Building cities of the future

30 October 2017

Smart technology, 3D modelling, clean energy and carbon neutral buildings are just some of the trends set to shape urban planning and construction in the years ahead.

Urban planning is in the midst of a revolution. As populations continue to grow and diversify, city planners are striving to design safe, efficient environments, with considerations ranging from interconnectivity and the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) to carbon emissions and the ever-present risk of terrorism.

Innovative city authorities around the world, from Amsterdam to Santa Cruz, are harnessing smart technology, data modelling and sustainable practices to transform their spaces into cities of the future: efficient, clean and smart.

Trends set to shape the urban landscape in the years to come include a shift to carbon- neutral buildings, renewable energy, electric and driverless transport systems and a growing awareness of urban design’s impact on health and well-being.

The construction industry cannot afford to ignore these trends and must evolve its design and construction practices to capitalise on the opportunities ahead.

According to Niall Cunningham, Director, Programme Delivery ANZ at leading engineering consultancy WSP, today’s urban planning is underpinned by three key considerations: how to move people more efficiently around cities; how to better connect communities to each other and their city; and how to encourage and cater for diverse demographics.

“At its core, success in urban planning is about creating great places. So if we can answer these questions through the use of technology and by collaborating with partners and the community, then we improve our experience of, and relationship with, the built environment around us.

“This is the holy grail of place making, whether you are a developer, planner or city dweller.”

Data revolution

Just as building information modelling (BIM) is taking construction project management to the next level, data collection and visualisation is transforming city planning (read our BIM article on page 14).

In Singapore, for example, a vast network of sensors and cameras deployed throughout the city feeds data on everything from cleanliness to traffic flow into a collaborative 3D city model and data platform known as ‘Virtual Singapore’.

Part of the city’s ‘Smart Nation’ programme, the Wall Street Journal hailed the project as the most ambitious collection of daily data ever by a city. As a densely populated island city, Singapore faces complex urban challenges.

Virtual Singapore allows planners and developers to test and simulate a wide array of variables during design – from geospatial topography and climate data to real-time demographics – informing decisions on everything from infrastructure planning to environmental and disaster management, public services and homeland security.

Singapore-based infrastructure and urban development consultant Surbana Jurong developed, with Microsoft, a ‘Smart City in a Box’ platform, which aggregates data on all aspects of the city’s sustainability, efficiency, people and security.

According to Group CEO Wong Heang Fine, the suite equips cities to “better track, monitor and manage themselves via a dashboard of integrated smart applications”, and the company is working with Microsoft to enhance the solution for use throughout the Asia Pacific region.

The adoption of smart technology such as this will be a “critical enabler and competitive advantage” for firms in the construction sector, he adds.

“We are experiencing a real renaissance in engineering processes and practices in the smart city space,” adds Cunningham.

“One of the greatest challenges for contractors is to understand how they can capitalise on the potential benefits of adopting a ‘smart’ strategy for their development.”

Design should also take into account, for example, the encroachment of IoT into almost every aspect of life, from augmented reality to personalised advertising. However, Cunningham warns that simply embedding a development with the latest technology does not make it ‘smart’.

The way in which that technology is employed to successfully enhance the quality of life during the operational phase of those developments is where the ‘smart’ component adds value,” he argues.

“Our cities cannot and do not evolve at the same pace as technology, so the key to any successful smart city strategy is to use technology as an enabler of the plan rather than its central component.”

Green construction

In addition to embracing smart technology, developers and engineers will increasingly be required to employ green materials and processes as cities strive to improve efficiency, sustainability and cleanliness.

Leading green city Oslo, for example, is dedicated to achieving climate neutrality in transport and energy systems as well as building practices (see box).
According to Ellen de Vibe, Chief Town Planner at Oslo’s Planning & Building Services Agency, co-operation from the construction sector is central to the plan’s success.

“We use planning obligation contracts to ensure that developers contribute to developing the green city,” she notes, adding that construction agencies in Oslo have already developed strategies for completely fuel-free building sites.

Developers should be mindful of the desire for increased use of renewable energy sources including micro-energy stations (small-scale, decentralised energy generation hubs) in both the construction and ongoing operation of buildings, as well as fundamental future changes to utility delivery and transportation systems.

Smart traffic management systems and driverless vehicles (both private cars and public transport) are expected to significantly improve safety and efficiency in the cities of the future.

This, in combination with an increasing reliance on electric-powered transport, may lead to changes in road and transport network design – from dedicated lanes to redesigned intersections, signposting and battery charge points.

As population density increases, more attention will also be paid in design to the well-being of inhabitants so as to avoid phenomena like sick building syndrome (SBS), which can be caused by design oversights such as poor ventilation.

While liability for building-related illnesses such as asbestos poisoning is well tested, it is unclear to what extent developers or contractors could be held liable by members of the public who claim they have suffered SBS due to the poor design of homes or workspaces. This exposure may increase as population density grows.


One theme uniting all of the above is the need for increased collaboration between urban planning stakeholders, from architects, contractors and subcontractors using BIM on individual projects to city planners and engineers using 3D models to plan efficient urban environments.

“Collaboration is key, and where it is truly achieved I believe we can deliver positive triple bottom line outcomes,” says Cunningham. “The question is, who takes the lead in the operation of the built environment in our cities?

“At first glance it seems overall responsibility would logically fall to the local municipal authority, but we know that the operation of the private domain by a municipal authority is fraught with challenges,” he says.

In an increasingly collaborative future, developers and contractors will need to get a firm grip on their contractual relationships so there is clarity where liabilities lie across the plethora of risks that exist on major projects.

With numerous parties having input into modelling platforms, attributing blame for mistakes may prove complicated, and sharing large volumes of data – particularly data gathered from members of the public – may also expose the industry to various layers of cyber risk.

With developers and contractors being forced to embrace a new era of collaboration, smart technology and green construction, it is essential companies engage their brokers to help them stay on top of their evolving risk profiles.

According to Cunningham, the construction sector is still learning when it comes to smart cities, and mistakes may be made along the way.

However, he argues: “The possibility of failure empowers us to be braver and bolder in what engineering solutions we provide to overcome challenges. As Henry Ford once said: ‘The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing’.”

Building cities of the future

For further information, please contact Richard Gurney, CEO of construction on +44 20 7558 3880