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‘Smart cities’ and digital data integration offer exciting challenge for AEC sector

Articles Central Innovation 11 May 2018

With the rapid expansion of populations in our capital cities – Sydney is expected to expand to 6.3 million by 2036, and if current trends continue, Melbourne’s growth will see it become bigger than Sydney before that date – infrastructure needs to evolve just as quickly to keep pace with the change.

As planning authorities and the AEC sector move to embrace the concept of ‘smart cities’, forward-thinking planners are looking overseas for examples of the kinds of innovations in sustainability and interactive infrastructure that we need to incorporate in our designs and developments today. Smart cities are no longer a dream of the future – technological innovation and creativity are combining to make them a reality now, with data integration also playing a crucial role.

Examples of these kinds of smarter planning and design concepts can be found all over the world. In densely-populated Shanghai, where crowd control is an essential consideration especially in public areas, the predominantly below-ground Shanghai Natural History Museum utilises a spiral shell shape, to guide visitors down into its depths via a series of descending ramps. The architectural design is complemented by green features such as a courtyard pool which keeps the building cool.

In Western Europe, where the environmental, social and traffic flow benefits of bicycle use have long been recognised, infrastructure enhancements to facilitate this transport mode often exemplify innovative design concepts which could potentially be adopted in our own cities. The $US8 million Hovenring bicycle flyover in Eindhoven, Netherlands completed in 2012, features a thousand-ton steel deck suspended by cables and interconnects with dedicated bike paths, making a daily cycling commute to and from work potentially simpler and safer than in our urban centres.

Then there’s Los Angeles’ refit of existing streetlights with LEDs – not only do they provide brighter illumination, they also facilitate interactive communication – enabling the LA Bureau of Street Lighting to remotely identify any faults. The next step is lights which change colour to communicate danger, warnings or changed conditions to the city’s citizenry.

The integration of digital data technology within our cities’ infrastructures is set to drive further change. Everything from emissions levels to traffic density can already be monitored and coordinated by digital resources, and as the technological applications broaden, the inevitable next stage is utilising digital data to help citizens make decisions about driving routes based not only on GPS data but realtime traffic flow data and parking space availability. A recent study by Siemens titled ‘The Business Case for Smart City Infrastructure: London’ estimated that smart on-street parking management could save drivers looking for parking spaces a total of 33,000 hours.

The broader potential for this sort of data integration is obvious: smart power grids which can balance electricity supply with demand, buildings which can respond to occupants’ needs in realtime, structures which automatically adapt to changing weather conditions. Once all these concepts were in the realm of science fiction, but the technology exists today to make them a reality. Building automation systems encompassing fire protection, lighting, ventilation, climate control, surveillance and security – all integrated within an intuitive operating platform – are just the tip of the innovation iceberg.

While there are understandable concerns about data acquisition and usage – as evidenced by the recent changes to EU data protection laws – the potential for data integration to drive positive change in optimisation of energy use, transport and logistics, medical treatment and much more is obvious. The challenge for authorities and governments is to ensure that data can be anonymized and aggregated while also adequately addressing security concerns.

The exciting challenge facing architects, engineers and builders alike is how best to embrace the potential offered by these innovations, to find new applications for the emerging technologies, and incorporate them within today’s designs and structures that are set to become our ‘cities of the future’.

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