A quantum shift in city design thinking is on the horizon


Farah Naz and Martin Angus of AECOM Middle East speak to Gavin Davids about why it is essential that ESG strategies become intertwined with the planning and development of smart cities

The concepts of smart cities and sustainability are often intertwined, as it is impossible to consider one without the other. By their very nature, smart cities involve the implementation of eco-friendly projects that improve the quality of life for residents and communities, while still respecting the environment.

By using information and communication technology to collect data, optimise activities, and improve the management of resources and assets, cities can be enabled to react and offer solutions to specific problems. Whether it’s recycling garbage to form compost, treating sewage water for construction or using it to maintain public spaces, there are many ways that smart technologies can be deployed in a city.

Eco-friendly or sustainable cities stand out for their ability to marry smart management, mobility, green housing and smart economies. Therefore, a smart city can claim that it is sustainable when its overall goal is to improve urban services and utilise technology to answer the economic, social and ecological challenges cities face, while still reducing costs.

Given this overlap, Farah Naz, Head of Innovation and ESG, Middle East and Africa, and Martin Angus, Digital Design Lead – Middle East from AECOM Middle East, say that the real estate and construction industries must start looking at ESG as a way of thinking and doing business, rather than just as a product.

Speaking exclusively to Gavin Davids for Big Project Middle East’s Smart Cities Report, Naz and Angus point out that technology is often seen as a driver for change, when it should be the other way around.

“I’ve been working with sustainability for 20 years and innovation for 10 years, and what I’ve realised is that, for me, a smart city is actually an ESG city, and that is sustainable. I know that there is currently a conversation happening around ESG – Environmental, Social and Governance – and I think as an industry, we’re boxing it up, because it’s very new for us. But if we take a step back, then we’re already doing a lot of things related to environmental sustainability, which relates to a city,” Naz says.

Farah Naz, Head of Innovation and ESG, Middle East and Africa at AECOM Middle East

“When we talk about energy transition, nature-based solutions and all of these things, the social aspect is really interesting. When we talk about sustainability, social innovation or smart cities, it’s always about people. The social part is not just about the people, but also about creating the mechanisms for social innovation and social sustainability that comes together to celebrate people,” she adds.

“But, in order to make a city sustainable or viable, we need governance. Everyone talks about regulations, but governance, I think, is not just about regulation of a city. It’s also about having governance about social entrepreneurship, having governance around how we enable digital tools and capabilities to give us more insights into a city.”

Together, Naz and Angus look at innovation at AECOM and how it can be applied externally to projects. By collaborating, Naz believes that they can utilise digital tools to enable better decision making and to create a feedback loop that will allow the consultancy’s teams to learn from the past and make better decisions in the future.

She adds that clients the GCC are starting to realise that they need to update their existing guidelines and regulations, and that digital tools need to be used to track these changes for future proofing.

“Looking at smart cities, it’s not only about people centric cities only, it’s about ESG cities and right now, no one is talking about it, but in a few years’ time, that’s all anybody will be talking about. Currently, we’re doing it in different ways, but it’s very fragmented. We’re not actually coming together and saying that a smart city is an ESG city, but if we take a step back, the layers of information created are multidimensional, and sustainability is extremely multidimensional.”

Chiming in, Angus says that he believes that as digitalisation becomes more commonplace, a number of tools will begin to be married to ESG principles. “What we’re going to see is more conversions. If you think about something as simple as phones and taxis, we first had phones and we had taxis. Then through conversions, you start to see something like Uber appear. So, we’re going to start seeing completely new systems emerging – things that just weren’t there before technology came along. We need to be able to act instantly, and to be able to get information to the right people at the right time. At this moment it doesn’t happen because we’re completely siloed, and you don’t get innovation if you’re completely siloed.”

Martin Angus, Digital Design Lead – Middle East at AECOM Middle East

“Because there’s not a wealth of open information, we’re not seeing new start-ups, we’re not seeing new ideas. But we’ll start to see that coming online very quickly (if we share information),” he points out.

As data and technology continue to inform and change the way that society thinks and operates, both Angus and Naz state that this progression will lead to a shift in mindsets in both the public and business sectors. This will lead to more challenging questions being asked about how we design and build our cities they say.

Citing the rise of the electric vehicle and an increased focus on ride sharing as potential examples of how people’s mindsets are changing towards transportation, they say that city planners and developers will be forced to reconsider the very infrastructure that underpins our cities today.

“Do we need as many car parking spaces as before?” Angus asks. “Do we need to build so many carparks anymore? Will people even need to own cars? When those conversations come online as technology happens, we who work in the built environment will have to completely change how we look at answering those types of questions.”

“There needs to be two shifts, essentially,” Naz says. “It’s not just the mindset, but also the business model, and it’s also about acceptance. Now, we’re not just talking about people centric cities. We’re talking about values and access to things and the speed of things. This will completely redefine how a child will experience a smart city in 10 years’ time, as compared to someone who grew up 10 years ago.”

This process will only accelerate, they point out, highlighting how the pandemic has had a significant impact on the way people work and live. This shift has been completely enabled by technology and the needs of people during the pandemic. Now that it has happened, there’s no going back, they assert.

“What we need to start doing is learn how smart technologies will affect everybody’s lives. That will then make people start looking at trends around us now. How do we start to understand what the future of work looks like – that’s still getting worked out, if I’m completely honest,” Angus says.

“I don’t think there are any rules at the moment. There are some guidelines – but I think that will shift as we mature into living in digitally mature cities,” he adds.

A consequence of this will be that at the governance level, there will be a lot of change happening in the near future, Naz says.

“There’s a lot of things happening around the Metaverse, smart cities, artificial intelligence and all that, but at some point, there needs to be guidance and planning regulations from a government level, so as to manage and enhance the process. It’s not about constricting it, but to let it evolve in a way that there’s some level of governance about it. I really think that these future, transformative cities and mindsets are a layering of these technologies and innovations. It’s a very multi-layered way of thinking about how the future of life could be. The question is, do we wait for another pandemic to make another big shift? Or do we bring that shift to ourselves and move forward?,” she asks.

In order to achieve this, Angus emphasises that the industry needs to come together and to stop working in silos. Technology has already significantly altered the way work is carried out and how people think about working, but he points that there needs to be more done to break down the walls between industries and sectors – even within companies.

“There is a need to bring industries together and I find that super interesting. Lots of building designers are now completely focused on what’s happening in manufacturing, or what the filmmaking industry is doing, and they’re all trying to take technology from each other and work together to create more solutions that bring benefit, as opposed to that single project/single mindset,” he says.

“That’s just not going to work moving forward. People are moving from projects to programs, so that we can start to look at more efficient ways of working, and from that you’ll get more recyclable information. This is where you start to see people throwing up ideas of using past project learning, what an actual digital twin would start to do and so on.”

He concludes, “We don’t live in smart environments at the moment – we have some elements, but it’s not commonplace. We’re going to start looking at whether we’re actually designing our houses correctly, and we’ll see a quantum shift in design, which will come from having products that you can now put in your house that will deal with smart objects that are not actually built in-situ at the time of construction.”

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