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Last edited 27 Feb 2023
Smart cities engineering
Smart cities optimise the use of technology in the design and operation of infrastructure and buildings in a way which meets the current and future needs of their citizens. To be truly 'smart' they also require consideration of governance and growth, urban development and infrastructure, the environment and natural resources, society and community. (Ref Buro Happold: Defining and benchmarking SMART cities)
Historically, the role of the civil engineer has been to take developments in science and technology and apply them practically for the benefit of society. By necessity, it has been a methodical and evidence-based approach, bounded by codes of practice and regulation. However, the speed of current advances in information and communications technology (ICT), in the use of computer hardware and software, is challenging these traditional working practices.
As urbanisation increases and technologies that offer the opportunity to improve city efficiency and quality of life come on stream at an accelerating rate, so it becomes necessary to ensure that city infrastructure is both future-proofed and flexible. This is compounded by the need to consider the impact of climate change and the need for both resilience and adaptability.
Technology is not replacing the need for high-quality engineering, but rather the real benefits of technology only accrue on the back of good engineering. Engineers with a global experience and understanding of how different environments and cultures require different solutions, of the challenges of new build versus retrofit, of the demands of changing regulatory and fiscal policy are better equipped in terms of skills, experience and flexibility to deliver forward-thinking, future-proofed solutions for development and infrastructure projects.
There is a need to combine integrated 'layers of smartness' that embrace not just resource efficiency but the promotion of good health, economic stability, a sense of shared community and an ability to adapt to future challenges. This requires a more sophisticated and universal language and an integrated approach to urban development, funding and governance. The recent global economic recession has exposed a large number of developments that ignored economic and social needs in the belief that any new, bold development with a veneer of environmental sustainability would attract the market.
 Smart city vs living city
Smartness is not all about technology, although this is where it is sometimes driven by a section of the hi-tech fraternity. A broad-based, integrated approach is necessary to deliver the cities of the future. The term 'living city' can be used to describe this approach.
- Physical features such as rivers and lakes
- Existing communities
- Manufacturing and employment bases
- Natural resource availability
But most of all, cities are about the people who live, work and socialise in them. Keeping this in mind while selecting the appropriate design and optimising the strategies for energy, water, waste, transport, building design and orientation, and ICT which underpin the development of city spaces is inevitably complex; but it drives solutions which are unique, ensuring that the 'living cities' of the future retain character and personality.
It does not mean that common solutions and processes cannot be developed, simply that the way they are integrated and delivered, with increasing layers of sophistication and 'smartness', militates against homogeneity.
 Delivering best practice, efficiency and productivity
Engineers need to act as the lynch pin connecting applied technology and infrastructure, city planning and design. They need to broker optimal responses to competing issues and to provide strong leadership within the construction industry.
The key components to this approach are:
- Clear communication to decision makers of integrated benefits from design through to operation and decommission;
- Integration of 'living city' principles with policy and governance structures;
- Clear holistic understanding of how data works and is transferred between technologies and systems;
- Clear understanding of how data is captured and used by decision makers and the social and security implications of this, and
- Understanding how technology can be employed across functions to create economies of scope and scale.
In terms of the last point, key challenges for potential clients include future-proofing and value for money; that is, how to ensure hardware installed today is not obsolete in five years time. Much like the computer industry, real development and investment value is often best cultivated through competition resulting from an open architecture/ecosystem-orientated approach, an approach driven by dynamic start-up businesses rather than the large, international corporations whose tendency is simply to urge cities to adopt their solutions.
 Evidence base
The smart city concept offers opportunities for, among other things, resource savings such as power, heating, cooling, water and waste. Properly deployed, smart solutions for buildings provide resilience, a degree of security, additional surety in maintaining asset value for the owner, and protection against future policy and legislation. In addition, there are new business opportunities for owners of smart networks and through the collection and manipulation of data.
So, why are cities not being developed or retro-fitted to fully exploit these opportunities? Partly it is because of the competing needs of short-term development versus long-term ownership, of capital expenditure (CAPEX) versus operational expenditure (OPEX) and an inability to properly assess whole-life costs. However, fundamentally it is because of a lack of real evidence. More research is necessary to build the evidence base required to make the smart city concept a reality:
- What is the actual cost of deploying smart solutions?
- What are the actual, demonstrable benefits?
- Who provides the funding?
- How is it governed?
- Who owns the networks and data?
- Who should be able to exploit this data?
The delivery of smart cities is complex and not limited solely to technology. It should include integrated urban design principles which respond to the local context, as well as being supported by a considered business case. It requires collaboration between international and local consultants who are committed to pushing the boundaries of best practise.
There are few operating examples of smart cities across the world. International planners, designers and engineers, who use evidence-based approaches to urban design and who have worked on developments across the world which are future proofed need to offer developers and municipalities sufficient confidence that the concept is achievable.
 About this article
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 External references
- Buro Happold articles on smart cities.
- Global Report on Human Settlements 2009, Planning Sustainable Cities Foreword by Ban Ki-Moon, former Secretary General, UN.
- High Line project in New York.
- YouTube: Urbanisation.
- Buro Happold: Defining and benchmarking SMART cities.
- The Edge Debate: How scary is smart?
- Buro Happold: The Living City; systems methodology. 2013.
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