What Makes A City A City?

January 15, 2018
what makes a city a city?

When I spoke at the smart buildings show in London, the event took me back eleven years to the early days of “smart." The birth of smart was in Greenfield real estate, and from there, it evolved to where we are today.

During those eleven years, I had the pleasure to learn, experiment and observe how the smart cities concept is invading every aspect of our urban environment and delivering value in many areas. Buildings, roads, transport systems, mobility, energy, water, waste and street lighting have all been and are still being transformed due to technology and the changing needs and expectations of users and citizens. Yet some areas are more successful than others because technology can deliver concrete and measurable value to end-user needs.

We often talk about the impact of population growth (7.5B people growing to 10B by 2050) and about the huge negative impact this will have on our struggling infrastructure, depleting resources and our overcrowded planet. Yet It feels sometimes either we don’t want to believe what we say or we are in denial of the sheer impact this will have on our future and our lives, no matter what city we live in.

What does that have to do with buildings? and what roles do buildings play in smart cities?

Only 5 percent of the planet earth is inhabitable (both urban and agricultural). While 29 percent of this earth is made of land, cities occupy 3 percent of this total land. In other words, cities represent 0.9 percent of the earth surface.

Finally, buildings occupy between 70 percent and 80 percent of every city, where we, humans, we spend 87 percent of our life! (we live in buildings of all kinds – home, office, recreation, shopping, etc.)

Therefore buildings, such a tiny percentage of the planet is responsible for a shocking amount of impact. Some of which is negative! Buildings consume 75 percent of world electricity, 40 percent of global energy use, are responsible for 40 percent of the total GHG emissions, consume 25 percent of global water supply and generates 40 percent of total solid waste etc.

If that does not put buildings at the heart of smart cities debate, what would?

One can argue that cities are made of districts and districts are made of buildings and buildings are made of various units ( office, shop, home, etc) If we continue the mapping we can also say nations are made of multiple regions and regions are made of multiple districts….

What does that mean and why it matters?

They all have very similar characteristics even if they differ in scale and function. The ultimate objective for all of them is to provide people safe, productive and prosperous environment to live, work and enjoy.

In the recent years, the concept of buildings has changed to be more about people and shifting towards attracting people, to deliver a better experience, to make them happier, safer, healthier and more productive. This is what cities been trying to do for thousands of years…some successfully and others much less. All along they have both to adapt to the needs and expectations of their occupants (residents or tenants) and leveraging the technologies of the era to meet and exceed their expectations.

They all have infrastructure, systems and subsystems, devices installed, data generated, connectivity provided and they are all in continuous transformation and innovation to create a better way to live, work and enjoy our life.

There is a strong relationship between cities and buildings. A relation that can be positive as well as negative. If we can create synergy and harmony between the two we can create a constructive relation, a relation of mutual value (commonly known as a symbiotic relation).

Two worlds that used to be apart are merging or coming together more than ever and faster than ever: Urban physical space and urban digital space. Such acceleration is an opportunity to ensure such a relationship can mutually beneficial.

This is being accelerated and made possible because of many variables and evolutions. Digitization is forcing a shift in how we think, design, build and operate buildings and more and more cities. Integration is next. Integration of all these systems but also integration across industries and between players. This is where we force things to shift from dumb to smart. From reactive to proactive. From descriptive to predictive.

One of my customers asked me, why the fuss? Why the rush and what is the big deal? None of these devices and systems are new. For decades, we had systems and devices. True, they have been around for decades, but when they become smarter and connected, when you consider digital connectivity, Artifical Intelligence, data analytics, when they communicate two-way, when they can think on their own and make decisions, and when they can predict and simulate options, it is a whole new game. A game with totally new rules that are being defined.

And we all know what happens when you play a game without knowing the rules or when you have no role in writing the new rules.

Buildings and cities are not immune from what is happening technologically around:

  1. Reduction in the cost of computing - cost per million computing, cost per GB storage dropped in the last 30 years by thousands of times.
  2. Hyper-connectivity - In 2000, we had 350 million people connected in the world versus over four billion today.
  3. Exponential computing power - Moore’s law combined with the accelerated pace of change and speed of innovation driving us closer to “singularity."
  4. Microcomputing - When the smallest computer today is the size of grain rice and will keep shrinking.
  5. IoT - The number of devices connected to the internet by 2020 expected to be five times the world’s population.

We already entered into the digital economy era, where data is the new currency.

Since this is all about people, it is important to understand that this digital transformation is not merely an option anymore, but a must. When you look around and see that the next generation's workforce is seeking the workplace of the future and to live in cities of the future, what does that mean for your building and city? Have a chat with the generation of the future - you can already guess that your building or city will not be populated by them if it does not meet their expectations. They are clear on where they want to live and work.

Today everyone is out for the hunt looking to attract a talented, highly-skilled creative workforce and to create vibrant and innovative communities. If you're a CEO of a company or a mayor of a city, this is where you want to focus your energy if you want to remain relevant and competitive in the future.

This is not just a concept anymore (as it was eleven years ago), some early adopters (buildings and cities) are demonstrating the power of convergence between physical and digital and are reaping the benefit. They are writing the playbook that many should follow.

Charbel Aoun is a Future Cities Catapult board member and a seasoned smart city and digital transformation professional.

charbel aoun

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