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GET SMART: ASCE revisits Cities of Tomorrow

GET SMART: ASCE revisits Cities of Tomorrow

What will it take, and what will it mean, to live and work in a so-called smart city? And what roles will today’s engineers play in these high-tech cities of tomorrow? 

by ROBERT L. REID, senior editor, Civil Engineering | Jul 4, 2015

AT THE 1939 NEW YORK WORLD'S FAIR, tens of thousands of people were introduced to the “City of Tomorrow” in the form of a gigantic model of a carefully planned, technologically advanced urban environment that the visitors observed from within the revolving balconies of the fair’s enormous Perisphere exhibit space.

But while the actual technologies proposed for Democracity, as the model was officially known, might seem quaint today—air-conditioning and television being major achievements at the time—the concepts and themes behind the futuristic city should be familiar to the engineers, architects, and other designers who are planning so-called smart cities more than 70 years later. 

Reading through the fair’s 24-page booklet, “Your World of Tomorrow,” which described Democracity for visitors, it’s easy to find examples of innovative efforts that would fit neatly into either vision of the future—that of the golden days of radio or our own digital age. For example, vegetated “green” spaces are important to both visions, as is the concept of growing food closer to, or even inside, the city. Improved transportation also is common to both ideals, especially to reduce congestion on the city’s streets and possibly even eliminate on-street parking in locations. 

Both the futuristic city of the first half of the 20th century and the smart city of the 21st century are seen as brighter, cleaner places, their residents enjoying greater access to natural illumination inside buildings and reduced air pollution outside, in part because of the use of renewable energy sources (a hydroelectric dam was envisioned to power Democracity, even if the term “renewable” itself wasn’t used). Even the concept of being “connected” can describe both visions, but the level of connectivity envisioned before World War II doesn’t begin to compare to what is now possible given the advances that have been made in communications technology. 

leveraging information

The leaders of a smart city, or, as some would call it, a smarter city, will rely on information technology in multiple forms to gather information and then use that information to improve the lives of the citizenry.

“A smarter city infuses information into its physical infrastructure to improve conveniences, facilitate mobility, add efficiencies, conserve energy, improve the quality of air and water, identify problems and fix them quickly, recover rapidly from disasters, collect data to make better decisions and deploy resources effectively, and share data to enable collaboration across entities and domains,” wrote Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Ph.D., the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and Stanley S. Litow, vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs at IBM Corp., Armonk NY, in a paper they co-wrote in 2009 entitled “Informed and Interconnected: A Manifesto for Smarter Cities.” 

TomorrowWorld: ASCE magazine's June cover story.

TomorrowWorld: ASCE magazine's June cover story.

Kanter and Litow continued: “But infusing intelligence into each subsystem of a city, one by one—transport, energy, education, health care, building, physical infrastructure, food, water, public safety, et cetera—is not enough to become a smarter city. A smarter city should be viewed as an organic whole—as a network, a linked system.” 

Carlo Ratti, Ph.D., an engineer and architect who is a professor in the practice of urban technologies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he also serves as the director of the SENSEable City Laboratory, compares the growth of digital technology in today’s cities to something that happened decades ago in Formula 1 racing when telemetry technology expanded.

Ratti, who responded in writing to questions from Civil Engineering, explained that the race cars were transformed essentially into computers on wheels that were constantly being monitored by thousands of sensors. Likewise, in cities, broadband, fiber-optic and wireless telecommunications systems that support mobile phones, smart-phones, and tablet devices, together with a growing network of sensors and other digital technologies supplemented by open databases and other information that people can read via public kiosks, are helping to make cities into something akin to “open-air” computers, Ratti said. 




A 2010 report from the international engineering firm Arup entitled Smart Cities: Transforming the 21st-Century City via the Creative Use of Technology explained that the smart city vision “does involve hard infrastructure—such as introducing smart grids alongside various forms of renewable energy generation and building new systems of mobility.” At the same time, the report noted, the smart city vision will primarily be achieved through such “soft infrastructure” as social media networks, communities, legal and cultural systems, and various forms of information and communications technology, including smart meters, smartphones, sensor networks, radio frequency identification tags, and other devices. With sensors attached to existing equipment, for instance, “smart urban infrastructure can tirelessly watch its own operations, predicting faults before they occur,” the report concluded. 

Ratti, Kanter, and Litow also stressed the central role that the citizens of a smart city will have to play. For while civic improvement “stems from improved interfaces and integrations,” Kanter and Litow wrote, “a smarter city understands that the most important connectors across multiple subsystems are the people who give to the city by turning it from a mechanistic bundle of infrastructure elements into a set of vibrant human communities.” 

It’s critical to keep that human element in mind because more and more people are going to be living in cities.

Today, roughly half of the world’s population lives in an urban setting. By 2030, that number will increase to 60 percent, and by 2050 it is expected to reach 75%, notes Rick Cunningham, RA, who was a senior project director in the Future Proofing Cities program of the international engineering firm Atkins. (He has since left the firm.) The numbers are even more urban for the U.S., where it is expected that nearly 90% of the population will be living in a city by 2050, adds Cunningham. 

In some countries, these new urbanites will live in cities retrofitted with smart technologies that will improve their daily lives. In other places, the smart cities will be newly constructed metropolises designed from the ground up and from the ground down, to make the best use of the newest digital devices. Engineers see challenges and opportunities in both scenarios, the new or the existing city. 




“It’s always easier to build brand-new infrastructure on a greenfield site, but there are also lots of opportunities within existing cities,” notes Robert Moyser, CEng, a project director of the BuroHappold Engineering’s Living City Model, based in the firm’s Bath, UK, headquarters. “This is especially true if the city owns technology assets—a fiber-optic network, for instance—that may have lots of spare capacity to utilize in different ways,” Moyser says. 

Likewise, Ryan C.C. Chin, Ph.D., the managing director of the City Science Initiative at MIT’s Media Lab, notes that the “advantage to retrofitting a city is that you actually have people there already, meaning you have an established culture, people living and working there, so you can observe what they are doing and then through ethnographic study and big data analysis you can determine where are the bottlenecks? Where do cities need improvement?”

Designing 'new' anew

But for a new city, the challenge is to design something that truly is new, that makes the city more livable. Too often, “new” cities continue to be designed around the automobile, for instance, even though that is essentially a 1960s transportation model that “isolates people from each other and creates tremendous traffic,” says Chin, who also teaches a course entitled Beyond Smart Cities

In either case, new or old, the goals should be the same: to improve the quality of life for citizens and make it easier for people to live, work, and move about. The sensors deployed and the data collected will help people deal with major societal issues, including traffic congestion, energy consumption, and pollution and the issues of climate change, as well as such mundane activities as buying groceries, finding a parking space, and disposing of trash. The technology can help solve problems that range from something as simple as having a pothole fixed to actually evacuating the city during an emergency. 

Although a smart city will eventually have to be a system or, perhaps, numerous interconnected systems, it will also be a collection of individual structures, including buildings, streets, and the vehicles moving on those streets, each of which will incorporate varying degrees of smart technology. Imagine “a building that has a brain,” proposed Josef Hargrave, an associate of Foresight, Arup’s internal think tank and consultancy, in a January 2103 report entitled It’s Alive! Can You Imagine the Urban Building of the Future?  The smart skyscraper of 2050 could feature a “dynamic network of feedback loops characterized by smart materials, sensors, data exchange, and automated systems that merge, virtually functioning as a synthetic and highly sensitive nervous system,” Hargrave wrote.

This system could have the ability to collect data on such factors as energy consumption, transportation, weather, and even occupancy “to execute informed and calculated decisions about the optimal use of resources,” he noted. “As a result, the building has the capacity to create an environment expressly curated in response to the current conditions of the people, environment, and city.”

The monitoring of heat absorption and heat balances would enable the building’s systems to minimize the so-called urban heat island effect; sensors in the recycling facility could automatically separate materials; and the building systems would be fully integrated into the local smart grid, Hargrave stated. Moreover, such renewable energy systems as on-site wind turbines, urban farm systems, cells on the facade for converting algae into biofuel, and even a process for producing drinking water from humid air would help the building produce more resources than it consumed, Hargrave predicted. A special membrane on the facade could even convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. 


The windows of a smart building might feature “intelligent” glass, an electronically tintable product that can reduce a building’s electricity and air-conditioning costs by 20 percent over time, according to the description of one such product produced by SAGE Electrochromics, Inc., of Faribault, Minnesota. The tintable glass’s French developer, Jean-Christophe Giron, was named a finalist in the competition for the European Patent Office’s 2015 "European Inventor Award". Alternatively, the window itself could serve as a sort of transparent solar power cell through technology developed at Michigan State University’s College of Engineering. Here small organic molecules absorb specific nonvisible wavelengths of light that are then converted into electricity at the edges of the window surface by thin strips of photovoltaic cells, explained a university press release. 

Within the smart building, sensors could detect how much sunlight was coming through the windows and dim the artificial lighting when natural illumination levels were high, notes Hargrave. Or the sensors could detect when a room was not in use and shut off the lights there until needed. MIT’s SENSEable City Laboratory has even designed a WiFi-based motion-tracking system called Local Warming that features ceiling-mounted heating elements controlled by servomotors that can create “spotlights of warmth centered on people a few meters away,” explained Leigh Christie, an MIT project engineer, in a press release

“Buildings are heated 24 hours a day, even when nobody is in them, and empty corners of the building are indiscriminately kept just as warm as rooms that are in active use,” noted Ratti in that same press release. But the Local Warming system synchronizes climate control with human presence, “vastly improving the energy efficiency of buildings,” especially in such sparsely occupied spaces as large lobbies, the press release stated. 

Smart rooms within smart buildings could also be reconfigured during the day via motorized walls that could move on wheels. The changes could also involve room separators or furniture that could be raised and lowered, notes Chin. CityHOME, the prototype developed at MIT, encompasses 200 sq ft. The idea is a space that could serve as an office during the day, a living room in the evening, and a bedroom at night. Since the apartment could be reconfigured, it would use much less space and thus require significantly less energy to heat and cool, Chin says. Given the high rents in the downtown regions of major cities, such small spaces would make it possible for more people to live closer to where they work and thereby dispense with cars, further reducing their carbon footprint, he says. 

The MIT CityFARM, part of the MIT Media Lab’s City Science Initiative, has been developing a low-energy “growth chamber” that features hydroponic and aeroponic agricultural methods for growing fruits and vegetables in an urban environment in a way that would reduce water consumption by as much as 90% and eliminate the need to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides. What is more, the nutrient densities of the produce would be doubled, according to the project’s website. Chin envisions skyscrapers with such urban farms integrated into their roofs or facades to provide both natural food for the occupants and additional shading, thereby reducing overall energy consumption. 

Aside from a city’s buildings, the streets themselves, together with the vehicles that will use them and other features of the urban environment, also will play a central role in making a city an overall smart system.

As Arup’s report Smart Cities explains, interconnected, data-driven systems work together in ripples of sustainable activities that ultimately loop back to start some of the processes all over again: “In an interconnected urban system, trees and green walls naturally cool streets and buildings; their green waste can be transformed into energy via anaerobic digestion or similar biological treatment; this energy can be used to power a fleet of street cleaning vehicles; the vehicles can make use of the recycled gray water from nearby apartments; the organic waste from the apartments can be used in greenhouses on the roof; and this can deliver food back to the apartments or the café at street level, and so on.” 

Data “form part of the ‘connective tissue’ linking these systems together,” the report adds, “enabling these systems to be managed, balanced, and efficient.... The strategic value derived from embedding data in such processes enables the system, and the city, to learn from its own activity, transforming almost all aspects of operation, from planning to delivery and beyond.” 




A key distinction between a smart city and a traditional metropolis has to do with how people move from place to place. Mobility, rather than just transport, will be the goal, notes Moyser, who explains that “transport” too often focuses on just the use of private automobiles or mass transit, whereas “mobility” is a broader term that also incorporates car-sharing services, bicycling, walking, and other modes. Under a “service model” of mobility, Moyser explains, “your mobility needs and choices are catered for by a mobility service provider,” and your choice of mobility mode will consider more than just cost or the shortest time between two locations.

Other factors, including health benefits and carbon footprint, also will be considered. Thus, mobility could even include not taking a trip at all, adds Andrew Comer, CEng, a partner in BuroHappold Engineering’s London office. “Instead of several thousand people going to the same shopping centers, you could have a couple of large vehicles deliver the goods to your home that you purchased online,” Comer says, noting that eventually the packages could be delivered by a drone. 

Myriad sensors in Santander, Spain, gather data about street lighting, yellow; temperature and air pressure, red; noise levels, green; and parking spaces, blue (available) and gray (unavailable); to help manage city services.

Myriad sensors in Santander, Spain, gather data about street lighting, yellow; temperature and air pressure, red; noise levels, green; and parking spaces, blue (available) and gray (unavailable); to help manage city services.

Many engineers concerned with smart cities see autonomous vehicles, the so-called self-driving cars, as a fairly inevitable solution to transportation problems in today’s cities. “Most accidents are caused by human error, not poor engineering of the vehicle or poor road design or even weather-related events,” says Chin. Instead, most traffic accidents result from such human actions as drinking and driving, having poor driving skills, falling asleep, or texting at the wheel, and each of these would be eliminated if you replaced the driver with an automated system, Chin explains. 

But in a city in which the self-driving cars were “talking” to each other via smart systems and thus avoiding potential conflicts or were communicating with a central system that watched over the entire road network, the result could be a mobility system in which accidents and congestion would be all but eliminated. Although software reliability, public attitudes, and legal issues regarding liability and insurance could block such systems, there’s no technological reason why even traffic lights themselves could not also be eliminated as the autonomous vehicles drove smoothly, almost “magically,” past one another at intersections, noted Ratti. 

Add in expanded car-sharing programs, in contrast to strictly private ownership of automobiles, and the number of vehicles clogging the streets could eventually be reduced to just a fifth of the existing number, Ratti stated. Parking space sensors alone would greatly improve traffic flow, as up to 30% of congestion in city centers is “related to people driving around trying to find a parking space,” adds Moyser. 

And if you factor in electric vehicles, which are almost silent compared with cars having internal combustion engines, together with apps that help people combine multiple modes of mobility—so you know, for instance, exactly when the next subway train will arrive, the best route to take on foot, or where you can find a bike-sharing station—and the result could be a dramatic reduction in the noise levels and vehicle emissions that currently plague many major cities. Eventually, you would be able to tell the difference between a smart city and a traditional city just by using your nose and ears. The traditional city “will be loud and smelly,” but the smart city will be quieter and cleaner, explains John Eddy, P.E., ENV SP, M.ASCE, a principal in Arup’s San Francisco office. 

“Today, your car is parked until your next trip,” Eddy notes, which means that these vehicles “are underutilized and are a significant reason our auto fleet is so large.” But while driverless vehicles will probably involve a smaller fleet, these vehicles “will be buzzing around all the time servicing other people throughout the day—so the math still needs to be performed to determine whether you will actually reduce the busyness” on our streets, Eddy says. 

Ratti, however, believes that the results of shared, driver-less cars will be quite evident on the streets.

He pointed to MIT research that indicates a city as large as Singapore could accommodate its mobility demands with only 30% of its current vehicle fleet if it used self-driving services and that the number of vehicles could be reduced even further if these self-driving cars were used as part of a shared system. 

Numerous articles and blogs also have suggested that driverless cars, especially in car-sharing programs, could greatly reduce the need for parking spaces in cities. For example, in his article “The Driverless Car’s Impact on Land Use,” which appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Green HomebuilderPatrick S. Duffy sees driverless cars as reducing somewhat the number of travel lanes required on streets. A typical street with two through lanes in each direction and one parking lane on each side could be reduced to just one through lane per side, each with a “passenger exchange” lane at the curb so that the driverless car could pull up and either drop off or pick up passengers, Eddy predicts. 

Although certain apps might be helpful in coordinating and integrating the activities of driverless cars, bicycles, and pedestrians, it would still be necessary for the cars, the bikes, and the walkers to be physically separate, even if just for logistical reasons, Eddy predicts. “If [driverless] vehicles are challenged to operate smoothly by their heightened sensitivity to bicyclists or pedestrians, that will create friction in the driverless network, creating pressure to further separate modes of travel,” Eddy says. In other words, don’t start tearing up any curbs or repainting the bike lanes just yet. 

Although fleets of self-driving electric cars have not yet hit the streets in any major city, other key attributes of smart cities are now in evidence around the world. Consider some of the cities ranked among the “smartest” today: the Songdo International Business District, which is located on reclaimed land along the waterfront of South Korea’s Incheon; Santander, a Spanish port city; and Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro. 

South Korea's Songdo International Business District has drawn big-name design talent from around the world.

South Korea's Songdo International Business District has drawn big-name design talent from around the world.

Although fleets of self-driving electric cars have not yet hit the streets in any major city, other key attributes of smart cities are now in evidence around the world. Consider some of the cities ranked among the “smartest” today: the Songdo International Business District, which is located on reclaimed land along the waterfront of South Korea’s Incheon; Santander, a Spanish port city; and Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro. 

In the Songdo International Business District, such international engineering and design firms as Parsons Brinckerhoff, Kohn Pedersen Fox, and Arup are working with Cisco Systems, Inc., of San José, CA, to create a city in which each apartment block will feature its own integrated operations center that will monitor the outdoor lights and the energy consumption in common areas and provide video surveillance for fire detection and other emergency situations.

Each home will have a touch screen operating console so that residents can monitor their home lighting, heating, and cooling, unlock their doors, and even summon an elevator, explained a Cisco-sponsored paper published in October 2013 entitled “Smart Cities and the Internet of Everything: The Foundation for Delivering Next-Generation Citizen Services.” The paper was written by Ruthbea Yesner Clarke, a smart cities analyst at International Data Corporation, headquartered in Framingham, MA. Each Songdo home will also be equipped with a video communications system from Cisco that will enable residents to, for example, avail themselves of tutoring services, take foreign language classes, or receive health care information. 

Songdo will also feature an “automatic waste collection system that draws garbage and recyclables directly from the kitchen into an underground network of tunnels, then carries it to waste processing centers,” reducing traffic congestion and emissions by eliminating curbside trash collection by trucks, explained a May 2014 bulletin from Parsons Brinckerhoff. The firm is working to help the project meet the requirements for neighborhood development set forth in the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program and thus earn the designation “LEED ND.” 

Santander, dubbed “the smartest smart city” in a May 2014 article by Todd Newcombe of that same name in the magazine GOVERNING, has deployed more than 12,000 sensors throughout its streets, buildings, streetlights, and bus stops, and there are even sensors within the asphalt of parking areas. Because tourism is important to Santander, the city monitors a series of city-owned parking garages to keep track of how many spaces are available, notes Atkins’s Cunningham. Electronic information panels located at major intersections can then help guide drivers to available parking, according to the SmartSantander website. (SmartSantander is a consortium of the local government, various universities, and research institutes throughout Europe and elsewhere.) 

Sensors in Santander’s sidewalks and streetlights make it possible for lighting levels to be lowered when no one is in the area, and these measures have reduced the city’s lighting costs by as much as 25 percent, Cunningham says. Even the garbage cans have sensors to determine precisely when they need to be emptied. In this way trucks do not drive around the city wasting fuel and spewing emissions into the air when the trash bins are not yet full, he says. 

In Rio, an IBM Intelligent Operations Center integrates the activities of various city agencies. In a central control room the waste collection providers, the transportation providers, and the energy providers all communicate with one another, “sharing data streams, sharing infrastructure, and having access to consolidated information about what’s actually happening in the city,” says Hargrave. For example, the trash collection trucks in Rio are all equipped with Global Positioning System technology, so in the event of a landslide or flooding “they can be used as emergency vehicles to clear streets or for other functions,” Hargrave says. 

Sensors can also be used to direct the movement of traffic along evacuation routes and even to determine—by monitoring water and energy usage—if people are complying with evacuation notices, explains Cunningham, although he was not specifically discussing the Rio system in citing those examples. 

Although IBM had constructed Intelligent Operations Centers for individual agencies within cities, the Rio project was the first citywide effort, explained a March 3, 2012, article in the New York Times entitled “Mission Control, Built for Cities.” Streaming video from subway stations and major intersections, the control room in the Rio Intelligent Operations Center is designed to track traffic accidents and power failures. It also features a “sophisticated weather program” that monitors rainfall across the city, and it even helps plan the routes of street bands during the city’s annual Carnaval celebration, according to the Times article.

The article also highlighted how the operations center helped coordinate the city’s response to a January 2012 building collapse that killed at least 17 people: “At the operations center, employees alerted the fire and civil defense departments and then asked the gas and electric companies to shut down service around the scene. Others temporarily closed the subway underneath the site, blocked off the street, dispatched ambulances, alerted hospitals, sent in heavy equipment to remove the rubble, and activated civil guards to evacuate nearby buildings and secure the accident site.” 

Governments will definitely play a role in the development of smart cities, wrote Ratti, although he would prefer that this not be a “deterministic and top-down role.” Governments can help develop “a bottom-up innovation ecosystem geared toward smart cities,” he argued, but the government should not decide “what the next smart-city solution should be.” He pointed to France’s less-than-ideal experience with the top-down Minitel system of networked computer terminals in French homes, a precursor to the Internet. Although initially successful, the Minitel system was ultimately decommissioned when its “rigid architecture and proprietary protocols” left it unable to grow and innovate once the ‘real’ Internet rose to global dominance,” Ratti explained. 

Always room for civil engineers

While it might seem that the future belongs to computer science specialists, traditional civil engineers also will play key roles in the future of smart cities in that they will be designing the infrastructure—from streets to sewers—that the sensors will monitor. But they will also need to take things a step further, various engineers believe. 

“We’re talking about systems here and systems that work in a better way—and that is a very, very different approach from what we’ve done in the past when we focused on individual components—how can we make lighting more efficient, a transportation system more efficient,” notes Hargrave. “But now we’re talking about a world where everything is integrated and can talk to each other...and that means that someone involved in a transportation system as an engineer has to start thinking about what does something mean for a lighting engineer or for an urban planner or a waste management company or a logistics company.” 

Engineers will need “a better understanding and grounding in computer science and technology” so that they can “engage more broadly with technology companies,” adds Buro-Happold’s Comer. But more than that, he says, “the engineering profession, especially civil engineers, has historically taken advances in technology and science and applied them for the benefit of society, and that has not changed.” The pace of technological change is faster, of course, “but it is the responsibility of civil engineers to understand where the technology is headed and be able to understand and grasp the opportunities it presents,” Comer concludes. “We’d be abdicating our responsibility if we weren’t taking this very seriously.” CE

The author, Robert Reid, is a senior editor with Civil Engineering, the official magazine of the American Society of Civil Engineers. This article appeared in its issue of June 2015.

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