In Glasgow, the clock at City Chambers is ticking. The Scottish city is due to host the Commonwealth Games in 2014 and it has promised to “Go for Green” for the occasion. The pledge fits with the city’s long-term sustainability ambitions, which are spelled out in full in its Future Glasgow 2011-2061 plan. On the table are an “energy and carbon master plan”, integrated transport networks, energy efficient buildings and much more.
Glasgow is not alone in envisioning a sustainable future. Urban planners across Europe are contemplating how to make their cities “smarter”. The reason is simple: quality of life. More than half of the world’s population lives in cities; a figure that is set to rise to seven in ten people by 2050. If left unmanaged, that could result in air pollution, water scarcity, power limitations (cities are responsible for 70% of Europe’s energy consumption) and a whole host of health risks.
Smart-city pilot programmes are springing up around Europe as the pending reality of urban living begins to dawn on policy makers. Welcome though these are, they lack a sense of size and urgency, says Richard Miller, head of sustainability at the UK Technology Strategy Board (TSB). “When we look at the problems that cities are facing, we need to scale up these demonstrator projects – as rapidly as possible,” he says.
For Miller, the answer lies in technology. Screen-printed, organic photovoltaics, buildings, powered by fitted fuel cells and zero-carbon vehicles, are just some of the next-generation technologies already at hand. “What technology allows you to think about is how your city might be different.” he says.
Glasgow’s planners echo that sentiment. The centrepiece of their “future-proofing” strategy is a £90m international technology and renewable energy zone, which is due to be inaugurated next year. The city centre investment is designed to serve as a physical hub for renewable energy and smart infrastructure experts.
In January, Glasgow’s urban sustainability ambitions received a welcome boost when it beat 30 other UK cities, including London, Bristol and Peterborough, to win the TSB Future Cities Demonstrator competition. “From transport systems to energy use and health, this demonstrator will … give real insight into how our cities can be shaped in the future,” said minister for universities and science David Willetts on announcing the £24m prize.
The idea of smart cities is not new. Experimental ecocities – such as the bn (£12bn), zero-carbon Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates, or the Fujisawa sustainable smart town in Japan – have been garnering headlines for a while.
However, the situation facing Europe’s cities differs significantly from these greenfield pilots. Most importantly, they don’t have the luxury of starting from scratch. Designing a city in an Arabian desert or on an old factory site is a wholly different ballgame from adapting urban centres with centuries of human habitation.
Another factor is finance. Most municipal governments in Europe don’t have multimillion-dollar budgets to throw at smart-city projects. Nor do they have time on their side. Although Masdar City opened in 2006, the hard hats will be building for a decade to come.
Glasgow’s problems have a very here-and-now quality to them. Life expectancy for adult males, for instance, is 28 years lower in the city’s poorest districts than in its richest – that needs sorting today, not tomorrow.
Tomorrow’s cities, today’s technologies
Fortunately, smart-city solutions needn’t belong to a sci-fi future. Much of the technology is already available, smart city experts insist, and recent technological advances in energy, transport and health are exciting particular interest.
Take the smart grid. Strictly speaking a “suite of technologies” rather than a single solution, the grid offers the potential for a “complete change in energy behaviour”, says Rupert Fausset, principal sustainability advisor at Forum for the Future.
The system balances power-grid supply with consumer demand, allowing for more efficient energy management. The European Commission identifies more than 40 cities around the continent with demonstration pilots already in place, with more to follow.
Other energy innovations with the potential for immediate effect include: renewables, such as cost-effective biomass, solar thermal and geothermal applications; hybrid heating and cooling systems with advanced distributed heat-storage technologies; smart metering; smart lighting, such as solid-state street lighting; and local renewable electricity production.
In the transport sector, Fausset points to the array of possibilities presented by smartcard technology and smartphone-based near-field communication. “When combined with the geo-location abilities of smartphones, they offer the potential to join up transport modes,” he says, citing examples such as car clubs, taxis and bike-rental services.
An illustrative application is CarbonDiem, a smartphone app that uses GPS data and phone-sensor data to map the carbon footprint of an individual’s travel choices.
The electrification of transport promises some of the biggest and most immediate smart-city wins. Sophie Tielemans, a policy officer at trade group Eurelectric, highlights the EU-led eMotion project. Barcelona, Dublin and Copenhagen are among the 10 demonstration cities currently installing extensive charging networks to facilitate the uptake of electric vehicles.
“The core of the project is how to enable e-mobility across Europe in a seamless way,” she says. Last month, the European Union laid out plans designed to encourage roll-out of alternative fuel-charging infrastructure for transport across all member states.
As for healthcare, there has been rapid adoption of telemedicine technologies and e-health solutions in recent years. Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust is one authority pioneering the latter and has installed an electronic patient-record system, known as Lorenzo, in all five of its hospitals.
The technology enables medical staff to have immediate access to patients’ medical histories, which improves levels of care, as well as reducing infections.
Health providers are also drawing on lessons from social media. Tyze is a web-based network that links patients to their relatives, neighbours, doctors and care workers. “It’s very much inspired by things like Facebook, but then it’s applied, with all the confidentiality provisions, to a specific set of health issues,” explains Alex Ross, director of the centre for health and development at the World Health Organisation.
The technology to smarten up our cities may be close at hand, but the distance from planning office to practice can be long.
Developers’ timeframes represent a major sticking point. Technologies require upfront capital investment; the more cutting-edge, the larger the bill – more often than not.
In today’s tough economic climate, many property owners only look for short-term returns, says Harald Thaler, industry director at engineering consultancy Frost & Sullivan. “The savings do come eventually, but one needs a longer time horizon,” he notes.
Importantly, however, the focus shouldn’t just be on technology, as Ronald Hendrikx, a partner at international law firm Bird & Bird, points out. “So many sectors are being asked to design solutions for their future, but in doing so they should not just look at technology, but also the approaches taken by other sectors. That is one of the reasons why smart cities are such an interesting concept; it should hopefully help break down some of the sector barriers.”
For Simon Giles, director of smart city strategy at consultancy Accenture, a wholesale rethink is required. The smart city debate needs to shift its focus from technological inputs to citizen-centric outputs and benefits. “Until the technology companies can articulate the value proposition to consumers, there’s no hope of scaling,” he argues.
The implications are significant. Business models, for one, will need to change. Instead of city authorities reaching into their pockets up front, Giles envisions a system of “value-based contracting”, whereby suppliers are paid by the longer-term results they deliver. That has knock-on effects for governance and financing, he adds.
The watchword going forward will be “collaboration”. “You need hardware suppliers, integrators and financiers to come together and develop new institutional and contractual structures that allow each party to share the risks and the rewards,” he concludes.
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