2014: The start of a greener future?

Atkins | 17 Jan 2014 | Comments

From population growth to expansive urbanisation and limited resources, a number of recent reports have made startling predictions about the impact of our current behaviour on the future. But as we enter 2014, we ask: where do we go from here?

The number of people living in urban areas is increasing at a pace never seen before. The world’s population is predicted to reach nine billion within the next 40 years and three-quarters of those people are expected to live in a city. What’s the attraction?

According to Atkins’ chief executive officer Professor Dr Uwe Krueger, the opportunities presented by cities are magnetic: “This is especially true now as the world’s aspiring middle class grows. Cities are best suited to meet the combined needs of wealth creation, education and culture.”

Protecting the future of urban environments is therefore vital and will require investment. As economies recover from recession, governments and private sector operators are again turning their attention to what’s needed to connect communities and improve quality of life. Ageing infrastructure in well-established centres from London to New York needs to adapt to meet the challenges of population growth, climate change and resource scarcity. In new cities, such as those being planned and built in China, there is an opportunity to embed sustainable solutions from the outset.

“Our vision is of a world built on smarter cities,” explains Professor Dr Krueger. “These smart cities will be vibrant, organic and well supported by a series of fundamental building blocks, from energy to transport.”

Smarter Cities?

In a report published in 2013, the UK government said there is no absolute definition of a smart city, instead describing it as “…a process, or series of steps by which cities become more ‘liveable’ and resilient and, hence, able to respond quicker to new challenges.” In broad terms, a smart city will have several shared characteristics: it will have a lively and supportive economy, and it will exploit technology to make connections between its individual elements in the best way possible.

The smart cities concept has been widely debated over the past 12 months but the challenge continues to be turning good intention into action. All of which begs the question: what are the key ingredients going to be for the smart cities of the future?

Clever connections: Connectivity is an important part of the smart city concept. Atkins is acting as lead advisor in Scandinavia, where a high speed rail network is providing the links necessary to create the “Scandinavian 8 Million City”, joining Copenhagen in Denmark, Gothenburg and Malmo in Sweden and Oslo in Norway, to form a new region that is at the centre of government measures to drive global competitiveness.

This relationship between sustainable infrastructure and economic development is driving discussion about, and the success of, many other rail schemes around the world. In Hong Kong, rail is the backbone of its public transport system. It’s acknowledged to be one of the world’s safest and most reliable networks.

Atkins is working with operator MTR Corporation to take improvement schemes forward, including on Hong Kong’s South Island Line. But the success of the network won’t be limited to the engineering feats involved in this densely populated and built-up environment.

“Hong Kong has adopted a highly integrated approach to railway development and there are close links between transport and urban planning,” says John Blackwood, director of transport for Atkins in Asia Pacific. “Property development in Hong Kong is closely co-ordinated with new rail construction, which creates greater opportunities to integrate services and maximise economic benefits.”

Better tech: Technology has, and will continue to play a major role in future development. Entire cities can be modelled digitally using building information modelling (BIM). This technology facilitates intelligent decision-making and introduces efficiencies by allowing companies to deliver work faster with less risk. It promotes collaboration and can be used across the entire life cycle of the project.

Technology also has a role in helping planners and designers understand the way people want to move around a city – their “desire lines”. For example, the Oxford Circus and Regent Street area in London is one of the busiest shopping districts in Europe. Until recently, it was badly congested, and Atkins was invited to design a new approach to the crossing.

To do so, the team needed to understand how people were using it and consider how they might want to use it in future. A detailed study revealed that many pedestrians were crossing where they wanted to, not where they should. This data led to the highly successful diagonal crossing design that is in place today.

A unified vision: A holistic approach to development is one of the key elements that will underpin the move towards smarter cities. In Qatar, for example, the country’s National Infrastructure Plan is delivering a $65bn programme of works by 2016. This is being handled by a Central Planning Office, which acts as an anchor for all major infrastructure schemes and creates a solid link between engineering contractors, consultants and various departments of government. The work will include roads, bridges, highways, railways and ports, and is arguably the most complex major infrastructure programme in the world right now.

Big-picture planning is also being demonstrated in China where cities are being built from scratch and often focus on sustainability. The Meixi Lake eco-city project, located to the west of Changsha City, has been designed to accommodate over 200,000 people. The masterplan for the lake development, produced by Atkins, followed a design brief that focused on the creation of an ecological city based around high population density core areas, well served by public transport hubs.

Time for action?

If cities are to continue to be places that foster innovation and drive higher standards of living an unprecedented level of imagination and cooperation between engineers, scientists, planners, policy makers and other experts from across the built and natural environment will be required. And it is widely recognised that they must respond with urgency.

Cities occupy only 2% of the earth’s land yet account for 75% of global carbon emissions and between 60% and 80% of energy use. Therefore, the earlier cities take steps to future proof themselves, the better.

A report led by Atkins in a unique partnership with the UK Department for International Development and University College London outlines over 100 policy options for future proofing cities, from integrated urban planning to diversifying the urban economy away from climate sensitive sectors, sustainable transport, management of water and waste, alternative energy and new building design. The policies can help all cities but are especially useful for those with high vulnerabilities and weak urban economies.

Atkins has already applied this thinking in Madurai in India, where it has been working with the city to understand the wider economic and social benefits of a low carbon trajectory.

It is looking to go even further by expanding the principles to other cities across the world.

As Chris Birdsong, chief executive officer at Atkins in Asia Pacific, says: “…cities are running out of time to act if they want to avoid being locked into unsuitable and unsustainable infrastructure. Holistic planning and the clever design of core services such as roads and rail, water, wastewater and power supplies have become vital.”

Achieving our ambitions

The move towards smarter, greener cities is gaining momentum but can the engineering sector meet the demand?

European industrials including Siemens and Volvo have warned that a shortage of skills could lead them to move R&D facilities to countries such as China and India – which, according to the Royal Academy of Engineering, produce 20 times and eight times more engineering graduates than the UK, respectively.

In the US, there’s some debate about whether there’s a shortage of engineering talent in the world’s leading technology nation. President Obama has said that improving STEM education is one of his priorities and will “make more of a difference in determining how well we do as a country than just about anything else that we do”.

Whatever the outcome, there are calls for a proactive approach to set the engineering sector on the right track.

“We need to help people recognise not only that engineering and manufacturing have a role to play, but that it’s a critical role in the continued development of this country,” says Allan Cook CBE, chairman of Atkins, the UK’s Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies Alliance and the UK Government’s Skills and Jobs Retention Group.

“Without engineers and the engineering discipline, our health service would be nothing, public transport would collapse and even the internet would fall apart. We rely on engineering capability and technology, and the continued development of that technology, to make everything run more efficiently. We need to get that message across.”

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