What will future cities look like?
Will they consist of green buildings, autonomous vehicles and garbage robots? And more importantly, can technologies and data be harnessed for improving quality of life?
According to projections, urbanization and population growth will contribute to an increase in the world’s urban population, which is expected to surpass six billion by 2045. “From an urban planning and design perspective, we try to understand how this urban population growth will impact the ability of cities to deliver essential infrastructure services,” says Professor Martino Tran, co-director of the Master of Engineering Leadership (MEL) in Urban Systems program for planners and engineers at the University of British Columbia (UBC). “How can cities sustainably meet this increase in demand for electricity, water, waste systems and mobility?”
Along with the growing demand for services, cities face various challenges related to climate change, says Tran. Climate targets, set by various jurisdictions across the globe, strive to curb the environmental impact coming from human activity, including urban spaces. The City of Vancouver, for example, aims to derive 100 per cent of its energy from renewable sources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 per cent below 2007 levels before 2050.
“Such ambitious targets require a range of solutions that have to be fundamentally interdisciplinary,” believes Professor Ron Kellett, director of UBC’s School of Architecture + Landscape Architecture (SALA) and co-director of the MEL in High Performance Buildings, who is working on simulations that reflect current and projected performance parameters of the built environment.
A city is typically made up of different neighbourhoods or “fabrics,” he explains. Since they all have unique demographics, densities and socio-economic priorities, these fabrics require socially appropriate custom solutions.
“The heterogeneity of the built environment – as well as the range of policy mechanisms available in different jurisdictions – can present challenges for simulating policy impact on a city,” says Kellett.
Tran suggests turning to “increasing data and increasing computational power.” He works on advanced computational tools that use large amounts of urban data to then provide evidence that can inform policy- and decision-making.
“Everyone is talking about big data,” he says. “We have citizens-generated data from smartphones and online activities. The built infrastructure is also generating a massive amount of data through the Internet of Things. The ubiquity of low-cost sensors can add data from air-quality monitoring, for example, the number of vehicles on the road or people using public transit, or real-time use of electricity.”
This information can point to the best types of investments for meeting policy targets, says Tran. “We can gain some understanding of the performance of both infrastructure and technology and their costs, potential carbon-mitigation implications and long-term outlook.”
At the intersection of research and its application, tools for sharing data across disciplines are essential, says Professor Adam Rysanek, Environmental Systems at SALA. “A framework that can engage economists, engineers, planners and other stakeholders – and models that can communicate with each other – can allow us to approach challenges from numerous perspectives.”
Yet he sees an additional challenge: to present knowledge in a way that its implications are clear and fully understood, says Rysanek. “When you are discussing policy with multiple stakeholders, how do you translate data into terms like quality of life?”
For Kellett, visual representations can trigger meaningful interactions with research. “New technologies enable new ways of understanding,” he says. “For example, virtual reality can allow us to visualize energy performance data. It’s like wearing a pair of glasses and seeing where the heat is going. Simulations like this can help people understand things that are abstract.”
Leveraging the emerging relationship between information and the built environment can lead to “models and solutions that are more robust, locally tailored and durable in the long term,” adds Kellett.
Preparing planners and engineers, Tran, Kellett and Rysanek have been involved in developing the Urban Systems MEL to educate professionals in integrating the business and technical leadership needed to take on this challenge. Understanding how cities work and potentially evolve can prepare the ground for collaborations dedicated to improving their sustainability.
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