Sustainable smart cities and the architecture of the future
Sustainable smart cities and the architecture of the future

Theworld is changing. Socially. Economically. Environmentally. Politically.Extreme fluctuations in how people inhabit this earth are causing migrationinto city centres faster than ever before, and raising questions about how webetter design our built environment to sustain that incredible growth.Adaptation isn’t a choice, rather a necessity, if we are going to move into thefuture with intelligent progression. Cities must be smarter. Architecture mustbe more responsible. And people must be conscious of the impending catastrophefacing the human race in order to do something drastic to prevent it.

What does the future hold?

How do we respond as designers,planners and builders?

What can we do on a personal andprofessional level to ensure a smooth transition into that future?

This articlehopes to address where we are headed in an attempt to predict the developmentof a smart city. One that can handle the socioeconomic bandwidth, a massiveinflux of people and resources they brings with it.

What is a smart city?

A smartcity is always evolving. It makes use of automated technology to gather data,and then uses that data to regulate and control any number of municipalsystems. These systems range from transportation to education, but also includecomplex networks of buildings, roads, bridges and electric grids. Making citiessmarter means making them aware of the inputs that contribute to how thesevarious systems operate, then using technology automatically make things moreefficient.

The goalof a smart city is to cultivate a more sustainable environment, and by virtue amore sustainable city. One with less waste and inefficiency. This isn’t limitedto just non fossil fuel forms of energy production, either. Smart cities aremaking use of waste management facilities that can convert garbage, and evensewage into usable electrical energy. And the waste that cannot yet beconverted into fuel is being better sorted into recyclables, compostables, andwaste. All of these systems require massive overhauls in infrastructureplanning and constructing, especially in instances where the existing systemhas been well established.

For example, Barcelona is consistentlychampioned for ranking high across the board for various metrics used to analysecity intelligence. Despite being one of the oldest and most storied cities inthe world, they have managed to implement city wide upgrades to theirelectrical grids, smart traffic and parking systems, even street lights thatare properly timed and use low energy bulbs and solar power for operation. Suchchanges can be slow to adaptation due to the grand scale with which such transitionsmust happen on.

“Smart”doesn’t necessarily point to the automated, artificial intelligence of thesedifferent systems, but can simply refer to the way in which planners,architects, and city officials approach any number of ubiquitous issues. Beingsmart about urban design and architecture means understanding economic growth,density and zoning, and how the existing network of roads and grids can bebetter. It has almost everything to do with the people who live in and aremoving to these cities, and what sort of cultural underpinning they represent.Those societal values are vital to determining the direction a city is heading,and how smart it ultimately becomes.

Inaddition a smart city is a self-aware city, filled with self-aware people whoare willing to take on the conscience that comes with being sustainable. Thosepeople understand the impending environmental and social issues facing ourfuture, and understand that if we do not start putting a plan in place tochange how we live, things could get bad and they could get bad fast…

How About That Plan?

Atsurface level, it might seem easy to usher smart city system building into allcities with enough foresight and, most importantly, economic equity to make ithappen. However, cities are massive, complex entities that rely onjurisdictional human involvement in drastically changing how things work.

In mostcases, for example in America, substantial change will only be a result of someimpending social, economic, or political factors that change the way people thinkabout their lives. And that is where it starts: with the cultural base. In a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”approach to modern problem solving, we have to start resetting the equation tomake people think differently about investing time and money into technologythat will make our cities better. Once you get a ground swell stirring in theminds of the people that will grow to include city, state, and federaljurisdictions that ultimately have all the power when it comes to making a smartcity.

It isfor this reason the transition for cities into a smart future is going tonaturally happen where that culture is already present. The progressive,technologically minded pockets of the world will be where these changes happenfirst. And they already are. New York, Paris, San Francisco, Sydney, Tokyo,Beijing, Helsinki, Stockholm - these are the places where those transitionshave already started, and the look, feel, and other street level experientialelements reflect what’s happening at the back end of things. These changes arehardly cosmetic, and are reflected by the future of architecture and buildingdesign that must work alongside the macro changes happening at the planninglevel.

Changes in Scale

The mosttell-tale sign that a city is moving itself into the future is the architecturethat populates it. Find out where Zaha Hadid, Renzo Piano, Shigeru Ban and thelike are pouring their intellectual property, and find yourself a smartasscity. It is easy to point the finger and say the star designers and architectsgo where the money is, but I think it is also about the inherent artistic,cultural, and environmental opportunity that these high profile, megatropolisjobs present. Consequently, city planners that want to invest in thatopportunity will exert massive efforts to woo those designers and architects todesign the architectural cityscapes of the future. They understand theimportance of cultural equity, which as I mentioned earlier, is the first andmost important step to convincing a population they can do better.

Better,smarter, more inventive and artistically beautiful architectural designs is thenext step down in scale from the urban planning vantage. It is important thosevalues trickle down from the conceptual force behind making a city better. Thisis where changes in zoning, land use, design review and environmental reviewstandards become so important. Sometime such codes can be obstructive,preventing a city from becoming truly unique, in an architectural sense. Thisis perhaps the most difficult task a city will undertake: setting the rules upin a way that they will not inhibit architectural design ingenuity, but alsoadhere to social, economic and ecological baselines deemed important by thepowers that be.

That iswhen the scale changes from planning to architecture, and individualarchitects, engineers and developers take on the difficult task of stamping arton top of bureaucracy. The best designers and architects in the world are notjust brilliant artists, they know how to work a complex, and sometimes at odds,set of building and land use codes. That is why cities are investing resourcesin hiring international designers and architects to design importantarchitectural landmark structures, such as libraries, transit centres, museumsand civic buildings - they represent a visual and experiential manifestation ofwhat the city wants to become.

In a word: smarter.

What’s In the Box?

So, whatdoes an architectural building whose aim is to contribute to the growingcultural equity of a soon to be smart city look like? Let’s start with thesuperficial.

FrankGehry is probably the most notorious architect on the planet. I say notoriousbecause there are those out there who hold extreme vitriol towards what theysee as “soulless architecture.” Gehryis known for designing outlandish, sculptural and visually stunning works ofarchitecture that some designers and architects feel lack a sense of place orregional connectivity. It is a fair criticism, however, those designers and architectswho have seen Gehry’s process understand just how much of a visionary he is. Hebuilds architecture no one thought possible, and they attract people fromaround the world, just to experience a sense of suspended disbelief.

That iswhy, despite the controversy of his buildings, cities will crawl all overthemselves to get a piece of his majesty. What he is able to do adds culturalintrigue, and that can be an important piece of a city looking to radicallychange its image, and consequently become more economically and sociallyrelevant. They do little to protect the environment, improve circulation andurban flow, but they provide a unique kind of superficial intrigue that makesthem important nonetheless. Notorious, indeed.

But ofcourse, there are plenty of other ways a work of architecture can be relevant.Shigeru Ban represents a movement of architecture that attempts to solvehumanitarian and natural disaster relief. He develops new ways of looking atbuilding technology and sustainability to create construction systems thatredefine how we think about architecture. Most famously, he has developedseveral structural systems for temporary disaster relief using repurposed papertubes - massive industrial versions of your common cardboard toilet paper roll.These structures are temporary in many instances, but have been developed to beused as more permanent fixtures and beacons of cultural growth and strength.These types of architectural statements contribute to socio political changewithin a city, and can lead to governments investing in such fixtures to maketheir cities better.

Then youhave Samuel Mockbee and Glenn Murcutt, a duo of Australian architects whobelieve architecture should never be too far removed from nature. Their work insustainable systems within a building have sparked an entire generation of architecturaldesigners and builders who are not only conscious of how building affects theenvironment, they are active partakers in the preservation of natural beautyand the development of sustainable building techniques. It’s become - in 2016 -the norm to incorporate passive and active energy and resource sustainablestructures in high architecture. It’s not an anomaly anymore, and that is avery good thing that will soon trickle down to even the most egregious ofresidential development activity.

Theseare all reasons architecture is so important to the success of a smart city. Bigideas are nothing without the people on the ground who have the wherewithal,the experience, the intelligence, the rigor and the skill to make it real.As technology improves, the buildings will become less inanimate objects andmore living, breathing organisms that operate based on observed biologicalprocesses. We are on the precipice of science fiction, where the systems withina structure, and perhaps even within an entire city, are self-aware andautomated. It’s important, however, that as this happens we maintain the humanaspect that make buildings such an important part of life. They are shelter.They are warmth. They are a fundamental need and represent an uncountablenumber of opportunities to do the right thing.

So, What Happens Next?

Sustainable,smart cities that is what is going to happening next. It has to. It isdifficult to say exactly how fast these changes are going to happen. As theclimate continues to change, as we continue to remove resources from our planetwith no hope of getting them back, municipalities, countries, and worldorganization are going to have to get more and more serious about progressingfundamental ideas about how we live. It is horrifying to think about what mighthave to happen before a leap is made, but that very well may be the case. Inthe meantime, what we can do as designers, builders and developers, is workwithin the limitations we have to create beautiful, socially, economically andenvironmentally responsible places to live. SmartCities.

Smartcities have to have a conscience as well. They cannot assume having the newest architecturaltechnology, the smartest architects, designers and people and the most moneybehind the whole thing will yield the best results. These things cannot beconceived in some back room with no windows and a few privileged people makingall the big decisions. It has to be an effort by all contributors to society.Religious leaders, plumbers, garbage men, teachers, restaurant owners,librarians and museum curators must work together to cultivate the culturalequity necessary to inhibit change within a city. That could be most important:a purely democratic movement where opposing opinions and viewpoints are alltrying to attain a common excellence.

Citiesare already reforming the foundation of what made them great 50, 100, 1000years ago to be sure to be better for another 1000. The hope is that we alllive in a world where people take pride in having a collective group of people,places, landmarks and destinations that take responsibility for inhabiting thisplanet. Designers and architects have a tangible role in that pride, but itshould not end with them. We all live in these cities, and we should all have asay in how they are shaped for a better future. The good designers and architectswill listen to what the city is telling them and act accordingly. Buildingswill become better and smarter by virtue of the human ability to want more.

And wedo want more. If you are reading this, you want more. As I mentioned at thebeginning of this article, people are moving into cities faster than everbecause our values are changing. Our world is shrinking and the more we getused to and accept the fact that it will not be like this forever, the fasterwe can begin implementing smart city systems and sustainable building,transportation, energy and food creation and consumption, and the betterequipped we will be when mother earth reaches her tipping point.

Let ushope that never happens, but if it does, we better be ready. We better besmarter. Our livelihood may depend on it.