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Sustainable smart cities and the architecture of the future

With the environmental, economic and social changes facing our cities, we are having to think very differently about our place on this planet. Smart cities are ushering in a new era of technology and advancements in how we design, how we build, and ultimately how we live as we attempt to craft better, more sustainable cities.

The world is changing. Socially. Economically. Environmentally. Politically. Extreme fluctuations in how people inhabit this earth are causing migration into city centres faster than ever before, and raising questions about how we better design our built environment to sustain that incredible growth. Adaptation isn’t a choice, rather a necessity, if we are going to move into the future with intelligent progression. Cities must be smarter. Architecture must be more responsible. And people must be conscious of the impending catastrophe facing 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 and professional level to ensure a smooth transition into that future?

This article hopes to address where we are headed in an attempt to predict the development of a smart city. One that can handle the socioeconomic bandwidth, a massive influx of people and resources they brings with it.

What is a smart city?

A smart city is always evolving. It makes use of automated technology to gather data, and then uses that data to regulate and control any number of municipal systems. These systems range from transportation to education, but also include complex networks of buildings, roads, bridges and electric grids. Making cities smarter means making them aware of the inputs that contribute to how these various systems operate, then using technology automatically make things more efficient.

The goal of a smart city is to cultivate a more sustainable environment, and by virtue a more sustainable city. One with less waste and inefficiency. This isn’t limited to just non fossil fuel forms of energy production, either. Smart cities are making use of waste management facilities that can convert garbage, and even sewage into usable electrical energy. And the waste that cannot yet be converted into fuel is being better sorted into recyclables, compostables, and waste. All of these systems require massive overhauls in infrastructure planning and constructing, especially in instances where the existing system has been well established.

For example, Barcelona is consistently championed for ranking high across the board for various metrics used to analyse city intelligence. Despite being one of the oldest and most storied cities in the world, they have managed to implement city wide upgrades to their electrical grids, smart traffic and parking systems, even street lights that are properly timed and use low energy bulbs and solar power for operation. Such changes can be slow to adaptation due to the grand scale with which such transitions must happen on.

“Smart” doesn’t necessarily point to the automated, artificial intelligence of these different systems, but can simply refer to the way in which planners, architects, and city officials approach any number of ubiquitous issues. Being smart about urban design and architecture means understanding economic growth, density and zoning, and how the existing network of roads and grids can be better. It has almost everything to do with the people who live in and are moving 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.

In addition a smart city is a self-aware city, filled with self-aware people who are willing to take on the conscience that comes with being sustainable. Those people understand the impending environmental and social issues facing our future, and understand that if we do not start putting a plan in place to change how we live, things could get bad and they could get bad fast…

How About That Plan?

At surface level, it might seem easy to usher smart city system building into all cities with enough foresight and, most importantly, economic equity to make it happen. However, cities are massive, complex entities that rely on jurisdictional human involvement in drastically changing how things work.

In most cases, for example in America, substantial change will only be a result of some impending social, economic, or political factors that change the way people think about 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 to make people think differently about investing time and money into technology that will make our cities better. Once you get a ground swell stirring in the minds of the people that will grow to include city, state, and federal jurisdictions that ultimately have all the power when it comes to making a smart city.

It is for this reason the transition for cities into a smart future is going to naturally happen where that culture is already present. The progressive, technologically minded pockets of the world will be where these changes happen first. And they already are. New York, Paris, San Francisco, Sydney, Tokyo, Beijing, Helsinki, Stockholm - these are the places where those transitions have already started, and the look, feel, and other street level experiential elements reflect what’s happening at the back end of things. These changes are hardly cosmetic, and are reflected by the future of architecture and building design that must work alongside the macro changes happening at the planning level.

Changes in Scale

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

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

That is when the scale changes from planning to architecture, and individual architects, engineers and developers take on the difficult task of stamping art on top of bureaucracy. The best designers and architects in the world are not just 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 resources in hiring international designers and architects to design important architectural landmark structures, such as libraries, transit centres, museums and civic buildings - they represent a visual and experiential manifestation of what the city wants to become.

In a word: smarter.

What’s In the Box?

So, what does an architectural building whose aim is to contribute to the growing cultural equity of a soon to be smart city look like? Let’s start with the superficial.

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

That is why, despite the controversy of his buildings, cities will crawl all over themselves to get a piece of his majesty. What he is able to do adds cultural intrigue, and that can be an important piece of a city looking to radically change its image, and consequently become more economically and socially relevant. They do little to protect the environment, improve circulation and urban flow, but they provide a unique kind of superficial intrigue that makes them important nonetheless. Notorious, indeed.

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

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

These are all reasons architecture is so important to the success of a smart city. Big ideas 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 and more living, breathing organisms that operate based on observed biological processes. We are on the precipice of science fiction, where the systems within a structure, and perhaps even within an entire city, are self-aware and automated. It’s important, however, that as this happens we maintain the human aspect that make buildings such an important part of life. They are shelter. They are warmth. They are a fundamental need and represent an uncountable number 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 is difficult to say exactly how fast these changes are going to happen. As the climate continues to change, as we continue to remove resources from our planet with no hope of getting them back, municipalities, countries, and world organization are going to have to get more and more serious about progressing fundamental ideas about how we live. It is horrifying to think about what might have to happen before a leap is made, but that very well may be the case. In the meantime, what we can do as designers, builders and developers, is work within the limitations we have to create beautiful, socially, economically and environmentally responsible places to live. Smart Cities.

Smart cities have to have a conscience as well. They cannot assume having the newest architectural technology, the smartest architects, designers and people and the most money behind the whole thing will yield the best results. These things cannot be conceived in some back room with no windows and a few privileged people making all 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 cultural equity necessary to inhibit change within a city. That could be most important: a purely democratic movement where opposing opinions and viewpoints are all trying to attain a common excellence.

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

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

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