By Rob Moyser, smart cities expert and partner at BuroHappold Engineering

Increasing urbanisation has long been the rationale behind the call for innovation in the built environment and it is a trend that is set to continue.

The United Nations predicts that 68 per cent of the world’s population will be urbanised by 2050 (up from approximately 55 per cent today). By 2030, a projected 28 per cent of people worldwide will be concentrated in cities with at least 1 million inhabitants.

City leaderships are focused on achieving the best outcomes for their citizens in terms of quality of life, equity, resilience and long-term sustainability. However, the resources available to achieve these goals have been increasingly limited since the global economic slowdown in 2008. Existing patterns of urban and infrastructure development are often unaffordable at a scale to match global demand and smarter, more frugal solutions that provide a high quality of life at a more affordable cost are urgently needed.

The successful integration of technology will be key to delivering a smarter urban future.

Clarity of objectives

Developing a clear vision with city objectives and performance outcomes is the first step to improving urban development. Plans should be structured to capture stakeholder needs and use case studies to act as a guide for future action. This will also help to define and measure the success of any interventions.

Flexible planning

Too often, plans for regions, cities and districts assume a fixed development trajectory or a business-as-usual inertia. They often do not reflect the actual or rapidly approaching urban challenges. Inadequate frameworks hold back urban areas and their communities from real economic opportunities. Therefore, municipal leaders need to develop strategic planning based upon the following:

• The combined, evolving objectives of major stakeholders

• The evidence of the real situation and trends for economy, society, natural resources, land planning and infrastructure systems.

• Emerging opportunities presented by growth, change, investment and innovation

All strategies require an understanding of the real linkages between multiple systems—planning an interconnected organisation, underpinned by city-specific models—making a clear link between resources, infrastructure and spatial planning and the real human and economic outcomes that must be delivered.

This enables city leaders to establish clear frameworks, based on long-term visions and constraints, but with the flexibility to accommodate any changes driven by economic, environment and social issues.

Stakeholders and governance models

The governance structure put in place to solve the most pressing urban challenges is key for success. It is the ‘enabling environment’ that includes transparent administrative and legal processes that are equitable and respond to the needs of urban residents. These processes help align stakeholders to realise short and long-term objectives.

Stakeholder engagement at all times is a vitally important part of this process. Stakeholders that should be considered during this process are city leaders, academia, service owners, community groups, private sector and built environment professionals.

Appropriate business models

In order to justify the deployment of new technologies, a business case and model is typically required to support investment. Traditionally, the business decision is based upon capital cost of the system versus the system’s ability to deliver against or exceed performance metrics specified by the investor. The operational costs are rarely understood or even evaluated. This has begun to hamper smart city innovations, especially in an era of constrained public budgets. International law firm Osbourne Clarke identified a lack of investment as one of the greatest obstacles to the roll-out of smart technology.

Therefore, with the introduction of new technology systems that create new types of user experience, real time data and economic growth, the traditional way of evaluating benefits needs to be updated.

Delivering effective city systems

Our urban areas are served by city systems such as highways, utility, parks and mobility services that have been typically designed, procured, delivered and operated in siloes.

This model is well understood in the built environment sector; it has evolved as the simplest form of procurement and supports the operational structures of design,
construction and estate/facility management companies that have built up since the industrial revolution.

These systems typically follow a ‘take, make, dispose’ model of service delivery, which has long been identified as inefficient and resource intensive by organisations such as the UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

It is crucial that built environment professionals look for opportunities to create projects that include multiple benefits such as offering their clients and society a new way of delivering systems that not only reduce capital and operational expenditure while enhancing existing and creating new revenue streams, but also improve quality of life.

Digital services and systems are already being deployed in cities that begin to deliver against these opportunities. And projects such as Sidewalk Toronto offer the potential to lead the way in demonstrating how technology systems can be effectively deployed at scale, while also engaging citizens and stakeholders throughout the process.


It should be remembered that first and foremost, successful cities are places where people want to live, work and play. Successful delivery of a smarter urban future should therefore enhance the quality of life for its citizens using technology as an enabler.

However, since the industrial revolution, there have been many of examples of technologies introduced into cities that had a lasting negative impact on the environment and on the quality of life of the population.

While smart city technologies may appear less obtrusive than some of these legacy systems, which include highways, cars and fossil fuel power stations, they may have a similar impact unless coordinated planning, design, delivery and operation is undertaken.

The methodology that has been articulated in this article will enable cities and key stakeholders to make the most of technology and deliver long-term successful outcomes for cities and their citizens.

Rob Moyser is the smart cities expert and partner at BuroHappold Engineers

Building Future Cities_MashreqThis article is extracted from a report produced by MEED and Mashreq titled Building Future Cities. Click here to download the report

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