Experts predict the world population will grow to 8.7 billion by the year 2050. What's more, around 70% of people will live in urban areas. So how will we meet the demands of all these city dwellers without impacting on the quality of their lives and the natural environment? The answer is smart cities, and they are already being built.
Smart cities combine the latest technologies, urban planning, and environmentalism to create sustainable living spaces that work for people and the environment. This includes integrating solar panels into building designs as standard, as well as rooftop gardens to produce more oxygen and absorb carbon. And rather than letting rainwater disappear down an inefficient drainage system, new technologies will collect and filter the water for later use. Add in smart lighting and energy grids that can monitor our consumption levels at the micro-level, and we could see cities become 30% more energy efficient within 20 years.
Meanwhile, free wifi services will create an accessible network of real-time updates on public transport services, traffic congestion, and even available parking spaces. And as all this is going on at street level, underground farms powered by soil-free hydroponics could produce up to 10 times more food than current farming methods at a fraction of the economic and environmental cost.
The Dutch have a reputation for their pragmatic, forward-thinking approach, so it's no surprise they are leading the way in smart city tech. Located in the south of the Netherlands, the city of Eindhoven has a dedicated 'smart district' trialing the latest innovative technologies and urban planning methods.
The latest project in the Brainport district is UNStudio, a mix of residential and workspaces combined with 12 hectares of gardens, natural landscape, and sports grounds. What's more, the park will be collectively owned by the users, and everybody is free to become a member. And just beyond this common green space, there will be another 80 hectares of land dedicated to sustainable agriculture and energy production.
Another interesting project is the living lab, a collection of cameras and microphones set up in public spaces around the town. Data is fed back in real-time, enabling researchers to come up with better ways to make the town work for everybody. It also functions as an early warning system for the emergency services, especially when it comes to keeping people safe around Brainport's popular party spots.
But it also raises another important issue - data protection. The smart cities of the future will run off data, with much of it coming from the people who live in them. This means smart designers will need to create a system that works without comprising our privacy or personal preferences. Eindhoven University professor Elphi Nelissen is one of the people helping build Brainport's smart district. She says, "We have to be as clear as possible. We want to have an open data platform where all companies can take data out. The people who live in the district can decide to share their anonymized data or not. If they share it, they benefit, maybe financially or with better services."
An hour or so north of Eindhoven lies the Dutch city called Utrecht, home to an extraordinary building that could become the model for the smart architecture of the future. The Green House is a restaurant, urban farm, green hub, and city terrace encased in a large glass building built using circular design principles. Jaap Bosch, the lead architect on the project, describes circular buildings as "something that can have a second life on a different location, but also that you try to use materials that are already there."
The Green House was built using reused glass panels from the previous building, while every floor is made from second-hand tiles and bricks. Even most of the furniture is second-hand stuff bought from thrift stores and charity auctions.
Many of the restaurant's ingredients come from the onsite urban farm, which grows over 60 different types of vegetables, fruits, and herbs. Discharged water is recycled, and any organic waste from the restaurant is reused as compost for the farm. Visitors can also get involved with green initiatives, such as the national week without meat, or no love to waste, an annual Valentine’s day menu where all the ingredients for your three-course meal come from local, sustainable growers.
According to one news report, spending on smart city technology could increase to $135 billion by 2021, with much of it going towards one of the most exciting (and disruptive) technologies of modern times - artificial intelligence (AI). Driven by big data and huge leaps in computing power, AI is a form of computer code that can evaluate its own function and potentially rewrite itself for improved performance. Experts believe this conscious tech will play an important role in the development of automated transport systems, as well as the commercial use of robotics and drones.
Automation could also help us to consume products more efficiently. For example, AI software could assess the current state of our laptops, phones, and cars, and then recommend whether they can be resold, repaired, or recycled. And by combining AI recognition software with robotics, recycling plants can sort through tonnes of discarded consumer goods, making sure no recyclable material goes to waste. AI specialist Dominique Bonte calls this circular approach "the endgame for smart cities," adding, "It is about turning entire cities into circular entities, eliminating their 'outside of the city' footprints entirely by achieving large degrees of self-support and self-sufficiency in areas like energy generation."
But AI's greatest power comes from what it will enable us to do, and not what it will do for us. AI algorithms can analyze unimaginable amounts of data, allowing designers to create complex simulations and modules that will then give them a deeper insight into the design problems and solutions of the future. In other words, AI won't find the best answers for us - it will help us find better answers for ourselves.
Back in 2014, University of Oregon professor Roxi Thoren published a book called Landscapes of Change: Innovative Designs and Reinvented Sites, in which she called for a new approach to landscape design, one that focuses on connecting people to the natural environment, protecting wildlife, and combating the effects of climate change. The book looks at 25 such projects around the world, including the Gary Comer Youth Center Garden in Chicago. Winner of the 2010 ASLA design award, the roof garden is an after-school learning center and community space for people who don't have access to safe, outdoor environments. It's a place where people can learn about growing their own produce or simply relax in a calm and peaceful environment. The center now produces over a tonne of organic food every year which goes to local restaurants and charity organizations.
As smart landscape designs go, Stefano Boeri's is definitely the most ambitious. The Italian architect is planning to build the world's first smart forest city in Cancun, Mexico. Covering 557 hectares and with a target population of 120,000, the city will be a combination of smart tech, sustainable energy sources, canal networks, and millions of plants to help reach the final goal of 0% carbon emissions. And there will be no place for cars in the forest city of the future. Instead, people will travel around on electric and semi-automated public transport networks. Boeri aims to create a sustainable urban space that integrates into the natural environment, but his vision doesn't stop there. He wants to do something that is often overlooked in contemporary city planning - he wants to make people happy. "Green spaces are important for the soul," he says. "Our brains prefer biodiversity. That is hardwired into us; urban living has not changed us that quickly."
So a brighter and greener world could be much closer than previously thought! And while there will be plenty of unexpected challenges ahead, this a rare chance to be optimistic about the direction we are heading in and the future of the planet we call home...