Special report: Creating “human” smart cities

UAE entities are proving that a smart city goes beyond being merely smart

Smart city

Smart cities are — almost by default — associated with the 'smart' adoption and use of latest technology concepts. Amid the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, several entities across the world have announced remote working plans, made possible by online tools.

With much talk about advanced solutions such as meetings via holograms potentially replacing video conferencing, technology and innovation are probably of lesser concern, and not only in the corporate sector. That is why — when we speak of smart cities — it is crucial to consider sustainability, cost-effectiveness, liveability, mobility, security and safety, and human centricity, in tandem with technology.

Playing it smart, sustainably

UAE-based construction consultancy, engineering, and advisory firm AESG, are "signatories to the World Green Building Council Net-Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment, and have pledged to support the built environment in reducing carbon emissions to net-zero across their project portfolio in the Middle East, Asia and Europe by 2030", managing director, Saeed Al Abbar tells Construction Week.

AESG has implemented a Pathway to Net-Zero design tool on all its projects, to stimulate the transition to smart cities across the world and reduce overall carbon emissions.

Al Abbar further states that it is useful for multidisciplinary planning teams to "prioritise connectivity, active outdoor urban environments, and efficient supply and demand of utilities and resources, while enhancing the overall environmental, social and economic impact of the development," while planning a smart city.

Taking enormous strides in its bid to push for sustainability is Expo 2020 Dubai's District 2020, which is touted as "a new urban experience which connects people and spaces in a smart and sustainable urban environment, designed to encourage creativity, collaboration, and innovation."

Once the mega event is complete, District 2020 will "repurpose 80% of the site's advanced physical infrastructure including smart buildings and transport, green spaces, and social and cultural attractions. It will also apply tech-driven innovation to improve services and enable the community to function both smarter and with sustainably in mind to create a better quality of life," vice president of District 2020, Nadimeh Mehra states.

Smart city developers and planners are faced with a plethora of challenges in the process of planning, developing, building, and equipping smart cities or buildings. A major consideration to ponder over is the "rising population" which is causing a "rapid increase of urbanisation," head of Orange Applications for Business for Indirect, Middle East & Africa, and Russia, at telecom firm Orange Business Services, Mohammed Al Retmi tells Construction Week.

Speaking statistically, he adds: "Given the current population growth, we will have an additional 2.5 billion people on the planet, and an urbanisation rate of 70%, by 2050. This will cause an inevitable increase in global energy demand, which is predicted to rise by 35% between 2008 and 2035. Our cities already account for around 80% of greenhouse gases, and water shortages are affecting around one-third of people worldwide, as we struggle to manage the challenge."

"Buildings account for one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, as well as 40% of the world's primary energy consumption," chairman of UAE-based independent environmental forum Emirates Green Building Council (EGBC), His Excellency Ali Al Jassim, tells Construction Week.

EmiratesGBC has shown commitment to advancing net-zero carbon buildings in the UAE by promoting building retrofits and on-site solar installations.

Shifting focus to the local construction industry, Al Jassim observes that "buildings and facilities in the UAE account for 70-80% of the nation’s total electricity consumption."

The problem lies in that "nearly 25% of the existing building stock in the city is energy-inefficient," he adds.

While buildings — if not built sustainably and judiciously — can play menace to the overall landscape of a city, it is important to note the several significances of buildings.

Al Jassim acknowledges that buildings have a high degree of energy-saving potential between 10-20%.

"Buildings are not just consumers, but also prosumers," head of Smart Buildings Middle East & Asia Pacific — Danish consultancy firm, Ramboll, Andy Brahney, tells Construction Week.

Brahney adds that the notion of smart cities feeds in with the ultimate goal of decarbonisation of built environment, energy sector and transportation that many cities and nations are targetting.

Enter the concept of 'green' buildings. Net-zero structures fulfil green building objectives, contribute towards the longer view of sustainable cities and buildings, and provide a long-term solution to energy-inefficiency, by "reducing the ecological footprint and energy demand," Al Jassim adds. "The integration of smart features such as energy management systems, control sensors and grid-connected solar power systems form the bedrock of net-zero carbon buildings. The focus of net-zero buildings on being resource-use efficient will, in turn, contribute to the era of net-zero cities," Al Jassim adds.

At the cost of being smart and sustainable

You can want and have it all, but at what cost? In the quest to plan, develop, and build smart cities that boast several superlatives, developers and planners should maintain cost at the forefront.

"The most crucial element of planning a smart city is to have clearly defined goals and key performance indicators that need to be achieved from the outset of the project", Al Abbar says, suggesting that technology should be appropriately deployed to achieve the prescribed goals cost-effectively. Following this approach would result in reduced capital and operational costs of infrastructure.

"Unfortunately, I see far too often that smart city projects miss this step and jump straight to plugging in the latest and trendiest technology without thought for the actual purpose of what is trying to be achieved.  This invariably results in costs increasing and objectives not being met," he adds.

"Between 3-5% of the overall construction budget is being allocated to ICT infrastructure and SMART-related services," Brahney notes. Ramboll tests SMART technology investments with a cost-benefit analysis. Through the analysis for all proposed technologies in their projects, it maps the capital expenditure (CAPEX) and operational expenditure (OPEX), against the tangible and intangible benefits of installing the system and shows if technology will meet the required return on investment (ROI) and payback period for the developer.

A city that's human and liveable

Although the District 2020 masterplan is smart and sustainable in nature, Mehra says that the "smart and sustainable future-proof innovation district has been built with human centricity at its core."

Achieving human-centricity in planning a city or district allows "cross-pollination of businesses, people and ideas within a curated system," and is among District 2020's prominent aspects that Mehra is anticipating. 

Al Retmi notes that smart cities must intersperse technology with human qualities, to "be designed around human needs, and built on a foundation of trust," resolving the growing need for security and transparency while planning cities.

"Blockchain is a key enabler in addressing the issue of building ‘trust’ into the smart city. The disruptive technologies of smart cities include both blockchain and machine learning, which combine to accelerate a smart city’s ‘IoT economy’."

Lastly, Al Retmi advocates digital thinking, "which can be achieved by combining system thinking (innovating the value chain) with design thinking (creating viable human-centred products and services revolving around the customer digital journey)."

It is important to ensure digital security while planning smart cities. "The routes of possible attacks are well known; for example, IoT (Internet of Things) security issues are linked to the lack of encryption over the line and unfortunately, some manufacturers continue to roll vulnerable devices and systems off production lines into smart city solutions, increasing the possibilities of system attacks.

However, new standards are now being defined to overcome these issues and vendors will have to develop systems to be secure by design," Al Retmi says.

He says that a smart city master system integrator (MSI) "must address security must be addressed during all phases of a project, including, the 'think’ phase, the ‘build’ phase, and the ‘operation’ phase."

"Ultimately, the idea is to build not only a smart — but also a secure — city," he concludes.

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