Digital Network Architecture. Abstract technology. New York

Smart Cities and the Built Environment

Smart cities have become a contemporary point of discussion across outlets ranging from the (digital) pages of the Wall Street Journal to panel discussions at technology and infrastructure conferences. The smart city will ultimately be facilitated by the “internet of things,” which can be thought of as a latticed digital network facilitating interconnectedness throughout the built environment. What defines a smart city varies globally, with most cities focused on monitoring resource supply and demand through internet and communications technology (ICT). Smart buildings, wherein data is collected through a system of sensors and monitoring mechanisms used to manage building systems and operations, are just one dimension of the larger smart city ecosystem.

In a smart city, vast amounts of data related to digital and human activity are gathered across multiple interrelated platforms. This can include anything from self-reporting traffic counts generated by autonomous vehicles (AVs) to passenger usage rates collected at a particular subway entrance. A key element of the smart city concept is that different data-collecting platforms must be connected to a central system to analyze data, resulting in an improved human experience. Given the amount of data collected, smart city management requires complex systems with hefty computing power and an artificial intelligence component to produce useful information.

Though widely considered to represent the next iteration of urban evolution, few smart cities actually exist, at least in the complete sense of the concept. Nonetheless, a handful of greenfield and brownfield smart city sites do exist in which large-scale urban development projects are essentially creating entirely new cities on previously undeveloped or vacant parcels of land. These include: Belmont, Arizona (in the planning process; backed by the investment of Bill Gates), Sidewalk Labs, Toronto Waterfront (currently under construction), and Songdo, South Korea (mostly completed). Despite these examples, the development of a complete smart city is an attractive, yet widely impractical concept; generally, new cities cannot be built from the ground-up to replace existing population centers. Rather, the most clear-cut way forward to move towards a smart city is through the retrofit of an existing urban environment, as evident in efforts currently underway in Barcelona, Spain.

Yet despite the emergence of a multitude of providers offering adaptable technology platforms, retrofitting an existing city can be a slow process constrained by existing policies, public budgets, embedded infrastructure and perceptions about privacy or safety. With proper planning and foresight, however, the necessary technology can be introduced and incorporated through the natural redevelopment/development process as new buildings and infrastructure are designed and delivered.

In this regard, the best results are achieved when a comprehensive city plan, including energy planning and long-range budget exercises, has been thoroughly envisioned and adopted in partnership with public and private sector stakeholders. For example, the United for Sustainable Smart City (U4SSC) program through the United Nations is leading an effort to evaluate city function through key performance indicators to produce city-wide action plans. This effort results in the production of a unified public-private-nonprofit sector plan to address suboptimal resource use and allocation and identify investment opportunities.

The impact of operating smart cities will be noticeable throughout the built environment in different ways, although not all of them visible. These changes will be related to improvements in the quality of life through gains in the efficiency of city operations and resources, such as utility output or traffic management. Vulnerable citizens may experience particular gains through lower costs of key resources, such as utilities. Gains may also be seen through increased mobility, resulting in greater access to health services, education, and employment opportunities. Municipal, individual and corporate cost savings can be recognized both through the use of automatically instituted energy-saving measures and the deployment of independent energy-generating technologies, such as modular pavement tiles that harness the kinetic energy from footfall and redirect it to power other systems. Most visible will be the changes to the streetscape to allow for multimodal mobility options, pedestrian focused promenades, and changes to curb space usages for pickup and drop-offs.

In addition, changes to existing structures may be necessary, as the need for mobility hubs for AVs, innovative charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, and aerial drone freight and passenger delivery is anticipated to develop. Note, these physical changes in the built environment (beyond the addition of sensors) will depend on the nature and extent of technologies deployed. The anticipated change in required parking levels due to autonomous vehicles is not yet clear. AVs are often predicted to significantly reduce both garage and street parking spaces, thus freeing those areas for other uses.

As a result, developers could potentially see increases in rentable square feet attributable to larger building footprints (in place of street parking) or, perhaps, reduced construction costs if sub-surface parking is eliminated. Central to this theory, however, is the assumption that use of AVs will lead to fewer personal vehicles that must be “stored” at work or home for citizens’ private use. To the degree that the urban residents and suburban commuters of the future still prefer to have their own vehicles available rather than use autonomous ride share services, parking spaces may remain a necessity no matter how smart the city.

Smart technology will continue to be created and implemented across a variety of sectors, most visibly through the built environment. Central to the smart city vision, the built environment is poised to undergo dramatic changes in the next few decades. Increased awareness of developing smart city trends is critical to remain competitive.

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