Why you can't build smart cities if we continue to use dumb planning

With two-thirds of the world’s population expected to live in urban areas by 2050, the need to build smart, sustainable, and efficient cities has never been more urgent. Managing the demands of an increasingly urban population is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century and is critical to future generations.

 To gain a deeper insight into the type of infrastructure and facilities required to optimize the potential of smart cities, urban planners are starting to apply new data-driven insights to help make more informed decisions. This approach helps facilitate efficient development decisions focused on continually improving quality of life and maintaining attractive, liveable, neighborhoods.

Conversely, many cities with aspirations to embrace smart tech are yet to fully appreciate the potential to utilize technological advances to improve their ability to plan effectively to create the smart cities of tomorrow. There are many practical opportunities for cities to ‘get smarter’, already available, that cities could benefit from today. He highlights that “bizarrely we could soon be running high-tech autonomous vehicles on a network constrained by the limitations of outdated design and control techniques. There is huge untapped opportunity to access an unprecedented richness of data that would fundamentally change the way in which we plan, operate and maintain our cities”.

The media headlines tend to gravitate towards smart vehicles, but in terms of potential this is just the tip of the technology iceberg. Smart cities require careful planning based on valuable insights gained through the collection and strategic analysis of real time data. The connection of real-time data sources with predictive modelling would itself provide a fundamental breakthrough in planning for the future. This information is crucial to ensuring that city planners design and build viable cities that meet the demands of a growing population.

Being able to access data enables planners to analyze all aspects of city life – movement of people and goods, energy consumption, safety risks, noise and air pollution. We can then use these insights to create detailed 3D models to help better understand the impact that different planning decisions will have on a community. Using the latest technology available Arcadis is already able to create impressive visualization of different mobility or network design options, for example in terms of air quality, energy consumption, or noise levels. Adopting this technology helps facilitate a more holistic approach to decision making that better identifies the opportunities to improve quality of life and return on investment.

There are many other ways that connected data combined with powerful simulation and predictive modelling can help when it comes to smart city planning. As cities become more connected, hitherto hidden relationships between planning and operations will be identified through the application of IoT. Many opportunities are already apparent today, such as:

1. Traffic flow – using the same platform for operating all forms of traffic (rail, road, bus, boat, cycle, even pedestrians) provides a powerful basis for more efficient management of the network, and accurate simulations that draw on real-time data and apply machine learning to drive predictive analytics.

2. Mobility as a service – a city-wide platform for network mobility operations is a pre-cursor to the efficient provision of information that citizens require to complete door-to-door travel reliably and in accordance with their preferences.

3. Disaster management – the ability to effectively manage the city transportation system in response to emergencies and plan efficient evacuation.

4. Stakeholder engagement – allowing the local community and other stakeholders to access and review interactive 3D plans online will assist planners with valuable feedback, improve buy-in and speed up future planning, and help to make smart cities more user friendly.

5. Decrease pollution – at present planning tends to be done following a linear process to identify infrastructure investment first and then to mitigate air and noise pollution. Smart planning technology allows urban planners to instantly visualize the impact of different planning scenarios and can use this information to make more informed investment decisions to improve air quality, reduce energy consumption, and create more pleasant places to live.

When we live in a world increasingly filled with smart tech, it is easy to assume that the potential for technology has permeated evenly across everything we do. The reality is that the application of technology is unevenly distributed, and planning is now lagging behind. The planners were early adopters of technology, with traffic modelling being computerized in the 1960’s. Recent advances have however caught the profession dozing and wary of potential disruption to traditional jobs and roles. In the Netherlands Arcadis is already using a new platform for Environmental Assessment which renders up to 80% of the human effort normally required redundant. In the UK Arcadis, through its predictive data analytics acquisition SEAMS, has developed a City Analytics platform to better inform the viability of housing development plots across a planning region. It is clear the planning industry is on the verge of a shake-up as decision makers wake up to the potential of smart planning to help deliver the cities of tomorrow.

Those cities who embrace smart planning stand to position themselves at significant competitive advantage over those that continue to ponder their options whilst using ‘dumb’, outdated approaches. According to the recently completed 3 year EU-funded EVIDENCE project coordinated by Arcadis, smarter planning will deliver: more accessible cities; that use less energy; have healthier citizens; are more attractive and liveable; and that are safer. Smart cities will run more efficiently, cost less to operate, and its citizens will enjoy a marked improvement in quality of life.

Delivering smart cities is about more than just the technology, it is about seeing the whole picture from planning, through operations, and management. It is about understanding decision making, institutional structures, legal frameworks, politics and funding streams. Most cities share a concern about whether the technology is right for them, whether they are investing in the right way, what is pioneering /speculative, and what is rapidly becoming the new normal. Working globally with leading cities to integrate smart planning technology invariably helps provide some crucial perspective and pragmatism in a rapidly evolving world.

Dr. Colin Black is Future Mobility Director for Arcadis. He has over 25 years of experience providing contemporary consultancy advice to cities globally.


Colin Black

UK Transportation Business Director Ask me a question