Picture a world of bright green cities – not just in terms of being eco-friendly, but bright green as in color! My research for the May Global Trends Briefing on Securing Resources (register here to receive it when it comes out) threw up an interesting article about the world’s first algae powered building in Germany. It’s an apartment complex with a bright green façade thanks to its covering of biofuel-producing algae, and will be the first building in the world to fully integrate algae into the building’s construction. While it’s an exciting – as well as aesthetically pleasing – development, it will no doubt take time to spread. However, the article made me think about how our next generation of cities will be different from the ones we know today.
Cities are magnets for people with hopes for a better and more prosperous life. Around the world urbanization is rapidly increasing: today half of humanity – some 3.5 billion people – lives in cities and by 2025 that number will increase to 60%. No question that the future presents huge challenges for city planners and local governments. It’s not just about building enough living space for the urbanizing crowd, but also about creating a functional infrastructure while reducing the environmental footprint of every single citizen. Fortunately numerous cities have already taken up the challenge of realizing the living spaces of the 21st century. A couple of years ago climate strategist Boyd Cohen, Ph.D., LEED AP, developed what may have been the first ever global ranking of smart cities. As I found, some of the cities on the list might surprise you!
The world’s 10 smartest cities
Smart cities are defined as cities that use information and communication technologies (ICT) to be more intelligent and efficient in the use of resources, resulting in cost and energy savings, improved service delivery and quality of life, and reduced environmental footprint – all supporting innovation and the low-carbon economy.
Why these cites? In Vienna , the city’s government has established bold smart-city targets and is tracking their progress to reach them, with programs including the Smart Energy Vision 2050, Roadmap 2020, and Action Plan 2012-2015. Toronto has created the initiative Smart Commute Toronto and has also begun using natural gas from landfills to power the city’s garbage trucks. Paris has well-established bike and electric car sharing programs. Berlin is testing out vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technologies hoping to create a virtual power plant from electric vehicles. Copenhagen has committed to carbon neutrality by 2025 and 40% of its citizens regularly commute via bicycle. Among other initiatives Hong Kong is experimenting with RFID technology in its airport, as well as throughout the agricultural supply chain. Barcelona was among the first in the world to introduce a solar thermal ordinance about a decade ago, and recently launched the LIVE EV project to promote the adoption of electric vehicles and charging infrastructure. The city also recently announced a major partnership to develop a living lab for smart-city innovation. (Source: Fast Company).
It might be fairly easy to make a city more bike friendly or install solar panels, but it can be much more difficult to transform an existing “brownfield” city with old infrastructure and housing into one as smart as a new city built from scratch. It may sound a little strange to build a city from scratch as for hundreds of years urban areas have evolved (often relatively slowly) around people, commerce and trade. However, the pace of urbanization in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has accelerated dramatically, driving the need for more and smarter living spaces. In heavy urbanizing area such as Asia (and Africa), “greenfield” smart cities are harnessing state-of-the-art technology. One example is the eco-city of Tianjin in China: destined to be home to some 350,000 residents, it offers the latest technologies for water conservation, renewable energy and intelligent transportation. Chinese government officials believe that by 2020, 90% of travel within the city will be made on foot, by bicycle or via public transportation, while residents will become accustomed to sorting their garbage into five different categories. Another smart city (also still under construction) and considered by technology experts to be the digital city of the future is Songdo in South Korea.
Asia may have the biggest need for new smart cities to deal with extreme urbanization, but it’s not alone in its quest for “Cities 3.0.” Europe too is joining the movement towards smart cities. Living PlanIT is building a city of the future in Portugal which will serve both as a living laboratory for partner companies to test ideas and as a showcase for how the company will collaborate with its partners and property developers to replicate its approach in other locations. Another addition in Europe is the “Artic Smart City” initiative in Oulu in northern Finland. The new Hiukkavaara district of the city will, when finished in 2035, be a model for sustainable, arctic building and living. Designed with its residents’ convenience in mind, focus areas of development include energy efficiency with smart grids, alternative and renewable forms of energy, ecological water systems, centralized waste management, functional public transportation and safe wintertime cycling.
However, making these cities as smart as they sound and look on paper or in a computer animation might prove to be a challenge. Why? Beyond teething problems with new technology, most importantly people do not always behave as planned. Intelligent technology might offer the opportunity, but fundamentally it is the people who are empowered by the technology that make a city smart. My point: It is not enough to build smart and sustainable cities. It is also critical to educate residents about energy efficiency, recycling, intelligent technology, healthy living and sustainable practices to achieve the full potential of our next generation of cities. Let’s hope to see more smart cities on the list in the future!