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Digital Transformation

Towards more Intelligent Cities

Intelligent cities upskill workforces, create new businesses and use new technology to drive forward the sustainability and resilience agenda. Is this the future of smart, sustainable urbanisation?

World Built Environment Forum
15 September 2021

Efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability: The holy trinity of intelligent cities

For as long as the smart city has existed as a concept, urbanists have sought to pin down what, exactly, makes a city smart. For Professor Sylvie Albert of the University of Winnipeg’s Department of Business and Administration, there are three key identifiers. Intelligent cities use data to drive efficiencies. The modern city harvests a glut of information from its people. When correctly utilised, this information drives cost savings and other gains. If ignored or misapplied, it can have the opposite effect. This speaks to the second of the three pillars of urban intelligence: effectiveness. Data must make the “nodes” of the city work to their maximum capacity. This means allowing for greater citizen engagement, with citizens as the “customers” of the city, and innovation in the delivery of services and functions. Finally, an intelligent city must be sustainable. In this context, sustainability does not mean environmentally optimised – though, of course, cities are the engine rooms of global net zero ambitions. Rather, cities must become system-of-systems entities, in which each unique node works to a maximal standard, while also serving to support the maximal working of the other nodes. This is what Dr Albert describes as an additive approach to intelligent cities: “We’re talking about political, economic, social and cultural, technological and legal systems. If you have a great tech sector, but very poor human rights, your city is not sustainable in the long term.”

Digital twins can be applied at city-wide scale

Digital twins, virtual replications of an object, being or system, are already revolutionising the built environment. Continually updated with up-to-the-minute information about its real-world counterpart, the digital twin allows for predictive trouble shooting, ensuring issues can be fixed before they occur. This has been shown to drive operational efficiencies, increase effectiveness and encourage sustainable growth. Early adopters of digital twin technologies have been able to climate adapt their asset portfolios, bringing the net zero built environment a step closer to reality. We know now that green and sustainable buildings are attracting a price premium across the world, meaning that digital twins present a very real value-add for building owners and occupiers. The obvious evolution would be an upscaling of the twin to citywide scale. And while this may seem a fanciful next step, Glodon’s Pierpaolo Franco believes it is one that is already in process.

“We are now seeing the realisation of the digital twin city model. We have in operation a number of City Information Models (CIMs) that offer a complete, whole lifecycle platform for the city. CIMs bring together the tools at a city’s disposal and create a new blueprint for the integrated planning, construction and operation of the built environment.”

The tools in question include 5G, blockchains, IoT devices and artificial intelligences. These digitalised assets exist to be networked. In combination, they can provide an overview on city performance, and facilitate scenario planning for shocks such as pandemics and climate-related extreme weather events. Digital twins can predict a multiverse of futures; at city level, this mean greater agility, improved health outcomes and enhanced resilience.

Not all liveable cities are intelligent cities, but all intelligent cities are liveable cities

Liveability ascended the order of priorities for policymakers and citizens alike as the COVID-19 crisis inspired a flight to the suburbs in some parts of the urbanised world. And while the more fatalistic early predictions about the reversal of urbanisation now seem overblown, many cities are nonetheless seeking to reassert their “pull” factors. For Professor Sylvie Albert, this represents a new challenge for those smaller cities that became suddenly attractive locations in the early days of the pandemic.

“Larger cities have a broad appeal. They have better infrastructure, more jobs. We had a little bit of a door opening for small and medium-sized cities. When companies said: ‘people can work wherever’, there was an opportunity for those cities to demonstrate their core competencies and attract people. But as those same companies now start bringing their workers back to the office, the door starts to close again. If you don’t have the digital infrastructure, you’ll have a hard time competing.”

The Intelligent Cities Challenge

Participating cities promise to upskill workforces, create new businesses and use new technology to drive forward the sustainability and resilience agenda. In this webinar in partnership with Glodon, we will discuss is this the future of smart, sustainable urbanisation?