54% of our planet’s inhabitants currently live in towns or cities and by 2030, two thirds of the world’s population will be urban dwellers. This rising demography is proving a real test of skills for the planners and administrators working on the cities of the future, particularly because cities already consume two-thirds of the world’s energy and are responsible for over 70% of CO2 emissions.
Faced with these challenges, we need to transform the way cities are run. And this is where the concept of the smart city takes the driving role. As Jesse Berst, founder and Chairman of the Smart Cities Council, puts it: “We can’t accommodate this urban influx without getting smarter. In other words, smart cities are inevitable. It’s not just a trend. It’s a race.”
Technology – why smart cities are smart
Behind the mega-hyped concept of the smart city lies the potential offered by new digital technologies to run cities more effectively. Urban data (e.g. about passenger flows, energy, waste etc.) can be collected and analysed and then used to automate various services and enhance public decision-making. This can improve both urban management and residents’ lifestyle.
In his book on the topic (1), Antoine Picon, a researcher at the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in France, said that smart cities “are based above all on the intensive use of information and communication technologies. They involve developing electronic content and hybridising this content with the physical world, with this hybridisation often referred to as “augmented reality”. In order to build a smart city several key challenges have to be met, including allying the quality of urban life with sustainable development by carefully managing resources and technical infrastructure.”
These new challenges place a large degree of responsibility on the engineers in charge of designing and integrating the systems and processes for switching to smart and sustainable city living. The systems that engineers put in place must futureproof safe and fluid mobility, optimal lighting and efficient management of buildings’ energy needs.
In Mumbai in India, for example, cameras installed on the city streets feed road traffic data to a central system which analyses it and can then make real time adjustments to some 300 traffic lights. Thanks to this innovation, congestion in the megalopolis has been reduced by 12% without having to alter access to the city or add any more roads.
What’s more, in order to manage the water, gas and electricity networks of towns and cities, smart grids are much in demand today. For engineers, the main task will be to correctly size the systems in order to create virtuous loops which will therefore be cost-effective and sustainable. In terms of energy, interconnections set up between the buildings, car parks and production facilities within the same district can be used to better manage intermittent sources of energy production, like solar power for example. The energy produced during the day on the roofs of a residential building can be used to power an office building, an electric vehicle recharging point or a local school.
“These smart grids help create a better match between production and consumption and help renewable energy sources to be integrated into the overall network”, writes architect Joseph Vincent (2).
The first district smart grid to come into operation in France is IssyGrid, introduced by the municipality of Issy-les-Moulineaux. To create this “open-data” network, the municipality and Bouygues Immobilier – which led the project –drew on the technical skills of players such as Alstom, Bouygues Énergies et Services, ERDF and Schneider Electric.
However, the smart city concept has so overtaken the reflection process for urban designs and projects that it has often not been questioned. In their bid to deliver technical and technological solutions, the people in charge of shaping the cities of the future sometimes forget the city dwellers themselves and what living in a city means to them.
Masdar and Songdo – soulless show windows
Take Songdo in South Korea or Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, which have become the undisputed show windows of the Smart City. Created from scratch, these two cities were designed as the model for future cities, with tens of billions of dollars poured into their technology. And yet they have not managed to attract residents.
“The architecture and materials used in the construction of Masdar’s buildings enable energy and water consumption to be reduced by up to 50% compared with a traditionally-constructed building in the centre of Abu Dhabi”, states Chris Wan, Masdar City’s design manager.
This is certainly a great achievement, but it’s not enough. After ten years of building works, Masdar – located 30 km away from Abu Dhabi – is still not finished. For a city that was supposed to house 50,000 residents and over 1,000 businesses from 2016, it currently only has several hundred inhabitants and a few dozen buildings. Its main “failure” has been its outsized ambition.
Further east, Songdo in South Korea has not been any more successful. Although this city south of Seoul is already up and running (it should be fully completed by 2022) people still seem to be unsure about whether they want to actually live and work in such an automated environment. On paper everything works. More than 40% of Songdo’s surface area is dedicated to green spaces and it even has an underground rainwater recovery system designed by Cisco that reduces water consumption by 40%. In addition, “On each floor of the city’s buildings, users deposit their waste in a garbage disposal system that uses compressed air to carry it to a centralised waste processing facility, which then sorts the waste and redistributes it for recycling or incineration”, describes Joseph Vincent. “The electricity network is based on the same principle. All of the roofs are covered in solar panels, which are connected up to a smart grid. Another network – optical fibre this time – runs beneath the whole city so that it can be fully connected and have the best speeds”, he continues.
In reality, the whole city is governed by a computerised system. Sensors placed throughout the city are used to manage traffic flows and even to control illegal parking thanks to cameras and registration plate readers. Songdo’s central system can also detect faults in equipment so that city agents can take prompt action to repair them. Its connectivity also allows air quality to be verified, street lights to be switched off in deserted streets to save energy or brightened in busy ones, and even home services to be offered. And on top of all this, a video-conference system has been installed in all of the city’s buildings and homes which “people can use to do their shopping, take classes, speak to their bank manager and even see the doctor. Combined with social media, this system significantly redefines urban interactions by virtualising them”, says Joseph Vincent.
And yet the ultra-optimised management and cutting-edge services that Songdo has to offer are not enough to attract residents and businesses. Currently it only has 120,000 inhabitants whereas its creators were targeting 250,000. The majority of the people who live there are very well-off, drawn by the international schools that have set up in the city. As a result, there is no social diversity, the streets are empty and there is a sense of unease about the “Big brother-like” devices that can spy on what everyone’s doing.
“Songdo, and the smart city concept it spearheads, is therefore an excellent model of an urban machine – a system capable of controlling a multitude of ramifications and dealing with the complex events these produce. But this coldly synchronised machine disregards the dissonances that make an urban space a place of emulation and development”, notes Joseph Vincent.
Residents – the first link in the smart city chain
Although the smart cities of the future will need technological innovations and engineers’ expertise to design and operate them, those engineers will have to work in conjunction with architects and the inhabitants themselves so as not to create soulless capsules.
Numerous observers have pointed out that cities throughout the world have been built in strata and that constructing a city in one go does not give time for any experimentation. Technologies are obviously there to support urban development and sustainability, but they must be used for serving city dwellers rather than controlling them. And above all, they must contribute to differentiating cities and enabling convivial living, because without this the future would merely be a homogenous and individualist whole.
Many cities across the globe are currently experimenting with the smart city concept by district or on a test basis, the idea being to learn and observe before rolling out on a wider scale those systems that have proved useful.
This is the case in Issy-les-Moulineaux in France, referred to above, and also in Marseille, where the prospective work carried out by Eiffage in its Phosphore laboratory led to the launch of Smartseille. Currently under construction on the site of a former gas plant flanking the coast, this future eco-district has a two-pronged objective – to be both low cost and easy tech – so that it is accessible to everyone. The project is focussed on mixed usage and includes the construction of a building with facilities for all generations, a car-pooling system, shared car parks used by office workers during the day and residents at night and shared vegetable gardens as well as tablet phones for residents to manage their homes or contact a caretaker. In short, facilities thought up to make life easier but also to bring people together and encourage sharing. “There needs to be the right technology for the right use” summarizes Valérie David, head of sustainable and cross-functional development at the Eiffage group.
At the same time, in Chicago, members of the Urban Center for Computation and Data (UCCD) have designed a project called The Array of Things. In 2017, they installed 500 sensor boxes across the city, each containing a dozen sensors measuring temperature, humidity, noise levels and pedestrian and vehicle traffic. This data is then made available to the city’s dwellers and can be used in open-source mode. “A free culture approach in contrast to the approach adopted by Cisco for Songdo” says Joseph Vincent.
Interviewed by The Conversation – a media outlet that uses content sourced from the academic and research community – urban planner, Brigitte Métra, said that “an essential aspect of the smart city needs to be addressed: has the city been developed for people and can it be put to the service of people, or are people being used to promote sales, marketing and technology?(…) We often think about “living well” whereas we should be thinking more of “being well”, she warns. Well-being is perhaps an overused term, but we can think of it along the lines of a light city that does not impose itself on an individual but instead is lightweight, luminous, fluid, and respectful. A space that people can occupy without feeling oppressed.”
(1) Antoine Picon, Smartcities – théorie et critique d’un idéal auto-réalisateur, Paris, Editons B2, 2015.
(2) Joseph Vincent, Songdo, Corée du Sud: la smart city aura-t-elle besoin des architectes pour avoir une âme ?. Architecture, aménagement de l’espace. 2017.