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Smart Cities: The future of urban living?

More than half the people in the world now live in cities, and the globe's urban population could reach 6.3 billion by 2050. How can urban areas cope with this double whammy to maximise space and efficiency – and without disrupting current infrastructures? By getting smart, that's how, though some of the globe's mega-cities are going about this in very different ways.

The exact definition of a smart city varies greatly depending on where in the world you are, but all smart city thinking and projects are a direct response to this rushing urbanisation – an almost tripling of urban areas by 2030 – that has already become a defining feature of the 21st century. Most of the world's wealth is produced in cities, meaning the evils of pollution, congestion and waste must be combatted. As well as being sustainable, a smart city likely means a more efficient infrastructure, including better road systems and public transport, but also smart-metered utilities like gas, electricity and broadband.

A lot of smart city work is the product of big thinking and big budgets, with specialist architects re-designing entire urban areas, or huge data collecting tech projects from the likes of IBM, Cisco and Siemens, but small-scale projects like shared bike schemes contribute to a smart city too. “We have to learn to live in greater density and with a greater economy of resources,” says Paul Katz, Global Managing Principal of architecture practice Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), which has worked on smart city projects in Tokyo, New York, Las Vegas, London, Singapore and Shanghai. “We have to live in 3D cities.”

The easiest way to build a 3D city is to start from scratch and, for now, the benchmarks in smart city development are 'clean slate' projects primarily in the Far East. Probably the most famous example of a smart city is an on going project in New Songdo, South Korea. The centrepiece of this US$35 billion project is centred on a fully wired-up Songdo International Business District built on 1,500 acres of reclaimed land along the Yellow Sea in Incheon, near Seoul.

In the distance is South Korea's Incheon Airport; no wonder New Songo has been dubbed an Asian 'aerotropolis'

This smart city has it all; a Cisco-powered TelePresence system for videoconferencing in all homes, offices, schools, hospitals, banks, and even on streets, a customised public transport system of buses, bikeways, electric-car rentals (there's even work on putting recharging pads in public car parks and private garages to recharge future electric cars), and water taxis that ply strategically placed canals. There's also a pneumatic waste collection system, something that rids the streets of dustbin lorries – and something that, sadly, you'll likely never see in a European city. When it's completed in 2017, New Songdo will house 65,000 permanent residents, with as many as 300,000 commuters expected each day.

Despite its environmental achievements (over a third of the city consists of landscaped parks), New Songdo has been dubbed an Asian 'aerotropolis', too. It's just a few miles from the country's main airport at Incheon, which is a 90-minute flight from Shanghai and Tokyo, and three hours from Hong Kong.

If its location is critical, Cisco's involvement in the micro-technology of homes and offices is just as crucial when it comes to creating a futuristic feel to New Songdo. The city currently has 7,000 residents, all of which already live with Cisco's U.Life a smart home system, which gives full control over lighting, heating, air-con and curtains via phones, PCs, tablets and touchscreen pads around the building.

Songdo International Business District is built on 1,500 acres of reclaimed land along the Yellow Sea in Incheon, near Seoul, South Korea.

Outside the home, New Songdo also contains some innovative traffic management. Its roads and pavements will soon have integrated sensors that not only dim street lights when nobody’s around, but also determine the frequency of traffic light operation around the city. This kind of reactive, dynamic treatment of traffic is done by collecting a lot of live data, but New Songdo isn't the only example.

A city-state of five million people at the foot of the Malay peninsula, the super-connected island city of Singapore has had an extensive, intelligent traffic micro-management plan called Junction Electronic Eyes (J-Eyes) imposed up on its drivers. A network of over 300 cameras at junctions throughout the island, J-Eyes monitors traffic loads to not only collate – and predict – the behaviour of drivers, but also to re-route traffic, and charge tolls according to how busy roads are. The system, which is controlled from a central HQ, offers smartphone apps to drivers, too, which even contain advice on where to park.

We can't all live in a smart city like New Songdo or Singapore, though. The existing infrastructures and centuries old layouts of global cities can't simply be swept aside in the name of progress; can you imagine the alleyways of Barcelona's barrio being widened, the Venetian canals being filled-in, or a grid-like road layout being imposed on central London just to make metropolitan travel quicker?

Building a smart city on a green or brown-field site is both the simplest and most unlikely scenario, and though there's much that can be done to streamline existing infrastructures, cities where democracy thrives will largely have to rely on ad hoc projects rather than huge projects paid for by authoritarian governments or their agencies.

Its F1 Grand Prix happens only one a year, but everyday Singapore's J-Eyes traffic monitoring system re-routes vehicles to optimise the road system.

Can a huge advance in urban mobility be achieved by anything other than an expensive city-wide project? “Urban mobility is a top priority for urban designers and planners,” says John Miles, Chairman of the UK Automotive Council’s Intelligent Mobility Working Group, and group director at Arup. “A top-down plan for delivering mobility, defined while the city is still on the drawing board, seems the best way of achieving this … but the few success stories relate to special cases like Singapore and Songdo City, where the span of authority is sufficiently powerful to mandate the adoption of intelligent systems, or the planning process has started from a green-field site.”

Miles thinks that the saviour for UK roads could well be imposed not by government, but by each individual driver's newfound mobile computing power. Most new cars now have embedded web connectivity, and almost all drivers in all cars have smartphones; cue 'connected congestion' and a future where cars will connect with those around them, where little black boxes in the boot exchange telematics data with remote systems. “Drivers will participate in an environment of information exchange and automatic control for the benefit of all,” says Miles. “Our cities will be retro-fitted with intelligent mobility capabilities without any need for arguments about systems, standards, and enforcement.” Not like Singapore at all, then.

So liberal democracies could use the relative private wealth of its drivers to make up for the inability of their democratic governments to either fund, impose or operate centralised smart city systems. But, in cities in developing areas of the world, excessive congestion is a more recent, more pressing and – in many cases – totally debilitating problem that can't be left to drivers to solve.

The stakes are high. A global study of 66 cities by management consultancy Arthur D. Little stated that many cities’ mobility systems are “standing on a burning platform”. The report found that 64 per cent of all travel kilometres made are urban, and travel within urban areas could triple by 2050 – when the average time an urban dweller spends in traffic jams could 106 hours per year, three times more than today. Worse, urban travel will take 17.3 per cent of the planet’s bio-capacities, which is five times more than in 1990.

However, that nightmare future scenario of badly stressed-out citizens in horribly congested cities has already happened. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is set to be an icon of the two thousand-teens, but tourist’s daydreams of samba and beach life aren’t what local drivers see. Host to both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, the number of cars within the metropolitan area of 12 million people has increased by 40 per cent in the last ten years, and Rio sits in almost total gridlock at rush-hour. It’s also a city regularly ravaged by heavy rain and flooding, though getting emergency vehicles through the traffic isn't easy. Time, then, for a ‘smart’ makeover.

In preparation for an influx of more people – and even more traffic – Rio’s ageing infrastructure has been given an organisational overhaul. This time it’s IBM that has provided the tech, with one centralised command centre coordinating information from more than 20 city departments. By using sensors and video feeds from around the city to produce real-time maps on big screens in front of crisis managers, Rio has increased its response time to emergencies by 30 per cent. For drivers, that IBM-built nerve centre has a profile on Facebook and Twitter to provide frequent updates on weather and traffic, including recommended alternative routes around Rio during festivals and on football match-days.

Rio's Centro de Operações is helping the city cope with a 40 per cent increase in the number of cars in just 10 years.

In Rio’s case being a ‘smart’ city is about efficiency and safety, but at its core the revolution in city planning is about clogged-up cities becoming competitive.

So who's the smartest? The Arthur D. Little report found a major discrepancy in urban mobilty; Tehran and Atlanta faired poorest of all, and even Athens, Rome and Manila and couldn't reach 60 per cent efficiency, Boston was the only US city that could get anywhere near the leaders – London, Amsterdam and top-ranked smart city, Hong Kong, which all hovered around 80 per cent.

Hong Kong could be a lesson in how to help fund, as well as design, huge retrofit smart city projects. It's perhaps the ultimate expression of a high-rise city – space constraints mean that developers often have no option but to build upwards – but Hong Kong benefits from that in terms of its smart facilities. “It’s easier to be smart when you have high rise cities,” says Katz. “It’s easier to invest in transport, get more connectivity and services close at hand, and easier to upgrade systems,” he says, though insisting that clusters of low rise are needed for variety.

KPF was responsible for building the International Commerce Centre (ICC), the tallest building in Hong Kong and home to the highest hotel in the world, high-powered finance, and luxury residences. It's these seemingly corporate, though mixed-use developments that could help add a smart dimension to the world's fastest-growing metropolises. “The ICC needs to be viewed as part of a bigger development picture,” says Katz. It helped pay for the new airport and new high-speed rail-link, but the bigger picture is a 15-minute train journey from Kowloon to Shenzen, and a further 20 minutes to Guangzhou, which will connect the Pearl River Delta megalopolis of 200 million people.” Norman Foster is also proposing a waterfront ‘City Park’ nearby - further proof that for both architects and developers, the smart money is currently in Asia.

Hong Kong has found that high-rise can have its advantages in becoming a smarter, more connected city.

Hong Kong has got the incentives right; the 'Octopus' contactless smartcard – the model for London's Oyster card – is carried by 95 per cent of the population, while 92 per cent of urban journeys are via public transport, walking or cycling. Virtually no one uses a car.

But does being smart mean a happy city? “Are people in slums happy? They're probably content because that's where they grew up,” ventures Katz, who thinks that social problems in our modern cities are a result of the speed at which they've grown. “For instance, Hong Kong has become wealthy quite quickly and transformed itself within 20-30 years, so there are social problems because what made people content in the past is no longer sufficient,” says Katz. “The influx of refugees and the density of construction in Hong Kong was a result of need, not choice.”

It's a reminder that however ambitious the proponents of the smart city are, the concept means nothing without context; designing smart cities is as much about reacting to local culture, topography and even history. Creating smart cities is going to take a lot of smart people.

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Rio Centro de Operações image © Raphael Lima.

Hong Kong image © Jamie Carter