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The rise of cities

Atkins | 27 Nov 2015 | Comments

As the population of the world’s cities soars towards four billion, the need for smarter infrastructure is becoming increasingly urgent.

How is the smart city movement, and technology more broadly impacting the way we plan our cities and urban infrastructure today? 

Cities are the crucible of economic and social progress. But with urban populations swelling by more than one million every week, they are also the focus of enormous pressures. Overcrowding, congestion and poor air quality are all daily reminders that today’s megacities continue to exact a high toll from those who live in them. The need for new solutions is clear. 

Since 2012, McKinsey & Company’s Global Infrastructure Initiative has convened the world’s most senior leaders in infrastructure from across the value chain for a focused discussion about the future of infrastructure. Atkins CEO, Uwe Krueger has been at the centre of these discussions and recently attended the 2015 gathering in San Francisco which focused on “disruptive new delivery models” to help tackle the challenges of urbanisation. 

Tackling these challenges will require not only new infrastructure, but also new ways to get more out of existing infrastructure. Technology holds the key. From big data to the internet of things, infrastructure planners are increasingly tapping into “smart city” methodologies to create attractive, future-proof cities. 

“Smart cities are on the rise around the world,” says Prof Dr Uwe Krueger, Atkins’ chief executive officer. “Technology is rapidly making infrastructure planning and city development for these cities more efficient by facilitating greater interaction between city infrastructure and enhancing our ability to better manage resources. 

Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) is a case in point. MaaS evaluates every transport option and presents the results to the traveller via smartphone. The emphasis is on getting from A to B, rather than favouring on any particular mode of transport. 

MaaS is a platform, not just a journey planner. For example, by linking it with a hospital appointments system and transport data, it has the potential not only to help a patient to plan a journey to hospital (and remind them to turn up), but would let the hospital know of any delays so it could reallocate resources. Missed appointments in the UK currently waste more than £160m a year. 

MaaS is just one way that many smart city initiatives meet multiple needs and make the most of components – such as smartphones – that already exist. 

Building smarter cities 

While we’re planning for a future in which smart cities can flourish, we mustn’t forget the lessons of the past. Rome, as they say, was not built in a day. It was the built over time, with careful governance, major investment in public infrastructure as well as ports and road systems to promote trade, among other things. As with Rome, careful governance and long-term planning will be fundamental to that process. 

“Today’s cities are economic powerhouses, generating more than 80 per cent of global GDP but resource scarcity, climate change, food risk, energy shortage and ecosystem damage are growing concerns,” says Prof Dr Krueger. “City resilience is key: they will have to adapt and evolve to better manage their resources, infrastructure and human capital. And that resilience needs to be built fundamentally into the planning process – what we at Atkins call ‘future-proofing cities’.” 

Public spaces will become increasingly critical as urban populations continue to swell encroach on the health and wellbeing of citizens. Atkins’ work on a cohesive public space strategy in Pereira, Columbia, as well as the sustainable city masterplan created for Meixi Lake in China, reflect these concerns.

Smart is not only about planning – it’s also about how that infrastructure is delivered, with minimal disruption. For example, using lightweight composites instead of steel and concrete means bridges and gantries can now be installed in a matter of hours rather than weeks or months. Composite structures don’t rust, so long-term maintenance costs are reduced. Complex manufacturing is carried out off-site, so quality and safety are improved. 

The additional capital cost required to achieve all of this is offset by lower operating costs and fewer long-term concerns. This approach to planning is essential if we are to take full advantage of smart city potential. 

Future proofing resilience 

More than 50 per cent of the world’s population now living in cities – a proportion that is set to rise to 75 per cent within 40 years. The demographic breakdown of some economies reveals a far greater percentage of older citizens, while in others the proportion of young is much higher. The need to find the right, well-balanced plan for the long-term health and happiness of citizens is growing ever more urgent. 

“Cities are competing for residents, businesses and investment,” says Prof Dr Krueger. “Infrastructure must provide for these needs – liveable spaces, fast broadband, good transport systems. They must also retain a strong sense of self and local culture to help attract talent.” 

The city of Shangrao in China is an example. Working with the Planning and Design Institute of Nanjing University, Beijing Branch, Atkins created the blueprints for the city’s new eco-friendly, low-carbon, high-speed rail district, which will eventually be home to 130,000 people. Rather than ignoring its surroundings, the masterplan seeks to capitalise on the region’s culture, history and green space to create an attractive and liveable environment. 

“Infrastructure must provide for these needs with liveable spaces, fast broadband and an agreeable legal and regulatory environment,” says Krueger. “While understanding that they are competing internationally, cities must retain a strong sense of self and local culture to help attract talent.” 

“The sooner cities take steps to future proof their urban development, the better,” he continues. “There is an important – but closing – window of opportunity for many cities to act now before they are locked into unsustainable and unsuitable development pathways.” 

This is true for both the long-term growth of a city as well as its overall resilience when facing the prospect of major catastrophes – a problem that besets both developed and developing countries. 

Understanding the interdependencies of a city is key to resilience. We need to develop capabilities to respond to the risks and challenges of the next century and beyond,” says Krueger. That means taking a holistic view of threats we face – physical, technical, human and administrative – in order to reduce any gaps in security and reduce our collective vulnerability. 

Paying for a smart city 

It’s all well and good to suggest that all cities should strive to be “smart” but historically, governments have been more inclined to fund new assets rather that allocating public budgets to operations and maintenance. This risks leaving them vulnerable in the long run, argues Krueger.  

“Appropriate financing structures are essential,” he says. “Cities should focus their economic policy on better funding for infrastructure, operations and maintenance.” 

The rise of citiesThe US city of Atlanta faces an infrastructure backlog of more than $900 million. Mayor Kasim Reed has made a commitment to address the city's infrastructure funding challenges and is proposing an innovative infrastructure bond referendum to pay for repairs and improvements. 

Mayor Reed and the City Council asked Atlanta voters to approve $250 million in the bond vote to address one quarter of the problem immediately. This $250 million investment will be the single-largest investment in the City’s infrastructure in more than a decade, and will result in clear and measurable improvements in the look, feel and experience of Atlanta for residents and visitors alike. 

Tianjin in China has managed this well. It has implemented measures to maximise existing assets through the expansion of intelligent transport systems and the integration of land use and transport planning. Careful asset management could pay dividends for generations to come.” 

This will become even more important with the rise of so-called “mega cities” – those with a total population over ten million. The United Nations estimate that there will be 37 of them by 2025 – up from two in 1950. As a consequence, by 2050, water demand is projected to increase by 55 per cent, energy by 80 per cent and food by 60 per cent. These resource-demand challenges will be acutely felt in cities where the emerging middle classes will be the primary consumers. 

“In India, the urban population is forecast to increase to 814 million by 2050 – that’s equivalent to one Delhi per year, for the next 35 years!” says Krueger. “Heavily populated cities such as these require a careful balance of physical infrastructure, strategies, systems and emergency services.” 

By connecting infrastructure systems, city planners can make make huge environmental, economic and social impacts. Companies supporting infrastructure development need to become more joined up and see that this nexus of critical resources – water, energy and food – as an opportunity. 

The key is to stop thinking about an “end state” city plan, as though it will one day be “finished” – “Plans need to be made not in three dimensions but four, to include time. This must reflect not just the initial development of a city but its flexible evolution and regeneration.” 

The notion of a flexible city is evident in Karamay, in China’s far northwest Xinjiang province. The previously oil dependent city is pursuing a policy of diversification, and becoming a vibrant, varied place to live, attracting new talent and offering a much broader range of social, economic and cultural resources. An Atkins-designed Cloud Computing Industry Park is central to this transformation. 

“We need to be guided by history,” concludes Krueger. “Fifty years ago, the technocratic movement in urban planning held sway and predicted that everything about a city was knowable and could be modelled top down. This turned out not be the case. We need to recognise that the city is complex – a self-organising system of systems. Our role as planners is to mediate and coordinate, rather than control and dictate, in order to create the truly smart cities we’ll need for the future.”