Rise of the Smart City consumer

A version of this article first appeared in a Special Report on ‘Smart Cities’, published in The Times, 7 June, 2012.

WGRC Copenhagen

Ecological overhead: Urban Grey to Green is the theme of the 2012 World Green Roof Congress, to be held in Copenhagen, in September.

Sustainability is a modern business-model essential, not merely a wish-list desirable. Why? Ask any of the 1,000 thought-leaders and executives from commerce and brands who convene in San Diego this week to debate sustainability and you will get the same real-world answer: The force driving them together is consumer demand.

“Consumer expectations of business around the world are changing, as an increasingly internet-enabled and connected global citizenry becomes more informed about environmental and social impacts,” explains KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz, Founder of Sustainable Brands, hosts of SB’12, in California.

“What we see in our community, from Ford to Zipcar, Intercontinental Hotels to Airbnb, Dell to Google and beyond, is that smart 21st-century businesses are proactively seeking to leverage technology to offer more sustainable solutions to consumers turned citizen. This smart company-city-consumer dynamic is key to delivering a sustainable economy for the future.”

We are inhabitants of a space where ethics, environment and economics meet, in a new age of e-conscience and e-commerce connectedness. In effect, we are all global citizens now. So, how are cities responding?

At the World Green Roof Congress in September, Copenhagen will host a five-continent, one-planet Mayoral debate on the future of cities. For the Danish capital, described as one of the five most sustainable cities in the world (along with San Francisco, Vancouver, Oslo and Curitiba), the smart money is on green, as Lord Mayor, Frank Jensen explains:

“For quality of living and working environment, for social equity and economic prosperity, the Smart Cities of tomorrow will be green cities, in every sense. Across the globe, from Portland, USA to Paris, France and Christchurch, New Zealand, to here in Copenhagen, Denmark, Mayoral offices understand urban biodiversity and green infrastructure are essential elements of any city vision.”

As if ecology, air quality, stormwater management and urban heat-island effect were not reasons enough to be greening up on the roof, there is another simple, pressing economic and physical development factor at play here: Land.

“Land will be like gold dust in Smart Cities of the future,” explains Dan Crossley, Sustainable Food expert, Forum for the Future “As a result, food-growing space in urban areas should become much more integrated into building design. I can envisage a world where vertical farms, rooftop growing and aquaponics are all the rage in Smart Cities, with excess heat from buildings used for greenhouses and biodigestors.”

With connectedness to nature key, some urban futurists endorse the concept of an open ‘living’ architecture, rather than a closed ‘built’ environment, arguing that no matter how intelligent the (green) infrastructure, no city can be truly smart if its buildings are dumb, dead, inert. Senior Lecturer at the School of Architecture, Design and Construction, University of Greenwich, Dr Rachel Armstrong describes a conflicted city:

“Essentially, the built environment is a clash of infrastructures – a geometrically conceived, object-centred human one and a complex, restlessly creative natural one. Our relentless ideological and physical war with nature has caused us injury from pollution, resource depletion and bacterial resistance. We need to end this war that we simply won’t win.”

For architectural peace to break out, smart, metabolic materials are needed that can both reduce carbon and improve ecology. These living materials can be of bacterial, plant, animal or even mineral origin: Some are technically ‘alive’ such as, bacteria; others are not, such as smart surfaces and paints. Already on the market and existing buildings are catalytic pollution-fixing surfaces, such as titanium oxide. Coming soon are applications for bacteria within concrete to help it self-repair, or ‘heal’.

Perhaps most talked-about are bioreactors: Engineered environments that support micro-organisms such as, algae, which can use light and carbon dioxide very efficiently to make biofuels and be integrated into building façades. Implications for development are far-reaching, as Rachel Armstrong concludes:

“It is not unthinkable that in the near future, buildings may have a series of bioreactors that give them a unique kind of physiology, with the ability to produce energy, food, remove pollution or glow in the dark. Our buildings will have organs that can turn modern consumers into producers – harvesting their own energy, or food crops – and will also have a positive environmental impact.”

Picture this vision of tomorrow’s world: An active, informed and happy citizenry, plus intelligent and successful business community, living and working together in harmony, in and around low-carbon, high-ecology Smart City environments. Is it really an impossible dream that modernisation of the metropolis could see planet-smart design driving down resource consumption, pollution and public-sector costs, whilst simultaneously ratcheting up performance, productivity and quality-of-life indicators? Whilst the prospects for cities of the future delivering on such promises might be highly debatable, the climate and building science are not: The need is visible, the technology doable.

Utopia? Now, that would be smart.

To view the Special report in full online, please click here.

Author: Jim McClelland

Smart Cities: When efficiency is not enough

A version of this article first appeared in a Special Report on ‘Smart Cities’, published in The Times, 7 June, 2012.

Building bridges: Bristol Smart City programme aims to see this historic urban centre transformed to become an inclusive world-class green-digital economy.

Efficiencies in technology and infrastructure will bring multiple benefits to inhabitants of Smart Cities – saving them time and money, energy and water, waste and space – but cannot alone guarantee wellbeing and improved quality of life.

“There is a need to combine integrated ‘layers of smartness’ with a future city model that should embrace not just resource efficiency but promotion of good health, economic stability, a sense of shared community and with an ability to adapt,” explains Andrew Comer, Director Environment and Infrastructure, Buro Happold. “In short, we need a more sophisticated and universal language and an integrated approach to urban development, funding and governance.”

In relative terms, some of the smaller high-growth economies in Asia, such as Singapore or Malaysia, are perhaps ideally positioned to reap and deliver the greatest benefits from investing in such an integrated approach to Smart City development. Realising this potential, their thinking is big and strategic, as Hugh Roberts, Business Development Director at SKM Colin Buchanan, saw first-hand:

“Smart Cities are no longer merely showpiece flagships; a second generation is now contributing to wider regional investment and growth. Sarawak, one of Malaysia’s eastern states on the island of Borneo, is launching SCORE – the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy. This multi-sector development plan commences with low-cost power generation from hydro schemes which will fuel aluminium and copper smelting and large-scale silica production, together with new agro and food production industries. It then moves on to planning a Smart City at Mukah, to serve as nerve centre for the sub region.”

The Smart City is to feature Knowledge, Administrative and R&D hubs, bringing together academia, industry, business and technology. Economic growth and efficiency benefits to businesses and organisations mean the opportunity to develop and retain home-grown human-resource talent, particularly in IT-driven labour pools, is a clear win-win for employer and employee alike.

Business opportunities in connection with the Smart Cities agenda are not however limited just to companies physically located within the urban areas themselves – there is a whole smart service industry emerging, blazing technology trails lit by best-practice beacons old and new.

IBM has involvement in over 2,000 Smarter Cities projects worldwide, working on initiatives right across the sustainability spectrum – from helping reduce carbon footprints of buildings, IT energy usage and traffic emissions, to providing healthcare innovation that supports independent living for the elderly, or aids diagnostics in clinical decision-making.

For education, business and government, Canadian company SMART Technologies provides visual collaboration solutions via interactive whiteboards in over 100 countries. Effective data sharing offers potential to save money, increase productivity and reduce carbon footprints. In this new commercial and cultural landscape, working together is working smart: No company is an island; no worker cut off.

Whilst location need not necessarily prove a barrier to smart market participation, potentially age might: Can a city simply be too old and too developed to join the smart party?

With a Royal Charter dating back to 1155, Bristol is home to a collaborative Smart City programme between the public sector, business and community. Priorities are smart energy, transport and data, with initiatives ranging from technology support for domestic energy efficiency, through ICT for electric vehicles, to major investment in digital infrastructure and connectivity.

Bristol is unabashed about its ambitions to compete on a world-class scale as an inclusive green-digital economy, but for many an Old World metropolis, the full Smart City makeover presents a daunting prospect, as Peter Sharratt, Director Sustainability Services, Deloitte LLP, observes:

“This is a real challenge. Designing new is relatively easy, but retrofitting old is much harder and will cost much more. The solution lies in both the physical and the virtual – we need to reconfigure our infrastructure to be significantly more efficient, but at the same time we need to drive behaviour change throughout our citizens on a mass scale. A Smart City requires successful integration of smart systems AND smart people!”

With choice editing for citizens stimulating a virtuous spiral of upwards mobility in quality of life, perhaps the smart message will rapidly disseminate going forward: Ask not what your city can do for you – ask what you can do for your city.

To view the Special report in full online, please click here.

Author: Jim McClelland