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How smart cities can save the planet

13 August 2018

Cities need to become ‘smarter’ if we are to save the planet. John Dora, editor of a special issue of ICE Engineering Sustainability journal on smart cities, says the ingenuity of civil engineers will be essential for their delivery.

How smart cities can save the planet
Image credit: Shutterstock

What is a 'smart city'? BSI defines a 'smart city' as involving the 'effective integration of physical, digital and human systems in the built environment to deliver a sustainable, prosperous and inclusive future for its citizens' (BSI, 2014). The latest issue (171 ES4) of the ICE's Engineering Sustainability journal contains five excellent papers touching upon these subjects.

It is heartening to read in the journal about how civil engineering ingenuity is being actively applied to the sustainable development of cities. This is all the more important in a world of change – climate change, rapid population growth and mass migration to cities. Thinking about future generations and how various research papers tell us that we are likely heading for the globe's sixth mass extinction event (e.g. McCallum, 2015), society desperately needs this ingenuity.

Adopting the UN Sustainable Development Goals for a smarter city

For society to prosper in the long term, engineers need to respect the 17 UN sustainable development goals and the Paris 2016 climate change agreement. These point the way to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and a (desperately needed) sustainable future, and we as civil engineers need quickly to adapt our practices to deliver what these goals aspire to – in both the 'construction' and 'operating' phases of city infrastructure – indeed throughout the whole life cycle.

The themed issue of Engineering Sustainability gives some excellent insight into the engineering, planning, social and environmental issues regarding smart cities. The papers respond well to the UN sustainable development goals and the 2016 Paris agreement, and my hope is that they will help to inspire others to develop a better awareness of the challenges of the future and to enact – engineer – a sustainable future for cities and the society that uses them.

Smart cities are often thought of as things of the future; I think they should be today's norm.

Green townships and reducing emissions

The first paper in this issue (Siew, 2018) is about an index, the 'Green Township Index' (GTI), as is under development in Malaysia. The GTI aims to measure 'people, planet and prosperity' at city scale and proposes awards based upon assessed scores in these three areas. While it initially looks at the sustainability of existing townships, it is hoped that it can guide the planning of new towns.

The development of the GTI has included a review of other indices. The initiative has promise for long-term strategists, to benchmark and drive sustainability and can be used to demonstrate commitment towards the UN's goals.

The next paper, 'Scenario analysis of embodied greenhouse gas emissions in UK construction' (Giesekam et al., 2018), is directly relevant to the Paris agreement, as reductions in GHG emissions are driven by national emissions targets declared as part of the Paris process.

The paper examines GHG reductions in embodied emissions in buildings and infrastructure and provides a way to develop reduction targets at project level. Interestingly, its analyses suggest that sector reduction targets are unlikely to be met, lending weight to the notion that engineers need urgently to adapt their practices.

Eco concrete and smart transport

Adapting engineering practices looks like it might be helped by the third paper, which tackles the sustainability of concrete production (Suresh and Karthikeyan, 2018). This advocates, among others, a marked reduction of embedded carbon dioxide in the production of concrete. 'Performance enhancement of green concrete' describes research into making sustainable concrete and explores the feasibility of replacing all the traditional materials in concrete production with industrial inorganic polymeric residual waste.

The result, geopolymer concrete (GPC), has the potential to reduce substantially the GHG emissions associated with concrete (usually in the manufacture of Portland cement). GPCs could make a significant contribution to smart cities' sustainability.

Our penultimate paper brings a different angle – and includes studies on the social aspects associated with the use of big data in the development of smart transport in the UK city Milton Keynes (Valdez et al., 2018). The paper describes how citizens are concerned about passive intrusive surveillance (on personal movement, for example) as can be used to help manage traffic flows. Citizens perceive the benefits accruing not to themselves but to industrial and governmental players.

The paper describes how this 'distrust' can be ameliorated by having citizens play an active part in providing transport data, but this is only likely where the citizen recognises the benefits. This is an important contribution to the discussion on how, and what, data are collected and the rights and needs and willingness of citizens to participate. A truly smart city will rely upon technology, much data and many data sources, but the social aspects are key factors that need recognition.

Going underground

Finally, 'To dig or not to dig? Place and perception in subsurface housing' (Tkachenko et al., 2018) takes a look at assessing public opinions on urban planning using web-based tools and makes use of underground development in urban locations as a case study. This paper tested web-based tools and suggests these offer a screening approach to target planning issues requiring more in-depth analyses or studies by way of forums or focus groups.

Join us at the Shaping a Digital World conference – 25 September 2018

Following on from last year's success, ICE Shaping a Digital World returns on 25 September. This popular event brings together asset owners, consultants, contractors, academics and technology providers to debate the key challenges associated with the digital transformation of infrastructure. 

Join us at the Global Engineering Congress (GEC)

Places for the ICE and WFEO-led Global Engineering Congress are now filling up fast with delegates booked to attend from over 70 countries. Make sure you don’t miss the chance to attend this ground-breaking event being held in London from 22-26 October 2018. The week-long congress will see the world’s best engineering minds will come together to find solutions to help deliver the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Book your place today at from just £150 for a one-day ticket which includes access to the Congress, lunch, entrance to a range of discussion-led sessions and the chance to network with leading experts and industry professionals from around the world.
Now is the time for the engineering community to step up and take action to help make millions of lives across the world better.
  • John Dora, director at Climate Sense / John Dora Consulting