Wanted: engineering skill to smarten up cities

Future urban areas will have to be built and operated sustainably – and, alone, technology will not ensure a connected environment, says Spie’s Rob Barling

The success of smart cities is crucial to the sustainable future of our planet and to combating other major social and economic issues, such as what we do with our waste and the future of sustainable transport. It will also help local authorities get more value out of their budgets.

Cities empower us; they bring people together to work, socialise, learn and live alongside one another. That is why it is in our best interests to support the development of cities to become smarter, more efficient and more sustainable.

Across the world, new projects are getting closer to realising the true promise of what a smart city is and how it can affect citizens’ lives for the better. These projects are aimed at much more than connectivity for all, or freer access to information on public services, such as transport. They are digitally transforming public services, altering completely the way in which the built environment is constructed and managed, and the way in which we interact and live within these environments.

An example of such a vision is the proposed Toronto Quayside development, being designed by Alphabet-owned Sidewalk Labs. Here, the smart city concept will be expanded to include automated waste disposal and recycling, an energy efficient thermal grid for heating and cooling, and autonomous vehicles for transport.

There is a dire need for the expertise of those in the built environment to be engaged if smart cities are to fulfil their potential

The smart city as a holistic vision is about much more than technology, however. It is about improving the roads and transport we use, adapting our public spaces to be more liveable and contemporary, and understanding how to integrate technology within these spaces, instead of simply laying it on top. While large tech companies, such as Alphabet, are grabbing the smart city headlines, there is a dire need for the expertise of those in the built environment to be engaged if such cities are to fulfil their potential. To respond to this need, the industry must change. There has to be a new breed of organisation – one that possesses the highest levels of engineering expertise and combines this with an understanding of how to implement the latest technological developments.

The Smart London Plan, announced recently by mayor Sadiq Khan at London Tech Week, offers those in the built environment a fantastic opportunity. Recognising the need for collaboration between technology and engineering, the plan calls for a new generation of smart infrastructure through major combined procurements. These projects give operators within the built environment a chance to take the lead, not only on connected technologies and big data analysis, but also on the fundamental requirements, such as:

  • Better management of transport networks
  • Safety and security systems
  • Telecom infrastructure
  • Car charging and e-mobility
  • Smart lighting solutions.

Building and adapting our cities to make them smarter will require engineering skill. Solutions must be designed and built to support industries and communities, successfully transforming urban environments into sustainable and connected places that are sympathetic to the human needs of today and tomorrow, in a way that the technology sector has yet to grasp demonstrably.

There are those in our industry who are beginning to make the changes necessary to adapt to the future requirements of the built environment, and such advances are to be welcomed. With the progress of technology today, we can capture a brilliant scope of data about cities and their performance – and the amount of data at our fingertips allows us to establish more objective performance information for improved decisions. This has thrust the idea of ‘big data’ to the fore in the built environment space, with the aim of using the information to build and operate more sustainably.

The marriage of engineering and technology is not happening quickly enough, however – especially when you consider how critical smart cities will be to our continued sustainable existence and the future of our planet.

Those who can adapt to these new working practices – and who are able to combine technological knowledge with engineering design and build expertise – will be well placed to take a lead in constructing the smart urban environments future generations will require. As an industry, we must recognise the responsibility we have for working towards this goal – technology and algorithms alone will not be enough to solve the many challenges our cities face.

■ ROB BARLING is strategy and development director at Spie UK