CCTV Tower, Beijing


Advanced technology can improve our urban infrastructure, but the heart of any city still lies with its inhabitants.

Richard Florida suggests that expanding mega-regions are the real engines of economy and it's hard to argue against that sentiment. Florida is an American urban studies theorist, head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, and a doyen of the urban planning sector, so when he speaks the community listen.

Modern cities are at the heart of economic growth, driving innovation and delivering a breeding ground for culture. With greater size comes enhanced efficiency, but for large cities to maximise this potential they need to attract innovative people and investment to make the ideas happen. They need to find a way to leverage the benefits big cities bring, while managing the inevitable challenges they face.

For a city to deliver on its promise to both function efficiently as well as provide a pleasing environment in which to live, it must not just optimise individual systems such as energy, waste, transport and healthcare, but use a system-of-systems approach to integrate subsystems and identify new opportunities for efficiency and resilience. "Cities are considering this integrated approach at a time of considerable economic challenge, as well as changes in demographics and migration," says Kathryn Vowles, innovation leader at Balfour Beatty.

Urban planning

In 2010, 51.6 per cent of the global population lived in urban areas; by 2050 it will be 67.2 per cent. This fact needs to be considered within the context of a global population – in July 2012 it was 7.025 billion, which is expected to grow to around 8.9 billion by 2050.

"I would suggest that the success of the human species in the 21st century will depend on whether we can get cities right: I think it's that important," John Rossant, chairman of New Cities Foundation (NCF), says. "There is no doubt that this is the century of cities, just as the last century was the century of the nation state. We are seeing the rise of extraordinary megacities – such as London."

NCF is a non-profit Swiss institution dedicated to improving the quality of life and work in the 21st-century global city, with a particular focus on new cities in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa. It sees cities as humanity's most important source of innovation, creativity and wealth-creation. "This is where the urban transformation of human kind is taking place at its most intense way," Rossant adds.

By 2025 it is predicted that there will be 100 new Chinese cities. "In every way this is going to transform all of our societies and all of our economies and we have to get it right," he continues. "What makes this process and urbanisation today different from every other cycle are two extraordinary factors.

"One is that so much of this is taking place in the developing world that is fast becoming the motor of the world's economy: it is a developing world with huge resources. So for the first time in history these societies have the real means to build things such as the CCTV Tower in Beijing and the new cities that are going up in China. The centre of gravity of the world economy is moving south and east."

This is happening at the same time as Rossant's second factor – digital revolution. This is affecting all lives, our economies and the way we relate to each other, brought about by relentless innovation in ICT. "This trend of ICT pervasiveness with the ability that we have to constantly access networks anywhere in the city is a game changer," Rossant says. "It means that urban dwellers, whether they are in China, the United States, the UK or Brazil, can access information related to energy, water, city services and each other in a transformative and fluid way. This digital revolution is making the urban world a much more intensive exchange of ideas and better connected."

Urban settings

IT is not an end in itself. At its core, ICT facilitates human interaction and that is why people move to cities to profit from the wealth of idea exchange and human collaboration that can only really happen in an urban setting where you have that density. "Cities are all about people and not infrastructure," Rossant says. "You have a positive feedback loop for urban cities where a growing city becomes more productive, which encourages more people to move to the city. That is why when a city doubles in size you get every economic measure increasing by 50 per cent per capita.

"For better or worse our urban culture frees people from many kinds of conventions and gives them the freedom and ability to think creatively. That is at the core of what urban living should be about and this is giving rise to an extraordinary culture of innovation and creativity. If we get the 21st century city right, and we have to get it right, it will be the cauldron of a new human renaissance."

The idea that cities are growing in an age of significant technology change is echoed by Vowles. "We have seen the consumerisation of information technology, cloud computing, and the 'Internet of things' such as RFID [radio frequency identification] tagging linking objects with computer systems to capture data creating a network of 'things'," she says. "The computing power we are now able to carry around in our pockets is considerably more than we had available in the work environment even ten years ago.

"We are also seeing the rise of 'open data', with data that was previously not used (or even accessible) being made available by public and private sector organisations to inform service provision within cities. Greater availability of data has given rise to 'big data', the large scale data analytics that can cope with both tabulated data and unstructured sources such as written documents, images, and video (for example).

Vowles adds: "Social and economic pressures, plus these technological opportunities, create challenges for cities that engineers working in a multidisciplinary environment are well placed to address."

These are simple examples of city systems being made more efficient through an integrated approach and the use of technology. The UK's Technology Strategy Board believes there is a '200bn per annum global market realistically available for integrated city systems by 2030. This is a growing opportunity for the engineering community to work collaboratively and innovatively with technology partners to find real world solutions.


When it comes to city transportation, urban leaders have to contend with a challenge unique to our new century. "We and our increasingly mobile neighbours want better commute choices, ideally ones that can be made based on conditions in real-time, the same way that airline and intercity railway reservation and status information has been available for years," Cliff Henke, senior analyst at Parsons Brinckerhoff's Transit & Rail Technical Excellence Centre in Los Angeles, says. "Little wonder why such services as Google Transit and Nextrip have grown so rapidly in recent years."

What is needed is a flexible, integrated set of surface transportation infrastructure and service solutions, combined with planning tools, service information and public policies.

When it comes to solutions, quick gain, low-cost strategies are often favoured evidenced by the growing investments into bus rapid transit (BRT), trams and commuter services involving diesel-powered, self-propelled passenger rail vehicles. The attraction of these schemes is self-apparent – they can be deployed much more quickly than traditional urban rail projects.

An additional advantage is that these projects often use existing rail or road infrastructure; they can be deployed incrementally, adding to their flexibility. "Combined with state-of-the-art travel demand modelling, traffic engineering simulations, visualisations, and other computer-based planning and engineering tools, we can now offer cities much more informed choices that respond to changing development conditions faster than ever before," Henke adds.

In the near term, part of meeting the worldwide intra-regional mobility challenge must also include coping with poor overall economic conditions throughout the world. We will see severe budget constraints caused in major part by the lower tax revenues that are the result of the economic collapse.

"Our collective future will not only be much more multimodal, but also much more intermodal, i.e., integrated and based on information that enables more choice in real-time than ever before," Henke says. "The most sophisticated examples of this are in London, where travellers are able to select a variety of bus and rail services from different providers, in real-time.

"A vast number of bus and rail services operated by a variety of US agencies are also available through several Web-based services, though there are fewer examples of real-time trip planning tools involving multiple providers. The next step will be to link multiple agencies in real-time, ideally with smartphone accessible tools such as Google Transit and Nextrip, and also to implement use of a common fare media across multiple services."

A tale of two cities

As a city Tel Aviv is fairly modern having just passed its centenary four years ago, but over its relatively short lifespan it has developed to become the second largest economy in the Middle East, behind Dubai. It has benefited from developing in the modern age and continues to grow without many of the problems that plague older cities based on creaking 19th century infrastructure.

Tel Aviv Global City is a municipal and national initiative run by the Mayor's office that aims to elevate the city's global standing. The main target of the initiative is to position the city as a global business and culture centre by focusing on the city's unique values and assets.

"When we talk about a city we always talk about location," Hila Oren, general director Tel Aviv Global City, says. "If we want to talk about a city of the future we should first look at the DNA of a city, look at what comprises the skeleton of it."

When she talks about Tel Aviv's DNA, Oren is quick to emphasise the merging of both old and new. While Tel Aviv itself only came into existence in 1909, it subsumed Jaffa in 1950; the ancient Mediterranean port can trace its roots back to 1470BC. The terrain is flat, the climate predominantly sunny and it has a young population – 33 per cent of the inhabitants are, according to Oren, youngsters.

"A hundred years ago it had 66 families who made their dreams come true – this is our city," Oren adds. "Once you understand the facts you can look at the personality of the city. Tel Aviv is a start-up city, very entrepreneurial and innovative, vibrant: it's a non-stop city. So when you consider the business centre and the culture centre, it is this combination that makes it one of the global cities. Global cities attract the creative classes and we all know that talent and technology is a must."

An eight-hour flight south and just over 4,000 miles away from Tel Aviv lies another city that is attempting to cement its place as a modern, thriving city: Johannesburg.

"We think that we are on the verge of positioning Joburg as a world class African city, a platform from which you can define future cities," Mpho Parks Tau, executive Mayor of Johannesburg, says. "We have the opportunity to learn from those that have been before us and to be able to leapfrog some of the mistakes that other cities have made."

One of the key projects was to make Johannesburg a digital city. Ericsson won the tender to implement the broadband infrastructure back in 2009 and when it is completed this year over 900km of fibre optic cable will have been laid, providing broadband technologies to city offices and enabling a variety of access solutions.

"Our vision of transforming Johannesburg into a smart digital city is being realised today as we witness the benefits and possibilities of what and how broadband can change the lives of our communities, especially the disadvantaged. Going digital would result in a reduction in the cost of telecommunications, improve service and increase access to information technology to every corner of the city.

"Being a smart city is an integral part of the city's strategy. We have built a platform of fibre networks that is enabling us to grow our economies for the future. Having laid out the infrastructure for the city the opportunity is now there for us to say what do we invest to allow both the public and private sector to take advantage of it."

Planners, designers and engineers have a role to play in seeking to find ways to maximise the use of existing resources – whether these are space or infrastructure. Planners need to direct development and activity to locations where it can be readily accessed and easily powered, watered, and maintained. Designers need to consider how the planned patterns of activity can be provided with infrastructure or how existing infrastructure can be used to its full potential. Engineers need to seek ways to enhance the existing infrastructure and improve the way we maintain and conserve the resources that are already in place. 

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