I write this in between gazing out of the window at the beautiful north east coast of England as my train wends its way back to London from Scotland, and Lau’s gentle but complex folk-rock fills my headphones.
I’ve been up north to give the Arup lecture at the Edinburgh Science Festival, presenting jointly with my colleague and friend Volker Buscher. Hosted in the stunning National Museum of Scotland (the photo above shows Jason Hackenwerth’s double helix spiral balloon sculpture, Pices, being winched to the ceiling of the Grand Gallery) our lecture posed the question ‘What makes a city smart?’.
We tried to argue that while information technology supports ever more functions of daily life, we shouldn’t let form determine content. The aim of a smart city should not be to maximise the use of technology, but to create better, more sustainable places to live.
In the context of existential ecological threats, of which climate change is simply the best known and most immediate, that means cities need to attain the twin goals of enabling people to improve their quality of life while restraining resource consumption within ecological limits. This is not a pure pipe-dream and some cities, like Portland in Oregon and Copenhagen, are already getting there, as an excellent study by the Stern team at the LSE shows, but for most it is a major challenge.
If we assume that ‘green growth’* is the foundation of a smart city, then the building blocks include a compact, dense spatial design and higher mobility based on public transport, cycling and walking. Copenhagen has demonstrated how 35% of trips to work by bike translates into an economic premium, with its 8% of GDP annual transport costs comparing very favourably with the 14% of its GDP Houston has to shell out to maintain its sprawling, suburban, car-based city model.
Of course, cycling can only be part of the mix and successful cities also need mass transit and new ways of making car travel work without congestion and pollution. Electric vehicles seem to be the way forward and Milton Keynes’ trial of induction charged buses – a technology that uses pads in the road that work a bit like an electric toothbrush charger to top-up the batteries at bus stops – could be a game changer. Most importantly it reduces the battery requirement to one fifth that of average electric large vehicles and so it is hoped will make electric buses cheaper, not more expensive, than the conventional diesel models they replace. The Milton Keynes trial goes live in the summer.
We showed how getting urban transport right can enable a paradigm shift in the built environment. With bikes and electric buses replacing the petrol and diesel car, buildings no longer need thick, expensive facades to block out the air and noise pollution. That means more opportunity for green and public space, but it might also create the opportunity for buildings serving functions beyond places of work and leisure, as a wonderful new experimental project unveiled in Hamburg this week demonstrates.
The Hamburg Smart Material House is my personal favourite of the current crop of Arup innovative projects and starts to demonstrate how the Jeremy Rifkin vision of buildings as power plants can be realised. The extraordinary thing about building’s beautiful bio-responsive facade is that it will cultivate microalgae as an energy source, taking advantage of the simple unicellular structure of the microalgae to photosynthesise at ten times the rate of the average plant and so produce biomass rapidly, creating a source of renewable energy.
The microalgae circulate through the panels with water and as the part of the solar spectrum that isn’t absorbed by the algae warms the water, this solar thermal heat is removed to be used in the building or stored for when it’s needed.
If solar energy is the algae’s dietary main course, then for dessert it will gobble up carbon sequestered from combustion processes in the neighbourhood, forming a perfect, environment cleaning closed loop. And it will look stunning, with the facade changing colour throughout the day as the algae reacts to sunlight.
I love it, not least as it is a great example of how to work with eco-systems rather than exploiting them and of how to bring nature back into the city.
That led us on to the stunning example of Seoul, where an extraordinarily brave mayor ripped out the four lane highway that ran through the centre of the city, revealing the stream that had been buried beneath and opening it up as a space for tourists and city workers alike to escape the concrete jungle. The Mayor’s motivation was primarily to give his Seoul a heart and so enhance its status as a world city (and he was rewarded by later being elected as South Korea’s President), but for me it is a great example of how public space creates a sense of place.
The resurrection of the Cheonggyecheon stream also had environmental benefits, not least reducing the ambient temperature of the humid central business district, and we considered the broader benefits of green space in making cities more resilient to flood and heat risk – using eco-system service to protect human settlements to reduce the vast expense of new man-made infrastructure.
All of the above are examples of ‘smart’ city projects in my book, but there is no doubt that information technology provides an opportunity to significantly enhance such efforts. The task of reducing carbon emissions to safer levels alone is so extraordinarily difficult that successful future cities will need to know with much greater accuracy where their carbon problem resides, and be able to measure at a very granular level what is the impact of measures to reduce it so that we relentlessly channel limited resources into the most efficient mitigation actions.
This is where digital technology comes into its own, presenting the opportunity of integrated cities that run on data. Volker explained how cities like San Francisco and Stockholm have genuinely adopted the smart city approach, with both eye-catching individual projects such as SFPark and making information communication technology (ICT) a central part of their strategy for city development.
The latter point is crucial – smart cities won’t grow organically, at least not in the timescale we need to tackle climate change, and so there needs to be leadership and a plan. But as San Francisco’s inspiring former Mayor, Gavin Newsom, sets out in his book ‘Citizenville‘, that doesn’t mean a dystopian age of top-down government imposing sustainability on its populace. One of the great opportunities offered by smart -tech is the ability to crowd source, to listen to citizens in decision making and to devolve power.
The vision of smart cities we presented in Edinburgh, therefore, was unashamedly positive. Moreover, we tried to show that there are enough examples of good practice already out there to suggest there is a real possibility that future cities can meet the twin challenges of increasing quality of life while constraining natural resource consumption within ecological limits. That is what will make a ‘smart city’.
This, at least, was the conclusion at the first performance of the Buscher/Watts double act – or ‘Two Bald Consultants With Beards’, as Volker put it. Most of the audience was still awake at the end and even the Arupians in the front rows refrained from heckling, so there may be opportunity for further outings. The one concern for me, however, was that my German colleague confirmed yet again that he confounds national stereotypes by being the one with jokes. I am thus left playing the straight man: Ernie Wise to his Eric Morecambe**. Hmmm.
* I use the term ‘green growth’ to mean an increase in standards of living and quality of life, rather than simply a rise in the conventional economic measure of economic growth, ie Gross Domestic Product. In my view GDP is a limited metric of progress given its failure to distinguish between progressive and destructive economic activity, and because it omits any method of valuing the maintenance of eco-system services.
** Morecombe and Wise were an extraordinarily successful and very British comedy duo, who hit their peak in the 1970s and are best known for their rendition of ‘Bring Me Sunshine’.