Did you know that 60% of the cities we will need by 2030 are not yet built? Thinking about this is both exciting and daunting (often not in equal measure). ‘Smart city’ is today’s trendy buzzword, but it is one that has various meanings depending on who you ask. Many believe that by creating smart cities we will inevitably address the challenges that our future cities face, but is this really the case? Are smart cities necessarily sustainable?
With over 35 years’ experience and as WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Global Director for Future Cities, Agneta Persson has a vested interest in the future of the world’s cities. She has had a significant hand in a number of ground-breaking projects in her home country of Sweden, including the Royal Seaport in Stockholm – a place which is expected to be fossil-fuel free by 2030 and the new Brunnshög district in Lund, which is set to be one of the most advanced scientific hubs in the world.
But if you ask Agneta about smart cities, she’ll tell you that she’s not particularly fond of the phrase.
"I prefer the term ‘wise city’ because ‘smart’ is not necessarily best. Simply adding resources to cities for the purpose of making them smart won’t always provide added value.
"A sustainable city is always smart, but a smart city is not necessarily sustainable."So, how can we go about assessing the value of adding resources?"You have to start with an early multidisciplinary analysis, keeping in mind the development goals you want to achieve. Then you establish what the most important areas are; is it infrastructure, is it property? From this you find common themes, identifying where there are synergies between different disciplines and what type of resources we should try to promote as well as identifying any conflicts of interests which need to be dealt with."When done well this offers a possible solution to many of the challenges that our cities face; one of those being climate change, which Agneta believes to be the most pressing issue facing our global cities.
"The severe consequences of climate change should push us to plan better, looking at how we can reduce resource demand while at the same time improving density and mobility in cities.""Better mobility would also mean for instance, that we wouldn’t need as many parking lots and we’d have more free space to create greener areas, comprised of bicycle and walking paths."
The power of the people
Speaking to Agneta about future cities, you’ll note a reoccurring theme – the importance of effective stakeholder engagement, particularly in the planning of new developments.
"It is always important to understand who the most powerful driver is and what’s in it for them so you can develop and present a solid business case when starting discussions. This way you can ensure that the work that you’re doing will provide meaningful value.
"We also need to ensure that we plan around the citizen. In our industry we tend to assume a lot about what people want and how they want it. But we need to understand their preferences, and be more proactive in talking to them.’
Such proactivity has been successfully practised in WSP I Parsons Brinckerhoff Canada where they have implemented a ‘tactical engagement’ program, as Agneta explains.
"The program allows us to analyse specific demographic groups affected by a proposed development and enables us to engage with them in a manner that is suitable and convenient for them. For instance, setting up a 7pm meeting in a council hall would not be useful if the key demographic you wanted to speak to was working mothers.
"Tactical engagement enables us to find where our key demographic is so we can meet with them to discuss their view and what’s important to them. This is an ideal situation because both parties leave the meeting better informed.’"Aside from citizens, Agneta also talks about the benefits of fostering for greater collaboration between different stakeholders including property owners, infrastructure owners, developers, architects, government, traffic planners, businesses and the academic world.
"In Sweden, we host workshops where we invite representatives from each of the key stakeholder groups. During the workshops we will often give stakeholders a different role, for instance, if they are contractors we will ask them to take on the role of council and so on.
"Though simple, this can go a long way in getting the various stakeholders to view aspects from a different perspective. This often spurs new thoughts and insights which makes collaboration much more effective."
Stockholm Royal Seaport. Image courtesy of Norra Djurgårdsstaden.
Together with Sweden’s Green Building Council, WSP I Parsons Brinckerhoff developed an ‘integrated planning method’ for development that has been widely adopted throughout the country.
"The method is very powerful as it offers the possibility to reduce resource needs. It also assists towards identifying synergies and any possible conflicts of interest early on, avoiding future complications and associated costs.
"For instance in energy where we work a lot, the starting point is looking at the amount of energy we need, not how much we can produce. First we start with energy efficiency in transport, and buildings, industry and infrastructure and then in the transmission and production of energy.
"We can create a circular economy with closed loops, where for instance we can make biogas, which can be used as fuel for vehicles from the organic waste. The remaining waste could then be used for incineration for electricity and heating or cooling. If we require additional energy supply, it should be produced from renewable sources; wind energy, solar, hydro power - whatever is deemed best."
Concept Plans of Brunnshög, Lund in Sweden. Image courtesy of Anna Klara Lundberg.
Agneta knows a thing or two about energy. She had a significant role in planning for the highly energy-efficient district of Brunnshög, Lund, chosen as the most appropriate location to house the world’s largest particular accelerator.
"The city was chosen because it had a high performance district heating system, where you could use the waste heat produced by the accelerator to heat the surrounding urban area and more of the city as well. Considering Brunnshög will be producing 50% more energy than it needs itself, it made sense to house the accelerator there."
She was also involved in the development of the new urban area, Royal Seaport in Stockholm – a ground-breaking project that set a new standard for energy efficiency in Stockholm.
"We had been analysing an energy model looking at how a sustainable energy system could be built up in Royal Seaport. We proposed to the city that they limit energy consumption to 55 kilowatt hours (kWh) per square metre for all new developments in Royal Seaport, exactly half of what the national building code accepted at the time.
"The standard set by Royal Seaport gained favour with city representatives and politicians alike and 55 kWh went on to become the standard building code for all new developments in Stockholm."
How does Australia compare?
Though here in Australia we have some way to go in terms of energy efficiency, Agneta is quick to identify some green shoots.
"Central Park in Sydney is a great example of a leading sustainable precinct. The precinct utilises tri-generation technology through their Central Thermal Plant. Natural-gas is used to generate power to the precinct and provide a lower impact thermal energy source.
"This delivers cooling and heating for all the buildings across the precinct as well as providing access to hot water for all buildings."Having recently visited Australia, Agneta can’t help but draw comparisons between Sweden and Australia.
"It’s interesting because the model we use in energy demand management is in essence, the same model used in Australia for water demand.
"Water is plentiful in Sweden but here you have a scarcity of water in many places and therefore the technology, systems and planning are much more advanced here.
"It is really fascinating and very encouraging to see how things are developing differently in different countries. It just reinforces the value that knowledge transfer can have, not only between countries, but also between disciplines."The future is always uncertain. But if we focus on working together to build sustainable, wise cities, then at least we can rest assure that the outlook for our cities is bright.
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