Urban Sustainability and the City as a Service

Ever since the publication of the UNFP State of the World Population 2007 report, the world’s attention has intensified on the rapid rate of urbanisation: how to mitigate the potential problems and unleash the benefits of urban growth.

By the year 2050 The world population is expected to reach 9.6 billion. 6.4 billion (66 percent) will be living in urban areas. This is all good news if the cities around the world are able to not only absorb the population growth but also flourish economically while achieving and maintaining environmental and social sustainability.

Cities have been expanding for some time now, but the technology world has largely ignored the sector for many reasons. This is beginning to change rapidly, and rightly so. Cities are the engines of economic growth at the centre of human aspiration. More than ever before, cities are homes to humanity’s greatest ambitions. They are the magnets for people and businesses. But cities can also become home to increasing social disparity, poverty, pollution, congestion, waste and environmental problems. The capacity of nations to pursue their economic and social agendas will increasingly depend on their ability to shape and govern their cities.

As demand continues to rise, the social, economic and environmental challenges of urban growth are significantly increasing the cost of public services, safety, security and welfare. Unbridled construction of buildings and infrastructure is a consistent backdrop to almost every city in Asia, but the truth is that local governments have not taken steps to understand the long-term impacts of such rampant development.

Consider the redevelopment a 1,000 m2 neighbourhood bungalow into a 20-storey residential tower. Financially, this is a win-win for land owner and municipality, but a complete analysis must consider the impact on quality of life for the neighbouring homes, business and infrastructure. If the development sets a precedent and similar buildings follow, the city may not have the capacity to accommodate them.

Urban sustainability will be one of the biggest challenges that city administrators will face in the coming years. While sustainability is everyone’s concern, there is no integrated platform or tool to understand, measure and manage it. The recently-established ISO 37120 is emerging as a standard for benchmarking sustainable cities, but it doesn’t address the precinct scale where development decisions are made. Precinct assessment schemes like LEED-ND, BREEAM Communities and Green Star Communities provide a framework for new developments, but don’t help understand the existing urban fabric.

City administrators, developers and urban planners require tools to help them:

  1. Understand the city and its precincts as they exist today and into the foreseeable future;

  2. Measure and analyse the impacts of their design and operating decisions;

  3. Explore design alternatives to choose the most appropriate; and

  4. Share their results with their colleagues and stakeholders.

Given the multitude and complexity of a city’s subsystems, many tools must be developed across this spectrum. For these tools to be intelligent and manageable, they must integrate through a common parametric data model with a deep understanding of the variables and their relationships. Ultimately, this unified platform will unlock the potential of a digital city for anyone who wants to use it.

Citizens could point at any location to explore the benefits and risks of living there. Developers could zoom into any plot of land and calculate its development feasibility. Urban planners could analyse the sustainability performance of their designs. Municipalities could monitor the usage of their cities in real time and consider how to make them more attractive to people and businesses. All of their insights would feed back into the system, and ultimately the city itself.

Every stakeholder wants different services from the city, and yet the data is fundamentally interrelated. The city-as-a-service concept centralises the problem of universal integrated data management, providing the richest possible context for specialised applications. This is essential for exploring holistic solutions to the world’s grandest challenges. What’s more, all kinds of users will be able to collaborate directly, bringing a new level of efficiency, intelligence and participation that will characterise the cities of the future.

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