy—are being used in parallel to transform the day-to-day.

South Korea, for example, is planning an entire network of smart roads by 2020. This will include battery-charging stations for electric vehicles (EVs) as well as infrastructure to handle autonomous vehicles. The introduction of driverless vehicles requires roads to be transformed into information superhighways as vehicles will need to communicate with each other and the city infrastructure. Mapping, traffic signals, and safety regulations, for instance, are all parts of the physical and digital infrastructure that will have to become highly coordinated for autonomous vehicles to function safely and effectively.

All this data will enable decisions that make efficient use of space, fuel, water, electricity, and waste products, with an emphasis on sustainability. For example, anticipating major traffic jams to provide alternative routes—reducing journey time, fuel consumption, and the impact on the city infrastructure.

The smart city movement now afoot has the potential to transform the organization of people and physical objects in a way that transcends urban development as we know it. The shift to smart infrastructure is not simply fashionable or aspirational; in many ways, it appears to be a critical enabler of the future sustainability of cities. It can be argued that the future of human life on the planet rests on a smooth transition to cities that are more efficient, less wasteful, and more conscious of the impacts of the individual upon the greater good. This may include a range of new negotiations along the boundaries of individual freedom and privacy; for example, replacing human drivers with self-driving cars in the hope of preventing death and injury in auto accidents, increasing traffic efficiency, and reducing environmental impacts. Similarly, to reach municipal conservation goals, we might have to agree to invasive monitoring of waste generation, energy, and water use in the home. These are the kinds of tensions that future planners will need to wrestle with on a continuous basis.

The challenge and opportunity for leaders, planners, architects, engineers, and construction specialists are clear. The smart city shouldn’t be an apocalyptic future where citizens are stripped of their free will, and we cannot be seduced by the technoprogressive view that the pursuit of smart roads will lead to utopia. However, it is now possible to create and deliver a city vision with citizens at its heart—one that is enabled by forward-thinking infrastructure planning coupled with judicious use of enabling technologies. A well-thought-through vision, enabled by a robust and well-executed smart city model, could provide a foundation stone for the next stage of our development, where science and technology are genuinely harnessed in service of creating a better place for current and future city residents.


  • How can we develop the required forward-thinking managerial and leadership capabilities within cities and among those who design and build them?
  • How can we ensure that those involved keep the citizen at the center of strategies and projects delivering our smart city visions?
  • Which concepts and technologies are most central to bringing about the smart vision for your city?

This article is excerpted from A Very Human Future – Enriching Humanity in a Digitized World. You can order the book here.

A version of this chapter was originally published in AEC Magazine.

Image: by PIRO4D



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