More than being just technological showcases, tomorrow’s successful smart cities must incorporate social, cultural, spatial, environmental and economic ying and yang.

Much has been written about the technological challenges and triumphs of building smart cities. Envision smart buildings run by IoT sensors, guarded by autonomous robots, and running on zero-carbon energy sources.

With that in mind, take a step back and look at some technological and social trends: climate conditions are causing more people to prefer staying indoors than out. Digital communications and media are encouraging people to remain indoors to work, play and socialize instead of getting in tune with nature and everything natural that we now struggle to preserve.

At this rate, we can imagine tomorrow’s smart cities to be comfortable cocoons for indoor-centric living. Precious cultural practices may become redundant; digital communications may dilute the pleasures in face-to-face interaction; in fact, with distributed workforces and hybrid working all becoming a mainstay soon, people may not even need to identify with any place called a city at all. The virtual world is their home, friends and relatives are just avatars on screen, and everyone can do anything virtually anywhere through a screen and an internet connection!

Six elements to make smart cities viable

According to Prof Jason Pomeroy, Founder of Pomeroy Studio and Academy, smart cities of the future can only work if the six elements of social, cultural, spatial, environmental, economic and technological integration are aligned and anchored in human-centered relevance.

Take spatial integration, for example. At today’s rate of rising sea levels, the 35 megacities of the world could well be flooded or plagued by frequent flood risks. Prof Pomeroy thus suggests that the world embraces water as an alternative surface for urbanization. “This was a leaf we borrowed when designing the POD OFF-GRID scheme in Venice, a zero-carbon floating water-borne community, that will provide an opportunity for people to live, work and play and also having offshore vegetable and fish farms that can sustain the broader community.”

This watery idea can release the latent value of vast untapped area of waters near the city shores into real estate opportunities and solutions to land scarcity.

Prof Pomeroy, who shared his ideas and visions for tenable smart cities of the future at the virtual TechInnovation 2021 event on 28 September 2021, has other far-reaching insights on the cards:

  • Spatial: As stated, this is a superb alternative to land use when building and rebuilding cities.
  • Social: By 2050, 75% of the developed world will be living in urban areas. Given the projected rate of population increase, the knock-on effect on the built environment is that population densities will skyrocket, leading to challenges in spatial sustainability and the documented problems of densely packed societies. This element has to be carefully considered in the quality-of-life metrics of a successful smart city. This is where the idea of turning to water as an alternative surface for development makes so much sense. The idea is for less-dense living to encourage every resident to embrace the great outdoors.
  • Cultural: In spite of the pursuit of modernity and technology in tomorrow’s cities, the built environment should preserve and adapt to social-cultural change in ways that celebrate the rich history of the land and its people with residents and visitors. Cultural sustainability and significance meld with the other five elements to make tomorrow’s smart cities truly livable and relevant.
  • Environmental: Prof Pomeroy reminds us that, while the world’s cities cover only 2% of global land area, they account for a staggering 70% of greenhouse-gas emissions. In this vein, the professor believes that the world should not plan for a zero carbon future, but plan for a carbon negative future! That means technological goals should target self-sustenance: always producing more sustainable energy than what is consumed.
  • Economic: If today’s virtual interactions online cause people to reduce face-to-face interactions, then the digital-based economies of tomorrow will need spaces, buildings and objects that are designed to catalyze social interaction indoors and outdoors. Whether people are housed in a colonial bricks-and-mortar university campus or a futuristic glass-and-metal sun-lit structure, communal amenities, objects, spaces and interaction opportunities must continue to be the focal point of design to encourage personal interactions and idea incubation.
  • Technological: Other than the AI, ML and predictive analytics technologies that make a smart city work, embracing mobility is also an important technological cog that fits into the other five elements of an integrated city. Citing the horse-drawn carts that facilitated street mobility in the 18th century cities, and the early jetliners that defined travel mobility in the 20th century, Prof Pomeroy sees aerial drones and vehicles as the enablers of new areas of mobility in future. “Technology has always been an informant of the way that we see and perceive our cities… from delivery drones for delivering food and online shopping, to personal aerial vehicles to and from your skycourt (in a hybrid vertical garden city)… or aerial public transport from the convenience of a public skygarden,” Prof Pomeroy envisions aerial mobility technology that promotes better use of vertical space in smart building development, and incorporating all the other five elements in guiding sustainable technological innovation.

A future to behold

Finally, the term “smart” means different things to the peoples of different smart cities.

Prof Pomeroy compared and contrasted how Shenzhen was proud of its open source and fabrication labs; Bandung believed social media empowerment was what made the city smart; and Higashi Matsushima’s smarts were centered on its trademark micro-grid communities that are a living shrine to the cultural resilience to effects of the Fukushima disaster.

Culture is being challenged in the wake of assimilation, globalization and technological advancement … increasingly, we need to be conscious about cultural sustainability to preserve an understanding of where we are, where we come from, who our grandparents were, and where we heading in the future,” said the professor.