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Building a vision of our future

Atkins | 01 Nov 2013 | Comments

Shaping the future is better than trying to predict it. In this year’s Hinton Lecture at the Royal Academy of Engineering, Atkins’ chief executive officer Professor Dr Uwe Krueger, asks: how can we learn from the past to inform the present and inspire the future?

The engineering profession has a rich heritage, one that inspires us towards creativity. From Leonardo da Vinci to Sir Christopher Wren and Sir William Atkins, we need to learn from our collective past as we try to address the greatest challenge we face today – the rapid urbanisation of the world’s cities.

This challenge unites all other issues we are facing; creating a sustainable energy mix, water and waste management, transport, public health and social balance.

More than 50 per cent of people already live in cities and that is anticipated to rise to 75 per cent by 2050 as the global population grows. We need to work out the best way to deal with this rampant urbanisation, as our cities are of vital importance. They centralise business activity through ecosystems of companies. At the same time, they are more sustainable, as city-dwellers tend to have lower carbon footprints. Cities also have the potential to be more resilient to shock events, such as severe weather systems caused by climate change.

Protecting the future of our cities is vital and will require investment. This is particularly true in the developing world where 95 per cent of city growth is expected to take place. For example, the urban populations of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are expected to double to over 3.5 billion people in the next 20 years – accounting for roughly half the global population.

Dealing with these issues is not a case of “build it and they will come”. We need holistic thinking, imagination and co-operation between engineers, scientists, planners and behavioural experts.

The future city challenge

Our recent study, Future Proofing Cities, backs up this view. The study was developed to help cities tackle risks to their long term prosperity and growth, assessing 129 major cities across Africa and Asia. Between them, these cities house over 350 million people or five per cent of the world’s population.

The report analysed three clusters of interrelated issues: climate hazards, risks to resources and carbon emissions. The aim was to develop an integrated portfolio of measures for future proofing cities in a way that generated environmental, social and economic benefits.

The result was 100 adaptive policies that could be applied in city-specific strategies. These ranged from integrated urban planning to sustainable transport, better management of water and waste, new sources of energy and new building design.

These policies can help any city, but are especially useful for those with high vulnerabilities and weak urban economies.

Four steps to a better future

The ideas we came up with in our Future Proofing Cities study take us in the right direction but they’re not the final answer. Learning from the past has informed the world in which we operate today, but what about inspiring the future? I believe this involves four key ingredients:

  • define our vision
  • establish the right partnerships
  • use technology
  • exert our influence

Our vision is of a world built on smarter cities which, as the UK government says in its recent “Smart Cities” paper, are “more ‘liveable’ and resilient” and “able to respond quicker to new challenges”. These smart cities will be vibrant, organic and well supported by a series of fundamental building blocks, from energy to transport.

Realising our ambition will require a step-change in thinking. For example, we all grew up in world where centralised utilities provided all of our energy. Our children will live in a very different world.

They will drive electric vehicles with battery systems that also serve as distributed temporary storage facilities for energy in a truly smart grid. These cars may be powered by electrical instead of chemical batteries, so called supercaps, nanotech capacitors with super high dielectric constants that can be charged almost instantaneously.

At the same time, mainstream power will come from many sources: nuclear fusion perhaps, wind and marine turbines laying in farms off our coasts and all hooked up to an international cable network.

All of this is perfectly feasible in engineering terms. And the next generation is already combining technology with business savvy in new, creative and seamless ways.

For example, the City of Boston had an issue with fire hydrants being buried when there was a blizzard. One young entrepreneur saw a simple solution: he designed an app that located hydrants on a map, so that they could be found and uncovered as needed. The city has now set up an “Adopt-a-Hydrant” scheme with volunteers finding and digging out their nearby hydrants if they get covered in snow.

These ideas bring us one step closer to fulfilling a vision of smart cities. We can build on that, creating smarter regions and driving towards a connected and smart world. But only if we work together towards the same goal.

Finding the right partners

At Atkins, we want to help develop the next iteration of ultra-high-speed trains, not only in the UK, but in Malaysia, Singapore, India and the US. We can’t do that on our own. We need to find the right partners to make this vision a reality.

We’ve reached out to Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh to create a Centre of Excellence for High Speed Rail to push the boundaries of railway track research. The university has the time, expertise and test rigs to develop this concept, and we can help through our knowledge of the practical application.

I believe we will see more of this in the future: groups of people and companies coming together under creative umbrellas, harnessing expertise on projects as required. These people and companies will share some ideals and values but they will have different capabilities, which they will use to lift one another in pursuit of a shared vision.

Working well with new technology

Partnerships will bring together the mix of talents we need to realise our vision, but our success will rely on the tools we use and today, those tools are more often than not technological.

Take our work redesigning Oxford Circus, the busiest shopping junction in Europe. Before we could produce a design to relieve congestion in the area, we needed to understand how people were using the crossing and consider how they might want to use it in future. We carried out a detailed study which revealed that many people were simply crossing where they wanted to, not where they were supposed to. This data led us to the highly successful diagonal crossing design that is in place today.

It’s all about using the right tools for the job, from big data to analytics and beyond.

Steering the conversation

We can amass knowledge, teams and tools but it may mean nothing without influence. The engineering profession must be included in the debate, alongside politicians, economists and scientists.

It is already beginning to happen: engineers are finding themselves in a position of influence at the heart of strategic planning for future cities. Look at Qatar, where 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 building programme will include roads, bridges, highways, railways and ports, with more investment planned in the run-up to the FIFA World Cup in 2022 and beyond. This is arguably the most complex major infrastructure programme in the world right now.

Without a holistic approach – and full engagement across all levels – this would be unmanageable. We are exerting our influence and helping to deliver change. We’re developing the strategy required to realise our vision for a better future.

Shout from the rooftops

We need to learn from the past to inform the present and inspire a vision for our future. We need to build coalitions around what we’re doing, but we won’t achieve that without great communication.

It’s a skill we must embrace if we’re to exert our influence, especially with elected representatives. Otherwise there is the danger that political decisions will be short-sighted, opportunistic and suboptimal. In the process, we will fail to deliver on our vision for a smarter and more sustainable future.

Just as Sir Christopher Wren’s memorial plaque in St Paul’s Cathedral points out, “If you seek his memorial, look about you”, we need to ensure that the cityscapes that we leave behind are a legacy that we can be proud of.

The Hinton Lecture 2013

Prof Dr Uwe Krueger is the chief executive of Atkins. He has served as President of Cleantech Switzerland, a group providing sustainability advice to companies on behalf of the Swiss Federal Government. In addition, he served as Senior Advisor for TPG Capital. Until September 2009 he was CEO of Oerlikon Group, a CHF4bn Swiss industrial conglomerate. He began his career at international strategy consulting firm A.T. Kearney, followed by several senior executive positions at Hochtief AG, including CEO of Central/Eastern Europe, and Chairman of Turner International. He currently serves on the board of several high-tech companies including San Diego-based Zementis, Inc., SUSI Partners AG in Zurich and Ontex SA, Zele/Belgium. He lectures as an honorary professor of physics at the University of Frankfurt.

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