Building Sustainable Cities of the Future with Technology

In the past, matters such as climate change and employment were considered a national issue. However, in the digital age, cities have stepped forward as kinds of small nations in their own right. These issues have zoomed in, becoming the concern of individual cities themselves. Building sustainable cities has become a localised issue, and technology has been both a catalyst and a continuing driver of this shift.

Technology has opened the possibilities for communication and connection between people on an unprecedented scale. Citizens are now able to debate and discuss issues in their own cities, whilst looking further afield to examples of what’s going on in other cities across the country and – indeed – the world at large. People want more interaction with their government – a stronger participatory role in which citizens and government collaborate. The electoral process, particularly in light of recent political events, no longer feels enough.

C40 Cities

C40 is a network of ‘megacities’ across the world that are dedicating themselves to making a global impact on addressing climate change. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and climate risks is at the heart of the C40 project, bringing together citizens in an effective forum for collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and for making meaningful and measurable actions to create sustainable cities that actively challenge climate issues.

Since 2011, the C40 cities have taken nearly 10,000 actions to reduce emissions and adapt their cities to the new challenges faced by the climate change crisis.

Polisdigitocracy and Sustainable Cities

Eduardo Paes, the Mayor of Rio de Janeiro, is chair of the C40 Cities Climate Change Leadership Group, and – as part of his role as chair – has introduced the term ‘Polisdigitocracy’. Drawing influence from the collaborative approach to democracy taken by the ancient Greeks, the concept pulls in the digital revolution and associated technologies to consider how governments can use information technology and social media platforms to engage citizens in finding workable solutions in building sustainable cities that are pleasant to live in, and effective at countering climate threats.

“As part of their smart city strategies cities are increasingly investing in open data stores, citizen engagement platforms, intelligent transport systems, smart grids and a vast array of other technologies.” – Polisdigitocracy: Digital Technology, Citizen Engagement and Climate Action, Arup (Nov, 2015)

Harnessing Social Media for Sustainable Cities

When we think of creating sustainable cities, social media perhaps isn’t the first technology on our minds. The Internet of Things, augmented and virtual reality, blockchain, and artificial intelligence are clearly central to the sustainable cities agenda. However, this notion of a polisdigitocracy is an interesting one, and therefore worth covering.

Facebook has over 1 billion active users, Instagram is used by over 100 million people every month, and there are over 600 million registered users of Chinese social media giant, Weibo. This extraordinary global network of citizens, most of them living in cities, is a powerful tool for harnessing ‘people power’ to enact change.

As we have seen in recent political events, social media empowers citizens to discuss complex issues and to hold their government to account. This is, of course, not without its problems. We have paid witness to mass manipulation of ‘truth’ via social media, and issues around trolling and online harassment continue to loom large over the digital space. Nonetheless, social media remains a strong repository for grassroots information and communication, and where government is prepared to listen, there is a true possibility of a classical ‘Polis’ democracy emerging.

Using digital platforms to crowdsource information from citizens about how a city is functioning in real-time, authorities have a strong set of data from which to build a framework of understanding on what needs to be done. Such information can support the sustained effectiveness of strategies aimed at reducing emissions, for example. Where emissions hotspots can be identified on the ground, by citizens as opposed to authorities and their representatives directly, solutions can be found faster and more effectively than before.

This also applies to city planning, as authorities can incorporate online engagement into the city’s existing and proposed projects. Such engagement has the power to drive the enacting of projects that are both appropriate for the community and implemented in an appropriate manner.

Blockchain and Sustainable Cities

Energy flow will have a significant effect on how we manage the homes and neighbourhoods of the future. Blockchain technology has the capacity to completely change how we track and manage the energy grid. The technology will allow the tracking and authentication of Bitcoin (and other digital currency) transactions, helping to mediate transactions of energy units. A cooperative, decentralised network could help with tracking electrons along the system.

The blockchain could be a revolutionary force in overthrowing the monopoly of the big energy companies. Equally, more locally-generated power that can be monitored and utilised efficiently could completely remove waste from the system.

The Scanergy project, based in Brussels, is just one of several experiments in the use of blockchain to democratise energy production and use. The idea is that whenever a household has generated excess power that they do not need, they can inject that power into a local ‘smart grid’. For each kilowatt-hour sent to the ‘smart grid’ one ‘NRGCoin’ is generated. When the household needs more power than they can generate, they can buy back power from the grid using NRGCoins earned during periods of excess. What’s more, they don’t just buy back their own power, but from all power injected into the grid from other local residences.

One of the greatest benefits of such a system is that the price is fixed within the protocol of the system. Consumers are thus protected from any policy changes (such as if a government, for example, decides to cut all funding for renewable energy). Fear of such policy changes is the main reason that people are currently disincentivised from investing in solar panels for their homes, as if subsidies are withdrawn, their payback period would be doubled. The entire NRGCoin blockchain system in itself is a strong incentive to invest in renewable energy devices for the home. Generating and trading renewable energy locally becomes a home business, and one that everybody can participate in.

Virtual and Augmented Reality in Sustainable Cities

We have covered at length on the VMI blog how augmented and virtual reality aids architects and planners with their work. Issues with plans that may cause problems later in the construction phase can be identified much earlier on with virtual representations of the plans. The ability to walk through and identify potential issues before a single brick is laid is already improving efficiency and reducing waste to a significant degree. Incorporating sustainability into those plans is just an obvious next step.

The same applies to the built environment – planners and construction teams can use augmented reality (in particular) to facilitate work on site, leading to fewer mistakes once ground is broken.

Virtual reality is also having a significant impact on transportation planning. This paper looks at the use of VR in transportation planning for the city of Sakai in Japan:

“Initially, in the case of Sakai City, the VR model was used primarily to convince citizens that construction of an LRT line was a good idea. However, as planning has progressed, the model has served as an editable 3D space upon which the public can project their concerns and ideas during town meetings. Alternatives can be edited and presented in the visual model and several recent changes to the plans have come about as a result of citizen questions. Issues that have been raised and redesigned include truck delivery and ambulance access to homes bordering the LRT line, space between roadways and walkways, and bike parking near the station.”  – VR Simulation for Sustainable Transportation Planning: Public Participation in Sakai City’s LRT Design

Artificial Intelligence and Sustainable Cities

Artificial intelligence is absolutely going to change the way that we live our lives, in myriad ways. It is already proving how instrumental it can be across numerous industries, and its capacity for helping us tackle climate change and build more sustainable cities is huge.

Let’s just look at a few examples of how AI technology fits into the sustainable cities discussion.

Firstly, AI could orchestrate and optimise both the flow of traffic and the allocation of energy across a city. This could be through the use of smart traffic control, or through the analysis of behavioural and environmental data to ascertain when any irregularities take place so that action can be taken. It could, equally, discover correlations in circumstances which human minds have yet to even identify.

The number-crunching capabilities of AI could help citizens to coordinate on projects to retrofit cities into more sustainable places themselves. The data provided by AI could also help individual citizens to understand the impact of certain actions, educating them to make wiser decisions to benefit themselves and the collective whole of the city.

Of course, autonomous vehicles powered by artificial intelligence could pave the way for an entirely new way of looking at the environmental impact of our vehicles. In fact, we may not even have to think about it at all, as the AI embedded in the autonomous vehicle will take care of this internally.

“Ford estimates that autonomous vehicles can cost $2 per vehicle mile less to operate by removing the driver and from increased operating efficiency. Reducing fuel consumption will also reduce vehicle emissions. This holds the potential of saving more money as governments increasing explore taxing vehicle air emissions.” – Earth 2017: Sustainable Strategies

The Internet of Things

The internet of things is an emergent technological movement that has yet to gain significant momentum. However, the power to create sustainable cities through a deeply interlinked network of devices city-wide has strong potential. By monitoring temperature controls, energy usage, and so on, internet-enabled devices can eliminate a high proportion of energy wastage, residentially, commercially, and municipally at large.

The one drawback to the internet of things at present is the risk of cyber attack, and this must be fully safeguarded before wide-scale adoption for the cause of sustainable cities can take place.

Conclusion

We have touched on several different technological innovations which have the potential to make a substantial impact on creating smart, sustainable cities for the future. There is little doubt that climate change is a matter that needs to be tackled head-on, and at the current rate of technological advancement, it simply makes sense to utilise the full scope of our recent innovations to address this issue. It is a big job to overturn current processes, but we are already seeing technology being used to make a significant difference to the way we run our cities to be more future-friendly.