The convergence of technology, urban planning and sustainability

The OECD has identified what it believes are five main megatrends that both bring new opportunities and pose challenges for Africa’s continued development:

1. The role emerging economies will play in shifting wealth
2. The new industrial revolution, brought about by technological change and digitalisation
3. Africa’s rapid urban transition, and linked to this,
4. The demographic dividends that could be brought about should governments implement the right policies
5. However, and despite the fact that Africa contributes less than 4% to global greenhouse gas emissions, climate change is a big risk that African policies must address

Alison Groves, Regional Director, WSP, Building Services, Africa provides some insights on the convergence of technology, urban planning and sustainability – in particular – for developing smart cities that are resilient, liveable and promote spaces where societies can thrive.

What are the primary considerations that need to be undertaken for an existing city to transform to a smart city?
Globally, the pressure is on for cities to become ‘smart’. This is creating a strong drive of investment into information communication technology (ICT) and socioeconomic development, while still effectively managing budgets and scarce natural resources – and with the intention of providing longstanding quality working and living conditions for citizens.

It’s important to note that a town or city has layers of impact. Therefore, before any urban renewal – or retro-future proofing of existing and old city centres – can take place, on a microeconomic scale some of the primary considerations should include the:

  • Atmosphere – air quality, ozone depletion and, urban heat island
  • Built environment – buildings, public spaces, amenities, and services
  • Urban infrastructure – particularly access to transport, water, waste, energy and food
  • Natural attributes – land, water and air quality and/or contamination
  • Social impacts – ICT, connectivity, sense of space and community

  • Additionally, where traditional urban design – of precincts, towns or cities – has always been underpinned by pillars of civil engineering, electrical engineering, environmental consulting, traffic engineering and town planning – and often these disciplines have always acted independently of one other. However, to develop a smart city, the barriers of isolation between all of these disciplines need to be broken down – whilst also remembering to incorporate; transport engineering (taking traffic engineering beyond the transport networks within built area and creating viable and valuable linkages with the regional and/or national network), future energy, climate change strategy, water, waste management and socio-ecological systems, into the preliminary planning stages. Resulting in, the design and development of future cities – that are innovatively smart, ergonomic and more sustainable.

    How do you introduce the smart city concept to an existing conurbation?
    When planning, designing and building infrastructure within the South African context, we need to be conscious that even in our first-class cities and urban centres there are challenges to maintaining the capacity of existing infrastructure networks.

    These nodes still boast long-term infrastructure planning, which includes introducing smart technologies into their city scape that will make these cities more connected, innovative and nimble in the face of future disruption. Therefore, to support continued and future growth – of populations, industries and economies – long-term planning must be approached with a vision to compensate for both current and future priorities of the development cycle – and everything in between. The ideal is to build cities and spaces that are liveable, resilient to disruptions, and future-proofed. And building for sustainability is the way to get there.

    Sustainability is a lens through which the planning, project delivery, and development processes focus to achieve the needs of the communities today without sacrificing capacity for future generations. A sustainability lens always includes balancing priorities across several areas, including the economy, community needs, environmental quality, but also equity, health and well-being, energy, water and material resources, transportation and mobility needs – as well as how all of this can be supported by the adoption and integration of the latest in digital technologies.

    City planners therefore need to scope their vision and planned projects beyond just the (immediate) key economic factors and, in their infrastructure planning, start to build with a sense of ‘societal resilience’ in mind; and resilience that can withstand socioeconomic and climatic changes well into the future. It is this resilience that will build economies – particularly in a conurbation environment.

    How can the smart city impact on healthcare?
    The next generation of healthcare buildings will be very different from the hospitals, clinics and general practitioner (GP) surgeries we are familiar with today. A revolution in building design is already underway, which has largely been prompted by an acceleration of technological innovation, changing population demographics, shifts in expectations of how healthcare should be provided – along with socioeconomic and environmental considerations.

    In the pursuit of a prosperous future of inclusive and sustainable growth, where all citizens have a high standard of living, quality of life, sound health and well-being, learning from global trends and adapting these to suit local conditions may be the key to building successful high performance, smart hospitals and supporting networks of healthcare infrastructure and medical facilities across our cities.

    High performance smart hospitals and medical facilities may be rated and attain excellence across multiple measures of performance; from energy-efficient building systems to improved clinical outcomes, and enhanced patient and staff wellbeing. Leveraging global trends to design and build fit-for-purpose healthcare facilities based on the patient-centric approach, will allow public and private sector providers to ensure a better experience and deliver value and return-on-investment across the board. In particular, we must move away from the principle of big concrete blocks that have a surgical and clinical feel and towards creating well-designed, functional spaces that are future ready as well as economically and sustainably sound.

    Any other thoughts?
    As we enter an age when humanity’s impacts become dominant in shaping our world – cities provide the biggest opportunity to enhance people’s lives – and the biggest challenge.

    Cities are the canvas on which much of our collective futures will be drawn. How cities are planned, designed, serviced, governed and financed is material to our happiness and prosperity, and the health of our society – and the natural systems on which all life depends.

    Urbanisation, demographic shift, environmental changes and new technologies are reshaping the way city leaders are looking at sustainability as well as how they deliver on public services to address these new dynamics. However, currently, in the local context, most attention is focused on the comparison of cities today – how developed, evolved and competitive or resilient they are. Where we need to turn our lens to the future and explored how our cities are identifying and responding to the challenges they will face in the future too.

    We need to consider how city planning is preparing for a future shaped by the major urban transitions of our day, including; urbanisation; density and growth; digital disruption; emerging mobility; evolving utilities models and a changing climate. The rise of smart cities is the response to these challenges, as smart cities innately offer more solutions to address many previous and persisting economic and social inequalities by bridging societal divides.

    Resilience and liveability must therefore be the desired outcomes sought through planning and design processes. Achieving these outcomes will require respecting and balancing local environmental, social, economic, and climate risk priorities through a robust planning and data-driven design process. And, ultimately the goal should be that we are building liveable spaces that are people-centric, integrated, connected, smart, nimble and resilient – where societies can thrive, well into the future.