How Cities can become “Smart”

An essay

by Christian Veddeler and Werner Sübai, HPP Architects

Currently 55% of the world’s population live in cities. With expanding urbanization, this proportion is also expected to increase to approximately 75% by the year 2050.[1]Global production and the corresponding transportation of goods and built infrastructure, has also significantly increased over the last thirty years in order to keep up with growing demand. This process of urbanisation has had – and continues to have - adverse effects on global greenhouse emissions. In 2019, global emissions reached 36 billion tons and this figure is expected to grow annually to 43 billion by 2050. 20% of these emissions are caused by transportation, with another 20% originating from industrial production. A striking 40 percent is caused by building construction and maintenance alone.[2]

The rapid growth of the number of city inhabitants and the spatial expansion of cities, creates enormous pressures on land, material resources, energy, utilities, infrastructure and transport. This has severe impact on the environment through causing pollution, threatening biodiversity and driving climate change. Consequently, there is a need to reconsider the way cities are conceived. The increasing demand for inclusive, more sustainable and more meaningful urban environments, fundamentally challenges the present conception of the phenomenon of the “city”, its infrastructure and buildings.

A frequent claim is that urban development needs to become “smart”, which often implies a shift of perspective from material, to digital city infrastructure, and from physical to virtual city space. In order to understand the challenges and opportunities that this presents to architecture and urban design, we are convinced that it is essential to regard cities not as static objects, but rather as dynamic processes: Cities are complex ecosystems which develop in lifecycles of growth and change, both in physical and digital domains.

As architects and urban designers, we must engage in this discourse. We want to increase the possibilities for urban design and architectural strategies; to envision more meaningful environments that are attuned to diverse conditions of life-needs, life-stylesand life-cycles.

Digitalization creates the availability of new technologies, such as 5G networks, the Internet of Things (IoT), Cloud Computing, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Big Data and Blockchain. From an urban design and architectural perspective, the concept of “Digital Twins” are also particularly relevant.

The ability to create virtual “Doppelgänger” clones of both cities and buildings – which mirror their shape, material, function, use and performance - can help designers to collect of dynamic, real-time data of our actual built environment.

Ubiquitous computing”[3] superimposed onto the built environment, vehicles and devices, allows for perpetual measurement of conditions and performance. The integration of physical and digital infrastructure promises to create the multi-layered “Smart” City, which aims for synchronization, efficiency, predictability, safety and improvement of urban life.

Such a promise, however, can be both vague and audacious, as speculation about hybrid forms of analogue and virtual cities is challenging. The interrelation of virtual and physical infrastructure also has the potential to shape and drastically change the cities’ functions, from its form and appearance, to eventually the behaviour of its inhabitants.

“Smart” Cities cause disruption. Emerging concerns of data privacy and data ownership can undermine the fundamental ideas of “Smart” City infrastructure. The application of intrusive surveillance technology and the practice of commercial data mining can violate existing privacy laws. Cyber security is an equally relevant issue, as the failure or manipulation (intentional or by accident) of “smart” systems can have devastating consequences.

Nevertheless, there are unprecedented opportunities for technology to increase the sustainability of city assets, resources and services, while simultaneously empowering citizens and encouraging social participation. Not only pressing challenges of rapid urbanization and environmental concerns, but also the recent COVID-19-pandemic, have all dramatically illustrated the lack of city resilience to swift change and required adaption.

We see three main challenges for architecture and city planning:

[1] Bundesministerium für wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung (2021) Stadtentwicklung.

[2] International Energy Agency (IEA) for the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (GlobalABC) (2018) Global Status Report, Towards a zero‐emission, efficient and resilient buildings and construction sector.

[3] Markoff, J. (1999) Mark Weiser, a Leading Computer Visionary, Dies at 46, The New York Times, 1 May 1999.

FOUR Frankfurt

FOUR Frankfurt

© Gross & Partner

  • Densification: The uncoordinated growth of many cities follows a “centre and periphery” hierarchy, with suburbanization and a fragmented urban sprawl emerging as a consequence. Here the trade-off between land price vs. centrality, triggers the building of expansive infrastructure to connect city centres with their urban fringe. This undertaking is resource intensive, as it consumes vast amounts of land, material and energy. It is peak hour dimensioned and provides for over-capacities for most of the time. Mobility infrastructure in particular, is highly costly and requires significant amounts of taxpayer money. It privileges not only individual traffic but also subsidies cheap suburban land.

With our FOUR Frankfurt project, a joint-venture of UNS + HPP, we aim to do the opposite. Instead of adding to the existing urban sprawl, we’ve activated an existing city centre site that was previously inaccessible for decades. Through functional juxtaposition of the urban programme, combined with an intense densification of the available space, a diverse, lively and “smart” 15-minute-city-quarter is then created. This mixed-use project contains living, working and leisure facilities, all interlaced into the centre of Frankfurt. Four high-rises extend up to a height of 230m, and include functions for offices, residences and a hotel. The included urban podium houses additional services, as well as recreational facilities, restaurants, cafes and retail and a second hotel. A large elevated and publicly accessible roof landscape also oversees the neighbouring buildings and helps to connect to the surrounding context. The entire ensemble is fully pedestrianized and includes a large area for bicycle parking. The project also connects with the surrounding city on many levels. It forms the dynamic midpoint of a 15-minute walking radius that activates the project within the city centre of Frankfurt. Short walking distances, instead of extensive car travel times, connect residents, visitors and office workers with the necessities, comforts and attractions of Frankfurt’s city-life.

Nanshan Science & Technology Innovation Centre (artist impression)

Nanshan Science & Technology Innovation Centre (artist impression)

@ HPP Architects

  • Adaptability: Many cities can present themselves as monofunctional entities. Their physical assets are inflexible and support spatial and temporal separation of their uses and users, life, work, production and consumption. Division of labour, which was created since the industrial revolution, has led to cities being partitioned into zones for production and habitation. Buildings for temporary uses - such as offices, retail and homes are limited in their operational functions and produce over-dimensioned, unsustainable and predominately vacant buildings, for most of their lifecycle.

    Such buildings are mono-functional and cannot be adapted to allow for alternative uses. This lack of resilience becomes explicitly evident in the current COVID-19 crisis, with entire CBDs abandoned. As a consequence, resources of land, energy, material and capital are severely underutilized.

The Nanshan Science & Technology Innovation Centre, designed by HPP, with Jens Kump and Yu Wei as partners in charge, is a highly densified mixed-use project. It contains programs for living, culture, large scale urban landscape and creates a unique business ecosystem. It offers both prolific environment for start-up initiatives and sustained growth potential for corporate enterprises. Networked incubators dispersed throughout the entire project support efficient and sustainable use of exterior and interior spaces and buildings, that allow for flexible and adaptable growth. The project’s “Digital Twin” will serve as “smart” sensor-driven collector, processor and evaluator of a diverse set of real-time city data in order to improve possibilities of flexible use, agile operation and purposeful maintenance.

Suzhou Creek Waterfront Innovation Park (artist impression)

Suzhou Creek Waterfront Innovation Park (artist impression)

@ HPP Architects

  • Inclusion: The lack of access and incentives for public and social participation results in underutilization of human capital. The potential to integrate social and ethnic diversity, bottom-up initiatives, activities, the contribution of experience, knowledge and creativity, currently remains untapped. Additionally, the neglection of available digital data, or the inability of its use, limits the learning process for city planning and enhancements of future operational processes.

HPP’s Suzhou Creek Waterfront Innovation Park fundamentally frees street zones form traffic and parking and transforms such public areas into pedestrianized green and water infrastructure. Instead of a dominance of traffic, an extensive urban park landscape is offered that is public and provides prospects for strolling, gathering, meeting, engaging and enjoying city life.

[1] Negroponte, N. (1995) Being Digital. London: Hodder and Stoughton

[2] Sennet, R. (2012) No one likes a city that's too smart, The Guardian 4 December 2012

[3] Picon, A. (2015) Smart Cities. A Spatialized Intelligence, London: Wiley, p. 42.

As our selected projects illustrate, we aim for the improvement of quality of life in cities. We believe that this must become a central tenet for “Smart” City planning and architecture, in order to properly integrate humane living conditions with human health and well-being in correct balance with nature.

For the first time in the history of the city, valuable information is now available through digital tools, that was previously inaccessible. This allows for insights in patterns of behaviour and performance of inhabitant and habitat. For urban planners and architects, this provides a largely untapped source of evidence that should be used in order to improve design, planning and building – to envision and realize cities that are more sustainable, meaningful and liveable. The shift of attention from the built environment’s form to its performance, from “atoms to bits” - as coined by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte[1] - emphasises the relevance of the dynamic network in comparison to the static built object. Despite large-scale dispersion of digital information and communication however, we are convinced that physical space remains essential for cities to flourish. Buildings obviously do not interact only virtually within digital networks, but naturally with their material and socio-cultural neighbourhood contexts.

Any “Smart” City-planning, therefore, must reflect the complexity of human life, and avoid a seemingly rational but top-down, technocratic and deterministic perspective. The emerging phenomenon of “Smart” Cities allows for discussing desirable future outcomes.

Yet, in evaluating its inherent promises of increasing efficiency, resources utility, cost-effectiveness, sustainability, participation and quality of life, the needs of the city and its citizens must be taken into consideration. A purely technical focus is not enough, as stated by Richard Sennett: “No one likes a city that's too smart”.[2]

Cities have to deal with urgencies of expanding urbanization and environmental concerns as described above. Cities need to accompany a growing population; and at the same time reduce the use of scarce resources and energy. Cities also have to defend and improve their position in a competitive global market and reflect multiple, possibly conflicting agendas of many stakeholders.

A common ground for sharing interests might be to regard the city as liveable, healthy, safe and sustainable habitat, that provides a wide range of opportunities for all necessities of life.

The application of “smart” technology allows for increasing both efficiencies and the improvement of life quality. The utilization of physical assets can be elevated, with real-time supply and demand requirements provided to improve use of resources, materials and energy supplies. Preservation of nature, lower emissions and pollution mean a smaller ecological footprint. Following this logic, the ‘upgrading’ of existing cities through re-urbanisation and (despite COVID-induced distancing measures) increased densification, takes priority over the creation of entirely new cities.

Resource-intense urban sprawl must be limited and for this reason massive infrastructure reduced.

Autonomous and electrified mobility will be shared and will be available on demand. It will replace the traditional car and free up valuable space for public functions.Infrastructure and traffic domination will be reduced, and public space returned to the public. The Integration of life and work in time and location, possibly adjoined with local production of food and goods, will diminish the vulnerability of mono-functional neighbourhoods and building types. Instead of segregation, the integration of users and uses, will facilitate the provision of mixed-use facilities, that are flexible, adaptable, and shared.

“Smart” buildings and “smart” homes will reflect the needs of their users and will accommodate diverse lifestyles, social interaction, local, decentralized fabrication and production. Buildings, infrastructure, vehicles as energy “prosumers”[3], will provide local renewable energy production and storage. Building lifecycles of operation, maintenance, repair and rebuilding will be monitored and improved. In the logic of the circular economy, buildings will operate as construction material storages for future buildings and valuable building materials for recycling will be locatable. They will be identifiable with their material passports. The inclusion of city stakeholders in the “Smart” City enables citizen participation and emancipation.

Seeing the scale and pace of city development in Asia in comparison to Europe, from our own practice, underlines both the opportunities and challenges of “Smart” City lifecycles from conception to design, planning, and building and finally operation, maintenance and renovation. While the emergence of cities in Europe took centuries, many cities in Asia develop in decades or even shorter time frames.

The “Smart” City presents itself as a hybrid eco-system where digital and physical worlds meet. The integration of “smart” technology helps to predict, simulate, test and adjust cities in both stages of planning and in use. It shows great potential to improve city-life, to provide agile solutions for urgencies of urban development and environmental concerns and provide for the current and future - yet unknown - needs of city dwellers. These technologies, however, must be interwoven with already established, high quality design principles, in order to avoid a purely technocratic, logistical approach to the urban environment, which does not reflect the complexity of human life.

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