Market Talk: True modal design to shape future cities

27 June 2021
GHD believes human-centric design is the single biggest means of building successful futures for our cities

By David Kinniburgh, general manager, GHD UAE

Why is an integrated approach to social infrastructure, transport and urban master planning so critical? 

The critical thing here is that it is less about networks and buildings, and all about smart and sustainable development. Bringing in the next generation of innovators and those who want to make a difference to the long-term future of the nation – and getting them to stay for the long haul – is of the utmost importance.

But what has happened since Covid has rewritten the rulebook. The landscape has changed and we need to recalibrate. 

One current buzzword is the concept of 15-minute cities. I am a firm believer that this approach works up to a point; however, people will inevitably get tired of only living within their own environs. What is needed is balance and variety and that must be reflected in the master planning. 

True modal design complements our lives. This is what will set future leading cities apart from the pack – the built environment needs to adapt around the individual. Not the other way around.

It is this sort of human-centric design that is what we are all about at GHD and we believe it’s the single biggest means of building successful futures for our cities.

As our lives become increasingly connected online and offline, the real world experience needs to keep up by offering the convenience we now expect, whether it be the door-to-door commute or quick access to green space. 

Resilience is emerging as a key development theme – how do you approach this aspect of sustainability? 

Resilience has traditionally been focused on withstanding shocks, such as natural disasters or political turmoil. But the pandemic has shown that many of the changes are not one-offs or even cyclic, but structural. This means taking a much broader approach to what constitutes resilience, and what we need to achieve.  

It involves looking at how cities can be economically, environmentally and socially stable over the long term. It is not all about isolated wind farms and hydroelectric power – although these are important.  It’s about taking a much broader perspective on targeted investments and how they make our communities better. 

Take, for example, food security. This is something we have been supporting in the UAE for some time. The government programmes are shining examples of not just onshoring agriculture to shorten supply chains, but maximising the commercial potential of exports. 

The same can be said for decarbonisation. We have been working hard to equip our clients to respond to the challenges of climate change, through the likes of hydrogen innovations and alternative sources of energy. Providing communities with the social and environmental benefits of renewable energy is not just a climate issue, but a lever of competitive advantage in its own right.

Post-Covid-19, how do you foresee the focus on connectivity between communities and countries changing?

Despite the scary headlines, physical travel will always be a staple of our lives. But we cannot avoid the reality that we are likely to see a significant long-term drop in the number of physical journeys made – both as a product of lockdowns, technology advances and the ambitious climate goals we are seeing globally. We should not try to fight this, nor should we run from it. 

The key to developing new, modern transport systems is with data and the technology to process it. We need to step up to an on-demand level of understanding and catering to people’s decisions as they are making them, and raise the level of efficiency and service without the cost. 

People movement data is something we have been using for some time to predict patterns and peaks to help design systems that work around individuals.

Shorter, more efficient and pleasant journeys are not just good for the person sitting in the car; they are also a big driver of productivity and economic growth. 

But connectivity is also about the digital world. Without 5G infrastructure and large-scale data centres throughout the pandemic, the world’s economy, quite simply, would have collapsed.

Covid has shown us that connectivity needs to keep pace with changes in the market, such as the rapid adoption of virtual meeting and event platforms. These can only work if the digital infrastructure is there to enable them, and it is this which I expect to see investors focus on a great deal more from now on.  

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Published in partnership with GHD

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