The engineer's role in the future city

Andrew Comer FICE, Chair of the Urbanisation Steering Group, sets out the challenges to engineering in cities of the future, and explores what we mean when we talk about ‘smart cities’.

Street lamps in Amsterdam have been upgraded to allow municipal councils to dim the lights based on pedestrian usage. Picture credit: Massimo Catarinella
Street lamps in Amsterdam have been upgraded to allow municipal councils to dim the lights based on pedestrian usage. Picture credit: Massimo Catarinella
  • Updated: 26 April 2016

During the past two decades, there has been an inexorable shift in the approach to and delivery of urban development, whether new urban quarters or regeneration of urban areas with declining social and economic indices. This has been characterised not just by the converging pattern of world demographics but by the increasing focus and level of technical (engineering) detail required of development proposals at the early feasibility and planning stages.

This ‘renewed’ interest in ensuring adequate thought has been given to the infrastructure systems of cities has been driven primarily by concerns about the environmental impact of urban development and a growing awareness of the need to conserve dwindling natural resources as well as the consequences of global warming. The result has been that civil engineers have been called on to develop integrated (system of systems) strategies to ensure that not only movement of people and goods is efficient but also strategies for resilient power supply, management of water resources and for treating waste as a resource. Part of this role, as it has existed since the industrial revolution, is to ensure that the scientific discoveries and advances in technology can be applied to the benefit of clients, municipal governments and citizens alike.

One of the responses to these drivers of change has been for greater attention to be given to the potency of information communication and technology (ICT). Smart buildings, supported by computer-controlled and linked building environment systems, have evolved over a number of years and, in terms of the best practice and, whilst in certain aspects such as power consumption the returns on investment are diminishing (the level of investment required to create an ever more efficient, low energy building can outweigh the direct benefits), there has been very little implementation of product lifecycle management tools in the design, simulation, delivery and operations of buildings, which could strip significant capital costs. Equally, through improving the coordination of the virtual building models with real-time building management systems, operational costs could be likewise reduce. The enabling factor will be the implementation of smart ICT in this area.

Thinking more broadly should offer the opportunity to apply similar principals at a city scale with even greater scope for returns on both economic and environmental indicators. So with pressure to respond to global concerns, greater regulatory measures being imposed and the technology available, why is the Smart City still an aspiration rather than a reality?

In a recent interview with Steve Lewis, CEO of Living PlanIT, he was asked this very question. His response was telling. In his view, the technology industry has failed to grasp the complexity of the real estate and construction industry and had focussed on solutions and products instead of engaging in debate, achieving a better understanding of the numerous, inter-related layers of cites (social and well as physical) and thinking about cities from the bottom-up and the top-down. His vision of the future encompasses many of the current professional players involved in planning, design and construction of cities but in an environment in which there is far more collaborative thinking, in shorter time-frames and with greater insight provided by technology and analysis of data.


Steve Lewis, CEO of Living PlanIT, suggests that the technology industry has failed to grasp the complexity of the real estate and construction industry.

His view is important in terms of the implications that stem from it – that ‘Smart Cities’ are never going to be just about technology. The need for smartness and the future of cities extends beyond this narrow confine; there is the need to create ‘layers of smartness’ – and ensure that they are understood, relevant and integrated. Indeed, the word ‘smart’ is somewhat limiting in terms of the future city model that we need to aspire to; one embracing not just resource efficiency but promotion of good health, economic stability, a sense of shared community and with an ability to adapt to future challenges. In short, we need a more sophisticated and universal language.

So beyond the immediate opportunities to improve the efficiency of resource use and reducing the waste cities produce, we need to think in terms of a new connected infrastructure, of sensing, control and analytics, with the benefits of applications that enhance the use of spaces, and create new ways to enhance quality of life in terms of health and safety, presents greater access to education and employment, and provides enhanced sustainable communities in all aspects of society.

Additional, the implementation of the above will undoubtedly create new value chains in design, delivery, operations and maintenance and demand cross-industry skills which extend existing architecture and engineering disciplines in to bioinformatics, materials science, nanotechnology, data sciences, and others.

Einstein once said that “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Engineers have a key role to play in creating and maintaining sustainable communities across the planet and we have to rise to the challenges we face very quickly. Governments of both developed and developing countries are faced with the demand for more, bigger, smarter and more liveable urban settlements and yet these very same cities, where 50% of the world’s population lives (and set to rise dramatically), account for 75% of the carbon footprint of the planet. Knowing what we know today, delivering what we deliver today and using current tools and processes invites disaster. As engineers, we need to adapt our thinking, embrace technology and computer sciences, work across wider domains and ensure that cities are truly able to meet the full needs of our future.