Emerging cities and districts won’t be hampered by the need to redevelop legacy buildings and infrastructure

Sasha Krstanović reflects on how the challenges of urbanisation will be met in the next four decades

The world’s population is set to rise from 7.3 billion to 9.7 billion by 2050, according to UN projections, with Africa accounting for more than half of the growth. An additional 2.5 billion people are expected to live in towns and cities by the middle of the century, and 90% of this urban increase will be in Africa and Asia.

The figures are stark and it can be worrying to contemplate the implications. Countries where sanitation, water treatment, waste disposal, pollution controls, energy efficiency and recycling are now neglected will experience huge rates of expansion, with some poised for a doubling of their populations over the next 35 years. Many seem ill-equipped to cope.

There is, however, equal potential for optimism. Cities and city regions can be planned, controlled and influenced much more effectively than dispersed settlements, particularly when they are governed by strong, city-wide authorities. In some European cities, for example, car use is in decline as a result of improved alternatives and initiatives such as congestion charging.

By extension, one can imagine city authorities using their power to transform conurbations into models of urban efficiency. Over the next 40 years, they could drive the installation of infrastructure that creates a more flexible backdrop for commerce – from transport networks and information super-highways to energy distribution hubs.

Urbanisation in the developing world also offers the potential for ‘leapfrogging’ – that is, skipping stages already supplanted in the developed world. For example, some countries missed out landline phone networks and moved straight to the mobile internet. In a similar fashion, emerging cities and districts won’t be hampered by the need to redevelop legacy buildings and infrastructure, instead benefiting from more modern thinking in urban planning and building engineering.

In the western world, we face the problem of how to layer smart environments over existing 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century infrastructure. As building engineers, we will have to focus on how to upgrade the performance of existing stock with minimum intervention, and how to plan future interventions in an optimal way.

What is unarguable is that tomorrow’s cities must manage available resources more effectively. This will take many forms, including the harvesting of solar energy from every suitable surface and the efficient organisation of spaces within buildings.

This philosophy can be extrapolated to neighbourhoods and cities, where there is huge scope for improving efficiency if a city and its suburbs can be managed as a whole, using smart networks. To take one example, energy harvested from solar panels on a domestic roof peaks at midday, whereas home energy use peaks in the evening. With a smarter grid, this mismatch becomes an asset; excess energy could be channelled to businesses, where demand is highest during the day, or stored in batteries that allow generated energy to be held locally until it’s needed. 

Improved transport and data infrastructure will encourage more agile working. Businesses stand to benefit if they can empower a more widely distributed workforce to collaborate effectively and focus on what they do best. However, it is vital to take a broad, system-wide view. Increased home working may reduce pressure on an overstretched transport network, but it could have negative consequences for efficiency if homes need to be heated for more of the day. Flexible arrangements may encourage staff to live further afield, increasing transport demands on the days they commute.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, data collection and the Internet of Things will loom large over the coming decades, and provide the tools for creating smarter buildings. These trends are fuelling the emergence of autonomous vehicles and other concepts that once seemed pure science fiction and are now becoming mainstream.

Technology will learn more about human behaviour than we may understand ourselves, helping us to design and produce incredibly efficient systems. As individuals, we will need to learn to rely on each other and work more collaboratively, as teams become increasingly global and the learning process is accelerated.

Today, it is hard to believe what was once accomplished with little more than pens, pencils and fax machines. Tomorrow’s tools will make CAD systems seem equally antiquated. Our ability to conceive and deliver in the built environment will be magnified immeasurably. Most importantly, as the world’s population grows, we will learn to use our resources more efficiently. That may be the hardest change to deliver, but it will also be the most effective one.

Aleksandra Sasha Krstanović FCIBSE is a director, building engineering, at Aecom