About half of the world’s population now lives in cities. The United Nations has forecast that this figure will rise to 66% by 2050.
By 2030, the world is projected to have about 40 mega-cities with more than 10 million inhabitants.
In many cities now, there is already a shortage of housing. Public transport is straining to cope with growing passenger numbers and water and energy supplies are erratic.
Climate change is likely to worsen these problems, and issues such as water shortages are likely to drive even more people to live in towns and cities. As a result, dealing with urbanisation is one of the biggest environmental, economic and social challenges humans face.
Just to keep up with expected economic growth, the world will need to spend an average of $3.3 trillion each year on critical infrastructure such as rail, water, telecommunications and roads, until 2030, compared to $2.5 trillion now, according to a 2016 report by McKinsey.
Technology can help ease the strain of urbanisation – and reduce its carbon footprint.
For instance, the “Internet of Things” (web-connected sensors in everyday devices that can talk to each other) can be used in buildings to regulate temperature and forecast/control power demand in cities.
Experts believe that 3D printing could revolutionise the building industry by enabling wider use of efficient materials (better suited to extreme climates such as desert regions) and faster development times. (These and other developments will be discussed at the Energy Efficiency in Buildings Forum 2018 on 18 January, part of the Energy Efficiency Expo, ADSW 2018.)
Technology giant Siemens, which is an exhibitor at ADSW 2018, says that “neural networks” in its software can accurately predict air-pollution levels in major cities several days in advance. Such solutions could give municipal authorities and city residents the information needed to minimise pollution peaks before they happen, improving quality of life and reducing healthcare demand.
“Retrofitting” buildings to incorporate new or updated technologies can lead to significant savings on electricity and water bills, while reducing environmental impact. Advances in engineering, renewable energy and architectural design (e.g. “Building Information Modelling”) will also help make cities more sustainable.
These are just a few examples of how smart technologies are being incorporated into our cities to make them more efficient, cleaner and more user-friendly – ultimately enabling a better quality of life for residents.
The potential for smart technologies and systems is particularly high in dynamic, fast-growing and heavily urbanised regions such as the Middle East.
Masdar City in Abu Dhabi was a forerunner for smart city developments when it was launched more than 10 years ago, and its sustainable design principles and use of renewable energy have since been emulated around the world.
Dubai’s smart city initiative aims to make it the “smartest and happiest city on Earth”, and it is part of a campaign by the United Nations to use digital technology to promote smart cities.
Saudi Arabia also has strong smart city ambitions, and last month announced plans to build a $500 billion city and business zone that links Saudi to Jordan and Egypt. The 26,500-square kilometre zone, known as NEOM (short for “new future”) will get all its power from renewable energy. It will focus on industries such as energy and water, technology, bio-technology and entertainment.
While the potential benefits of smart cities are clear, a number of challenges need to be overcome to bring them to reality, from privacy to data fragmentation to the impact on energy systems. In order to address these, collaboration between governments, businesses and citizens will be essential.
Join the debate at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week 2018.