Smart Sustainable Cities White Paper – Contributions [02]

Stephen Goldie

Abu Dhabi Department of Urban Planning and Municipalities, United Arab Emirates

Smart Sustainable Cities

“A Smart City uses technology to enhance quality, wellbeing and safety of citizens. It provides means to engage more effectively and actively with its citizens and enterprises. And lastly, it helps city authorities to reduce costs and resource consumption for their cities.”1 In other words Smart City, as the concept is currently understood, is not about making the occupants of a city smarter, nor is it about planning the city more cleverly, it is about using technology to manage the city better. In short: smart city management.

To manage cities better is a good thing, but there is much more that needs to be done. In the west and the east, existing cities need to be made significantly more sustainable by reducing CO2 emissions and suchlike, while, in the global south, UN population forecasts translate into a need to build the equivalent of three thousand one million person cities in the massive arc stretching from northern Africa through the Middle East, and across all of Asia to Oceania at a rate of six each month for the next thirty five years.

Current planning systems struggle to produce quality plans for new urban areas at anything faster than a single one million person city per country each decade. This is because (notwithstanding geographic information systems, on-line lodgement and word processing) plan making techniques and approvals processes have barely changed over the last hundred years: start with a metropolitan planning strategy, convert this to local statutory ‘land use zoning’ plans, prepare detailed master plans for new or regenerating areas and then pass these to surveyors and civil engineers for implementation (engineering design, procurement and construction). But each step takes two to five years. Typically, planning takes something like ten years from initiation to a significant level of development on the ground, but only if each plan in the chain is good enough to achieve political support and be implementable. If not twenty years is still a ‘good’ result.

After the planning is done and the infrastructure is underway the planning approvals process kicks in, a process so fraught with complexity and value judgements that development application delays are the bane of every architect and developer. In some places all aspects of urban planning and design are subservient to the statutory process, when it should be the reverse.

So, to house an additional 3 billion people in cities by 2050, administrations seeking to manage urban development and population growth in a resource efficient and environmentally sensitive manner will increasingly turn to recent innovations that are already being deployed piecemeal around the world, e.g.:

  • Daily satellite imagery;
  • Drones;
  • Graphic visualisation and simulation;
  • Big data, powerful algorithms and deep learning;
  • Transect based planning;
  • Form based codes; and
  • Automated applications approvals software.

These and other technologies, if properly integrated, promise plans for new cities in months and planning permits in an instant, revolutionising the relationship between the national or provincial legal framework and more local integrated planning, but at the cost of many existing safeguards. Combined, they will create a revolution in urban planning, but if the outcome is “garbage in, garbage out” then we will have failed, possibly to the point of human extinction. The old systems, despite occasional places of beauty and wonder, gave us the unsustainable cities of the west and the east, we don’t only need a faster, cheaper way, we need a better way!

So, what is required is not just the application of new technology to an old system, but a completely new system – one that is very fast, uses all of the strengths developed over some three thousand years of city building and avoids the weaknesses that have got us into the current mess. The key is in the phrase “if properly integrated”. To solve this problem we must return to first principles and build from bottom up all over again.

At present our key, most basic paradigm is the three-circle ‘Triple Bottom Line Model’ representing three dimensions of sustainability. It is a simple, but powerful model that has inspired people the world over to strive to create a more sustainable society, but (beyond the generalisations that whatever is planned should be environmentally, economically and socially sustainable) it gives no specific guidance to urban planners as to what should be built where, or in what form. However, by exploring the inherent tension between the natural and built environments in a way that demonstrates sound links to environmental science and the rural-to-urban transect, an operational sustainability model for city planning can be developed. Based on this analysis, two important innovations are possible; firstly, a demonstration that, at least for urban planning, the sustainability factors resolve into the application of a rural-to-urban transect that is already well understood in some places; and secondly, it is hypothetically feasible to apply automation to a geographical information system to produce the ‘first draft’ of an urban structure plan to the level of community units. If such a system reaches proof of concept, further developments will rapidly follow.

It could be claimed that the one advantage of the slow grind of current systems are that they allow for extensive community, peer, political and judicial review: presumably a net of safeguards against dangerous and inappropriate development. But, clearly that is not the case – much of our modern city is dangerous to the environment and inappropriate socially and economically. Systems that accurately reflect the collective view of a city and combine this with evidence based science are more likely to produce better results than the current development-by-development consultation and debate processes.

Further development of this approach should result in an urban planning model suited to the 21st Century and, hopefully, inspire planners, architects and designers to integrate geography, environmental science, urban planning, urban infrastructure, architecture, landscaping and interior design with a detail and beauty that has not been seen since the highest expressions of city building in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, such as those created by the City Beautiful and Garden Cities Movements and the glories of the Belle Époque.


1. Kanumury Radhesh (leader of the Global Entrepreneur Program for IBM India and South Asia) What it takes to be a Smart City?, Your Story, 13 February 2015

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