How can we make cities better places to live?

Atkins | 29 Sep 2014 | Comments

Atkins’ chief executive officer Professor Dr Uwe Krueger examines our ongoing quest for bigger, better, more sustainable cities.

The delivery, and ongoing management, of urban infrastructure is a critical and essential driver of economic growth for nations in both the developed and developing world. The provision of this infrastructure is a major determinant of how cities can expand and is a key component of city and regional leaders’ investment ambitions.

Urbanisation must not just be about building new infrastructure but about managing cities sustainably to deliver the energy, water, transport and public realm requirements we all need and desire. To do this effectively we need a strategic and integrated approach to planning, focused both on creating synergies within our infrastructure networks and on a long-term sustainable approach to new infrastructure development.

We must also remember that cities are not just vehicles to enable economic growth and to create wealth, they are also the home and / or the workplace for millions of human beings across our planet, and also home to a myriad of social and cultural centres.

Cities need a “buzz” and an aesthetic lure if they are to be truly successful, it is not purely about their function. Delivering cities that make it easier for people to live in is key. But equally so, is making places that people choose to live and visit, places that are by their nature homes to innovation and enterprise. This will allow existing businesses to deliver their strategy and grow with both the culture and amenities to attract and retain the best talent.

So what are the critical factors required to enable a more integrated approach to urbanisation and to ensure that cities put humanity at the centre of their thinking?

One answer to this is in the “beautiful simplicity” of capturing and using all the relevant data to design and predict the performance of physical assets during their lifetime and to ensure that they are truly fit for today and resilient against future risk.

Decision-making must be informed by evidence on the understanding both of the demand for services as well as the supply side performance. Big Data is now allowing us to capture and analyse building performance as well as fully understanding the movement of people through cities and how this impacts on the built environment. New technologies are emerging such as Building Information Modelling (BIM) that allow us to build projects “virtually” before building them physically, meaning we can optimise safety, better manage the sourcing and use of materials and improve carbon and ecological footprints. By minimising waste through the adoption of lean manufacturing technologies into construction,and using BIM to precisely plan the installation phase, we save both waste and time. These savings can become the economic fuel to invest in early adoption of new materials, such as composites, which by design are lean, low carbon and fit for life. We are creating a new “virtuous circle”for infrastructure projects.

Another enabler is the adoption of a more collaborative approach across sectors and institutions to ensure all are working towards common goals. Ultimately there must be a much higher level of customer focus to create excellence in design and delivery of infrastructure, so that performance and progress is not measured in lengths of track or pipe but in terms of the economic, environmental and social benefits it creates for communities.

We must also give due care and attention to the maintenance and improvement of existing infrastructure assets. Overall the challenge needs to be seen not as “how do we build more infrastructure?” but “how do we also improve the performance of existing services and systems?”

As stressed by the World Bank, economic development needs to be driven by genuine improvements in productivity through increased efficiency rather than purely by the accumulation of capital assets.

As we move forward there must be a focus on multi-agency working designed to address common objectives such as climate change, resilience, poverty reduction and economic growth. Investment must be targeted at maximising contributions to growth by driving infrastructure efficiency as well as capacity.

All of this requires technical know-how to ensure infrastructure is not developed in isolation, nor as a proxy for progress, but as part of sustainable economic development in which cities play an increasingly important role.

Our role as planner, designer and engineer, is becoming more complex and provides an exciting challenge for our industry as a whole. We must sit alongside the world’s politicians, and leading economists and scientists to help create a new brighter future that puts the human being at the centre of city development.

This feature originally appeared on the World Economic Forum blog on 29 September 2014.

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