Engineering Smart Cities Should Focus on Technologies that Make Cities Better Places to LiveFebruary 19, 2020 by Luke James
When we think “smart city”, many picture a vast landscape governed by technology in every way, shape, and form. Swathes of tech do not necessarily make cities “smart” nor an objectively better place to live, however.
Today, national governments, businesses, and institutions are using tech to gather data, share information, connect products, improve urban infrastructure, and enhance communications. In other words — to create what we like to call “smart cities”.
At the core of these efforts is one goal: To make city life more efficient, productive and viable for a rapidly growing population.
Over the next three decades, it is estimated that 68% of the world’s population will be living in cities. In this time, the cities that we know today will have massively changed and adapted to accommodate this – they must – and we should ensure that they change in a way that improves the quality of life for people living in them.
Instead of simply packing cities full of technology for the sake of it, however, the focus should be on questions such as, “What makes big city life beneficial?” and using the answers as a basis to engineer technologies and solutions that make cities not just “smart” but smarter and, by extension, a better place to live.
One of Today’s Greatest Engineering Challenges
Cities are designed to be changed by evolving human needs. However, these changes can be unpredictable and cannot meet every challenge that their populations experience every day. Although there are lots of factors at play that influence the issues we choose to prioritize with technological and non-technological solutions, the ones that stand out the most are health and the overall environment.
As more people move into cities and fill them up, we are becoming more aware of the elements beyond our control that impact our wellbeing, air pollution being a big one. The difficulties of remaining healthy in more densely populated cities are being recognized worldwide.
Therefore, one of today’s greatest engineering challenges is such: how do we build smart cities of the future that is not only governed by tech but also benefit from it and the people that live in them?
The potential problems for citizens are cities that prioritize speed over wellbeing and quality of life; these can be confounding. To facilitate wellbeing and productivity, cities need to be “liveable” and therefore the quality of life in smart cities should not be thought of as something proportional to speed and efficiency alone.
There are many more factors at play. To that extent, it is not just a matter of cleaning up the air but also dealing with more demand on water, energy, waste processing, agricultural land, and more. We need cities that are developed to deal with these strains more than we need cities that are developed to perfectly accommodate, say, flying cars and fully autonomous vehicles.
Vastly improving and managing air pollution levels is an important consideration in developing sustainable smart cities. (Pictured: a smoggy city landscape)
Building Sensible Smart Cities
So-called “smart cities” are what come to mind when many people think of cities of the future. For some, a smart city can mean autonomous vehicles perfectly navigating complicated streets and drones buzzing overhead. While these are technological, they are not necessarily “smart”.
A true “smart” city is one that is sustainable, improves the quality of life for all residents, and is overall a much better place to live than anywhere else. Designing and building these will represent a challenge for engineers, however, because they are forced to rethink their approach by reflecting social elements in their work.
Therefore, it will be far more beneficial for engineers to take the time to consider the major challenges they face today and decide which, if addressed now by engineering futureproof solutions, will have a more positive impact upon broader city life and therefore tomorrow’s smart cities.
It’s estimated that the global building electrical demand will grow 69% by 2040.
As such, building sensible smart cities starts with ethics – health, equity, and quality of life. It should focus on offering its citizens infrastructure that matters to them and provides them with new ways of interacting with one another while also improving the quality of the city environment—but in a way that is not forceful or dictates what they want, what they don’t, and what they can and cannot do.
At the same time, the more “technological” but not necessarily “smart” elements matter, too. After all, these are what will make smart cities work.
The ideal smart city will, therefore, incorporate a little bit of both.
They will help citizens improve their overall quality of life through sustainability and smart solutions to pressing issues but, at the same time, also provide means for them to use the latest technology to control their own smart city experience.
This will not only make smart cities more efficient and their citizens more productive, but also ensure that technology is more of a help rather than a hindrance to people’s quality of life, ultimately making cities the best places to live.