Smart cities, sustainability and making urban attractive again

Cities are responsible for around 75% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with transport, buildings, energy and waste management cited as the most significant contributors. At the same time, cities comprise less than 2% of the earth’s land surface. Improving the sustainability of the world’s cities has long been a much-desired goal.

But the events of the last couple of years have had a profound impact on cities. Lockdowns reduced commuting, and with working from home and remote schooling, people got used to not having to travel into town as they had previously. In many western countries, the pandemic drove the middle classes out of cities and into the country, with lots of people suddenly rejecting life in built-up areas and realizing they liked the fresh air better. In the U.S., office occupancy rates have leveled out at around 43% on the return-to-work post-COVID. So, with businesses still struggling to attract workers back into offices, property developers are left wondering what to do with city centers: convert offices into blocks of apartments? Look to new greenfield initiatives?

Challenges to greening cities

There have long been challenges to making cities greener places: issues as basic as budget constraints, with money needed for essentials like policing, education, sanitation and more, often taking up most of the funds. There are always political barriers to overcome. And COVID-19 impacted cities’ green project budgets and put a hold on actual timelines, with money being needed for other vital urban services. The situation prompted dozens of city mayors around the world to sign a letter coordinated by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group that called for green stimulus spending to be a priority in the aftermath of the pandemic.

The need was reiterated at the Smart City Expo World Congress (SCEWC) summit in November 2021, which hosted over 30,000 professionals from urban innovation systems from more than 120 countries. “Our 10th anniversary edition comes at a time when cities need to be together even more, and this summit gathers to restart a much-needed drive for sustainable urban transformation,” said SCEWC director Ugo Valenti.

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, took place in November 2021 in Glasgow and featured a dedicated day titled Cities, Regions and the Built Environment. The day focused on concrete initiatives that might emerge from COP26, such as the UK Government launching an Urban Climate Action Programme (UCAP), which will provide £27.5m to at least 15 cities in developing countries across a three-year period, with additional funding to be added by Germany. The project will provide funding to cities, including Lagos, Johannesburg, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Lima, Bogota and Mexico City, to decarbonize public transport systems and energy systems, improve climate risk assessments and make waste management more sustainable.

Projects underway

In emerging markets worldwide, governments continue to look for inward investment to modernize their urban infrastructure. Initiatives like the greenfield Administrative Capital for Urban Development (ACUD) in Egypt, also known as “New Cairo,” which focuses on renewable energy and uses Internet of Things (IoT) technologies to save power, are leading the way. The city is committed to allocating 15 square meters of green space per inhabitant and plans to have a central “green river,” a combination of open water and planted greenery that is twice the size of New York’s Central Park.

India’s ambitious Smart Cities Mission is designed to create 100 smart, sustainable cities around the country. Cities in India are home to around 31% of India's current population and contribute 63% to the GDP: by 2030, these figures are forecast to reach 40% and 75% respectively. With such urban expansion to manage, India is looking at smarter ways to increase efficiencies and improve quality of life. Initiatives underway throughout India’s cities include smart road and urban mobility schemes, urban space projects, smart water and smart solar projects.

These are the types of projects that demonstrate the depth of vision and commitment to making urban centers more enjoyable, more sustainable places to live and work. Cities need to cope with extreme weather events and manage increasing amounts of trash, air pollution and even things like citizen unrest.

So, pressure is on city authorities worldwide to find new, innovative approaches that improve safety, security, air quality and overall happiness index rating to attract people into, or back into, cities. Digital offers a few ideas that can help.

How tech is helping make cities more attractive

Data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), and IoT are all central to designing and implementing services that will make cities more sustainable and bring people into them. IoT and data analytics are being used in progressive cities to drive clean energy agendas, by monitoring real-time energy use and optimizing consumption. A couple of years ago, the Coalition for Urban Transitions argued that cities could cut emissions by around 90% by 2050 using technology and that implementing low-carbon measures in cities could be worth as much as US$24 trillion to the global economy in that time.

Gartner has predicted that by 2028 there will be more than four billion IoT-connected devices in commercial smart buildings around the world, enabled by smart infrastructure built on 5G and high-efficiency Wi-Fi 6 or 6E. These buildings will be underpinned by smart utilities, including power, waste and water. These types of transformational energy initiatives could contribute to creating circular economies in cities, according to Deloitte Insights, by building up energy production with renewable sources. It potentially paves the way for cities to become self-sufficient in energy consumption over time.

Examples of cities pursuing sustainability

Forward-thinking cities are leveraging digital to reduce energy consumption and airborne pollutants. Amsterdam has deployed smart energy meters throughout the city to drive lower consumption, while Beijing reduced airborne pollutants by around 20% by using IoT sensors to track pollution sources and regulate activities accordingly.

In Spain, the Smart Catalonia project provides investment incentives for companies that commit and contribute to overall city intelligence and sustainability in Barcelona: projects underway include technology-powered schemes to tackle climate change, energy efficiency and smart mobility infrastructure. Barcelona already has more than 20,000 active IoT sensors in place that gather data on temperature, air quality and mobility, and that data is analyzed and visualized using Sentilo, the city’s cloud-based, open-source software platform.

Singapore is Asia’s leader in smart urban infrastructure and sustainability initiatives. Its Green Building Masterplan aims to make 80% of its buildings eco-friendly by 2030. The Green Building Masterplan is part of Singapore’s 80-80-80 initiative, including making 80% of new buildings Super Low Energy (SLE) and achieving 80% improvement in energy efficiency in green buildings. The 80-80-80 scheme also focuses on waste management systems and traffic regulation that can make the city more sustainable and attractive.

New solutions to ongoing challenges

2022 presents city authorities and governments with many challenges, encompassing environmental, economic and societal issues. By deploying approaches and solutions built on digital technologies like data analytics, IoT, cloud and AI, cities can drive tangible, measurable benefits that make them more sustainable and attractive to people.

According to McKinsey, if you do them right, technology-powered smart city schemes can improve quality-of-life indicators, including sustainability, health and crime, by between 10% and 30%. Similarly, the “Green Reboot” report from the IFC estimates that if cities in 21 emerging markets prioritize climate-smart growth in their post-COVID recovery plans, they could drive as much as $7 trillion in investments and could create 144 million new jobs by 2030. Hopefully, these are the sort of initiatives that will encourage people back into cities and drive a process of continuous, sustainable improvement in urban environments around the world.

Read more about how Orange is helping power the ACUD project in Egypt and helping the city drive sustainability.

Steve Harris

I’ve been writing about technology for around 15 years and today focus mainly on all things telecoms - next generation networks, mobile, cloud computing and plenty more. For Futurity Media I am based in the Asia-Pacific region and keep a close eye on all things tech happening in that exciting part of the world.