A smart city must be designed for sustainability, in a world of continuing population growth and dwindling natural resources.

Ballooning populations, pollution and growing climate change concerns are putting increased pressure on city infrastructures and resources.

Technological innovation can help us tip the scales against the otherwise inevitable doom that cities may face.

But how do we design smart cities with a circular economy concept? DigiconAsia spoke to Serene Sia, Managing Director, ASEAN, Autodesk, for her perspectives and insights.

Serene Sia, Managing Director, ASEAN, Autodesk

What are some of the challenges that designers and engineers face when designing smart cities today?

Sia: Designers and engineers involved in smart city projects have to consider a multitude of design parameters and constraints that did not exist before. In the densely populated ASEAN region, one of the most pertinent questions they have to address is how cities can accommodate ballooning populations in a way that is smart, sustainable, and improves the quality of lives of its residents.

As more people move to cities, the environment and existing city infrastructures get strained to a breaking point, especially when it happens at odds with public transport growth. Consider this: 99 out of 100 of the most polluted cities in the world are in APAC, and while buildings consume 40% of energy in most countries, buildings in some Asian cities consume up to 90% of electricity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also dealt a huge blow to the construction and infrastructure industry as they grappled with the drastic manpower crunch and meeting stringent requirements for clearance to resume work. In addition, traditional approaches to sharing and collecting information still dominate in most construction projects in ASEAN. Therefore, they had to overcome the added challenge of exchanging designs drawn on paper between multiple stakeholders during the lockdown period.

As our natural resources continue to deplete, the demand for better, smarter city solutions has to be met more efficiently than ever, but with fewer resources. According to IDC, digital technologies can pave a road to recovery for construction companies. Before the pandemic, 80% of APIJ construction companies were in the earliest stages of digital transformation (DX). It’s clear that the opportunities for businesses in the construction industry to undertake successful digital transformation are substantial, which can in turn accelerate smart city and sustainability initiatives.

How can designers and engineers use existing solutions (such as BIM, which is widely adopted in many APAC countries) in new ways to drive sustainable outcomes?

Sia: Technology has the potential to transform sectors rapidly and at scale, regardless of whether it is newly developed or not. At Autodesk, we have identified three key pieces of technology – Building Information Modeling (BIM), Generative Design and Digital Twin – that will shape the future of sustainable design.

The construction sector generates nearly a third of global waste. BIM can help minimize material wastage, saving costs and optimizing resources. It can ensure that all plans and sections, quantities and other related documentation are accessible in live views so that the sustainability metrics of these assets are instantly clear to all. Architects and planners can then work together to ensure that design alternatives can be assessed to identify a greener design.

BIM can also factor in elements such as schedules of building material quantities to determine percentages of material reuse, recycling, or salvage, heating and cooling vis-à-vis sunlight and natural air flows, people density and corresponding carbon footprint. BIM enables project teams to reduce rework, improve productivity, and accelerate project delivery.

Recent research found just 43% of Singapore companies are investing in BIM, signaling room for wider adoption across APAC.

With generative design, designers can explore multiple design options that are optimized to meet defined parameters, such as materials, cost, space size, etc. This technology can produce designs that reduce materials used and waste produced, ultimately proving to be more sustainable.

For instance, Autodesk is working with Airbus to help advance their vision of air travel as a dynamic, eco-friendly experience, by applying generative design and 3D printing. One of our projects with them resulted in an airplane partition design that can save up to 3,180kg of fuel per year per partition. A lighter aircraft equals less fuel consumption, and generative design presents a huge opportunity to make the aviation industry a more sustainable one.

Lastly, digital twin is a technology that enables users to create a precise digital replica of a built asset, such as an office building or a bridge. However, it is more than just a collection of static 3D models, as it incorporates sensors, Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, and artificial intelligence (AI), which feeds real-time data back into the digital models to provide a dynamic and multi-dimension view of the asset. It can provide insights into how the asset is designed and how it is performing, including occupant behavior, use patterns, space utilization, and traffic patterns. The digital models also evolves with data input, giving asset managers new insights and actionable data that they can use to improve capital planning and facilities maintenance.

Digital twin technology has a wide range of applications. For example, a hospital facility manager can use the digital twin to manage and update critical systems such as heating, ventilation, air conditioning and plumbing, prioritizing critical work and preventing equipment failures. In a water processing facility, digital twin can be used to monitor pipes, weather events and water scarcity.

The global digital twin market size in 2020 was valued at $3.1 billion and is projected to reach $48.2 billion by 2026, making it part of the broader digital transformation taking place throughout AEC.

Digital twin enables building owners to harness data throughout the design process and ultimately improve operations.
(Image credit: Autodesk)

What are some other technologies that city planners can explore and how can these be applied/adopted to design more sustainably (e.g. in the development of autonomous or electric vehicles)?

Sia: Beyond the technologies mentioned above, organizations that wish to further their interest in sustainability should familiarize themselves with the concept of ‘circular economy’. A circular economy is a closed-loop system that doesn’t generate waste. In a linear economy – which is what we largely have today – you extract resources, make something, use it, and then throw it away. By contrast, the goal in a circular economy is to use a product at its highest value for as long as possible – and that can mean product itself or material and components it’s made of.

The circular economy embraces the idea of upcycling and making sure that the materials that we put in our products can be upcycled and used in a new product. Take the plastic water bottle as an example – there is a lot of awareness about putting the empty bottle in the recycling bin so that the plastic can be processed and used again. The circular economy takes that further. Accomplished through a variety of processes and advanced by new technologies like 3-D printing, products as small as a coffee maker and as large as a medical imaging machine can now be upgraded. Rather than recycling or merely refurbishing the item to its original state, the process also enhances the product to make it comport with the latest technology.

When working with customers to achieve circularity, we focus on three main areas:

Greendzine leverage Autodesk software to make India’s first electric moped—the Quark U rendered here—look different from typical gas-burning bikes
(Image credit: Greendzine)
  • Better design – Design is arguably one of the most important elements of the circular economy – concepts like disassembly or recyclability need to be integrated at the beginning of the product development cycle – i.e. at the design stage. There are several design strategies that help, from making a design modular with easy disassembly, to being more repairable and also more durable. For example, Bangalore based electric vehicle producer, Greendzine, used design modularity to create low-speed electric vehicles in just 90 days. To maximize resource allocation and cost effectiveness, Greendzine uses the same 48-volt design to build all their three product designs – the Quark, the Irrway and the MOPtro.
  • Better use of data – Adopting a circular approach can only succeed if different stakeholders are connected throughout the lifecycle of a product and share information with one another. Cloud-based tools can help connect workflows between design and manufacturing, ensuring less waste in production.
  • Better materials – A circular economy depends on selecting better materials – such as recycled material. Technology such as generative design enables users to explore recyclable materials for their designs and help gauge how these materials impact product performances.

Beyond the obvious of being better for the environment, the benefits of circular design are clear. It helps reduce costs in both design and production, meaning fewer materials are needed and companies can benefit from a simplified supply chain with fewer spare parts in inventory.

With 10 billion people soon to be living on the planet with finite resources, designing for a circular economy is the only way forward.