Approaching the end of the first quarter of the 21st Century, the world has undoubtedly seen a rapid and new epoch defining stage of human civilization as digital technology becomes ubiquitous in our everyday lives. Specifically, advances in communication systems, started by the almost simultaneous en masse introduction of mobile phone and Internet use, from the 1990s, the last three decades have propelled technology forward at a staggering rate.
In no uncertain terms, we are already in what history will come to reflect upon as the nascent stages of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).
Like its three forebears, 4IR is set to bring about significant social, economic, and cultural transformation – affecting how human beings organize themselves individually; influencing the formation of new social and working paradigms; and, as a global civilization, directing how we progress and survive as a species.
According to UN sources, in 2022, approximately 56 per cent of the world's eight billion population already live in urbanized or city areas. By 2050, it is estimated those figures will be just short of 10 billion people, with over two-thirds (68 per cent) living in urban areas. From sustainable use of energy and water to food security, health and welfare, the world must recognize the significance of this shift and move to address the fact that urbanization does not need to be a "dirty word."
As we look to the increasing integration of artificial intelligence (AI) in the way our cities are built or adopting a new digital overlay, operational innovations in efficiency clearly have the potential to help solve environmental problems and create sustainable living environments that meet the carbon neutral goals, set out and committed to by many world governments.
From the likes of the UAE's Masdar City to Terminus Group's three AI CITY developments, smart cities are already growing. The smart technology that was initially only used for efficiency in human interaction is now being developed to improve the way city-wide operations are managed, through the use of AI and Internet of Things (AIoT) technology.
Through the use of this technology, a smart or AI CITY can improve the quality of life by being designed to enhance the experiences that it provides through more efficiently managed functions, while promoting economic growth and social wellbeing. Conceptualized on a strategic level, smart cities, through the use of technology, can help both people and the cities they live in a more symbiotic relationship with the environment and this is carried out by addressing the following core areas.
Smart city master planning must include a combination of strategies. For example, in terms of energy, smart cities can use technology to improve the efficiency and sustainability of their operations by implementing various measures such as sensors and smart meters. In terms of water, smart meters can be used to track and reduce the amount of water that is used to accomplish similar functions today. In terms of waste management, the utilization of sensors in garbage receptacles to inform pickup schedules can be part of a wider reduction of carbon emissions.
While I am an obvious advocate of technology, as a Founder and CEO of an AIoT company, there is little argument from any quarter that the use of technology, combined with various initiatives such as improving the walkability of cities and providing electric vehicles, will be instrumental in helping managers meet those carbon neutral goals.
How can urbanization be sustainable?
Not only are technological advancements leading to the emergence of smart cities, we can now say with confidence that future cities can also be considered as sustainable solutions. Clearly, older models of city planning have seen some deterioration of the quality of life in city or urban areas, but this can be attributed to unfettered growth with previously unconsidered long-term effects on future developments and their impact.
With AIoT technology, we cannot only better manage resource distribution, we can also predict and plan for the future of various aspects of evolving operations, such as their waste management and air pollution. Such concerns of national and international policymakers were one of the key factors leading to the creation of the UN's 11th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) – to make cities more resilient and safer.
These key performance indicators (KPIs) for smart cities are based on the economy, environment, and culture, and were developed in 2016, by the UN and various related organizations. Simply put, the goal of these indicators is to help urban stakeholders and policymakers assess the contribution of technology to the UN goals by demonstrating the efficiency and development of sustainable communities. They are also designed to help cities develop a comprehensive view of how smart cities will better manage the current lack of synergies and coordination and financing of projects that will bring about those much-needed changes.
Many cities around the world have already identified the development of smart cities as a key component of their sustainability strategy and that to achieve those SDGs we need to focus on urban digitization. Examples of strategies deployed for smart cities include, but are not limited to, the utilization of renewable energy supplies, minimizing or phasing out carbon emitting transportation, using technology in the planning of new buildings and construction, as well as project making use of smart alternatives and materials that are sustainable for the environment.
From technology to policy
While, undoubtedly, we can always hope to see a more accelerated approach to this process, several cities around the world have launched their own digital inclusion frameworks to help various sectors, such as environment, transportation, and entertainment, become more digitalized and smart development. In fact, it could be said that smart city strategies are a leading influence on how existing urban development and cities are also looking to adopt strategies that focus on areas of resources and human well-beings.
Of course, technology can provide the tools, but we need to see policies enablers in these areas as they will play a vital role in green lighting the development of more smart cities or the upgrading and digital overlay of existing urban centers.
Urban design standards and laws must also be looked at so as to align with international sustainability standards, which will encourage the development of domestically driven, innovative approaches to reduce or eliminate environmental impact. The rapid emergence and evolution of digital technology has created an unprecedented opportunity for cities to do this and, in turn, improve the lives of their residents and natural environment.
In conclusion, having the necessary operational capabilities to oversee the various integrations of smart and sustainable development is also necessary for a successful AIoT-driven city. Residents must also be fully aware of the potential of smart cities because, ultimately, technology is kind of a catalyst. To improve human lives, we must maintain a sense of individual and social responsibility to maintaining and protecting the world around us.