We need smart thinking in our built environment… and in our political world too

There is work ongoing involving Belfast City Council to help Belfast become a smart city.
Susan Mason

THE challenge facing the world's built environment can perhaps be summed up with two statistics – the global population is growing by more than 1.5 million people per week, and three million people each week are moving into cities from more rural areas. When the number of people in the world is rising significantly, it won't be long before we shift from about 20 percent of the global population living in cities to closer to 80 percent.

This raises big challenges for cities in terms of how they cope and how they can be resilient and provide for this growing number of people. These are some of the biggest challenges facing society today. In the developed world, it's mostly about how we update and rejuvenate cities and cope with expansion. In the developing world, it's about creating the right cities.

Some of the thinking we're hearing at present revolves around phrases like ‘smart cities' and ‘cities of the future'. In Belfast, we know that there is work ongoing involving Belfast City Council to help Belfast become a smart city.

The Smart Belfast framework, for instance, is about harnessing new technologies and data science in ways that support local economic growth while also contributing to outcomes for people. It seeks to build on Belfast's growing strengths in the digital sector to foster an environment in which local businesses, innovators and universities can experiment and build great products for twenty-first century cities.

In this, the council has been working with various partners, and the Future Cities Catapult, to develop these ideas whilst also drawing on practice from other places.

So what might the cities of the future look like?

Essentially, a smart city uses digital technology to promote performance and wellbeing and to increase its ability to respond to citywide and global challenges.

Important smart city sectors include energy, water and transport. Interest in the concept has risen in recent years, caused by climate change and the increase in urban population.

According to some experts, the future smart city will employ a number of purpose-built AI (artificial intelligence) programs and machine-learning algorithms to process the vast amounts of incoming “sensory” data. It is thought that smart cities may witness the first truly “human-scale” AI, capable of reactive and independent thought.

In the future, sensors - things like cameras, acoustic networks, and wireless systems - will transmit information about the health and status of the city and its infrastructure. Satellites will monitor the city's atmosphere, pollution levels, weather systems, and local environment, seeking to identify issues and increase awareness and preparedness for potential natural disasters.

But psychology will also have an important role in the design and implementation of any smart city. It's necessary to understand the mentality of people in a city. How do people move about? How do they react in stressful situations? What is their response to certain policies?

Ultimately, whether it's Belfast or elsewhere, it all comes back to people. We need to make sure that cities of the future are places where people feel safe; where health and wellbeing are enhanced; where people's economic productivity is enhanced.

Also critical is investment. To make a smart city happen, a tremendous amount of investment in infrastructure is needed, both from the public sector and the private sector. Governments need to play a leading role in this, and cities need to be attractive to the investment community.

In Northern Ireland, without an Executive and Assembly, we are currently at a disadvantage in this respect, and are in danger of falling behind. We need smart thinking in our built environment, but we need some smart thinking – and quickly – in our politics too.

:: Susan Mason is the acting director in Northern Ireland of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). RICS is the principal independent body representing professionals employed in the land, property and construction sectors. In Northern Ireland, the organisation represents over 3,000 cross-sectoral members comprising of chartered and associate surveyors, trainees and students.

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