Sustainable Cities are the Key to our Future

Updated: 2 days ago

These are where our fight against climate change will be won or lost.


Ariel view of a city
We need to rethink our cities.

Cities consume 78% of the world’s energy and produce 60% of all carbon dioxide; the construction of buildings alone account for around 40% of these emissions (or 50%, if its upstream value chain is to be included). This troubling statistic will be only exacerbated as cities continue to grow – by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas (up from 50% now), representing nearly a doubling of existing building stock.


With the climate crisis worsening, how might we support this urban trend sustainably? Cities and buildings are where the fight against climate change will be won or lost. Cities are also where we decide on the quality of life available to the majority of our global populations. While there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, five needs are common to building sustainable and smarter cities of the future: building construction, mobility, energy, urban planning and quality of living.


Building Construction


Without concrete, stone, metals, and plastics, there would be no cities. It follows that sustainable cities must use materials efficiently. Of industrial carbon emissions, two materials alone account for half of these emissions – the production of steel (25%), and cement (19%). Anyone with an interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cities must pay attention to this.


Image of construction sites.
The construction industry accounts for 38% of global CO2 emissions.

TechnoCarbon Technologies (France) is developing a new composite material, Carbon Fibre Steel (CFS), made of stone and carbon fibre, that aims to replace carbon dioxide-intensive materials such as concrete, steel, and aluminium. CFS is five times more durable than steel and concrete and uses two times less energy to be produced. The material can be used across construction, consumer, and infrastructure use-cases, for beams, walls, pipes, and finishes, among other products.


Mobility


Around one-quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions come from the transportation of people and goods. Creating sustainable transportation solutions is one of the greatest challenges facing cities today but also a great opportunity for the low-carbon development of cities. More than just a technological shift, sustainable urban mobility requires a mind shift: where transport in private cars and trucking give way to different modes of public transport – bicycle and pedestrian lanes, electric vehicles, car-sharing, and rail freight.


NEXT Future Transportation (Italy) has built an advanced smart transportation system based on swarms of modular electric vehicles. Each module can join and detach with other modules while in movement on standard city roads. When joined, passengers may move from one module to another without having to exit onto a terminus or station. The concept can also be applied to logistics and scale as a mobility-as-a-service application. With optimal planning, NEXT’s modular solution to moving both passengers and cargo can reduce vehicular traffic by up to 80%, and for comparable capacities, reduce energy consumption for buses by up to 75%.


NEXT’s modular electric vehicles.
NEXT’s modular electric vehicles. (Credit: NEXT)

Energy


An obvious way to reduce our energy consumption is to optimise energy efficiency (this also presents significant potential for savings). New buildings in growing cities can incorporate the latest technologies that conform to minimum energy-use standards. Modernising existing building stock in established cities, however, is more challenging; we should be wary of investing in only marginally more efficient technologies that are not modular in nature, so as not to become “technologically locked-in”.


Image of a nuclear power plant.
Cities consume 78% of the world’s energy.

With its smart glass, Nodis (Singapore) immediately helps buildings be more energy efficient by continually calibrating their windows’ tint, colour and infrared wave penetration, reducing energy usage for cooling by up to 40%.


While many cities have so far focused primarily on energy efficiency, the natural progression from there requires weaning off of cheaper “dirty” energy sources and choosing instead to invest in the necessary transition to renewables. Renewable energy is clean, ample, and, in the long run, cost-competitive with non-renewable alternatives.


Enerdrape (Switzerland) has created geo-energy panels that harvest geothermal and waste heat sources accumulated from existing indoor environments. They are installed in underground environments such as garages and tunnels, offering an innovative source of heating and cooling to existing buildings, while effectively reducing capital investment, operational costs, and CO2 emissions.


Energy storage is essential for energy security and resilience to external shocks from variability associated with renewable energy sources. By storing electricity in metal, e-Zinc (Canada) can store energy for hours, days, weeks, or even seasons, thereby balancing the variability in renewable energy. e-Zinc's technology can increase grid resiliency and reliability, and aid in the adoption of clean energy.


Urban Planning


Cities require sustainability solutions involving infrastructure, technology, policy, and management that are tailored to their unique needs and vulnerabilities. Understanding the impacts of urban systems requires considering complex and interdependent social and physical factors. Advancements in computing and sensors can help improve data sets about urban land use and provide more detailed measurements of complex urban flows (e.g., meteorology, air quality, combined sewage outflows, mobility).


Two person looking a 3D model of a city using virtual reality glasses.
Advancements in computing and sensors can help us reimagine our cities.

Empowered by data, policy-makers can then play powerful regulatory roles to unlock the potential of new solutions driving the development of sustainable cities, whether through building codes, grid connection rules, technical standards, land-use planning, public housing programmes, or through specific measures such as solar ordinances.


Digital twins play an important role in enabling the assessment and development of such new solutions. Cluster Dynamics (Japan) employs physics and swarm intelligence to create digital twins that help optimise the movement of vehicles and robots in virtual spaces. This empowers the next generation of plans, regulations and infrastructure built around autonomous vehicles, drones and robots that affects future quality of living.


Quality of Living


Urban areas drive economic development and deliver many public services, such as education, healthcare and transportation, but are also traditionally associated with environmental degradation, congestion, and economic and social exclusion.


Oizom (India) offers cost-effective and easily scalable accurate air monitoring solutions, operating in some of the most polluted regionals globally. Their solutions enable environmental professionals and city authorities to take corrective measures and improve the urban centre’s environmental health. By installing disaster detection systems like floods and rainfall monitoring solutions, residents can also be alerted of impending catastrophic events.


Going beyond the immediately visible, there are multiple hurdles to overcome. Foremost is making cities accessible by the 15% of our population that experience some form of disability. As our co-existence in yet tighter spaces is increasingly being shaped by data- and algorithmic-driven optimisations, we also must ensure that gender and racial biases (among others) in these data sets and algorithms are weeded out and actively guarded against. Only then may our cities be truly smart and inclusive.


Strap Technologies’ wearable device
Strap Technologies’ device allows the visually disabled to navigate unfamiliar places. (Credit: Strap Technologies)

Strap Technologies (USA) is helping the visually-impaired navigate and interact with physical environments safely and productively. Their wearable device detects obstacles and notifies the user of possible collisions by providing haptic feedback, replacing the white cane altogether. This newfound autonomy opens up their worlds to more opportunities to work, study on campus, and run marathons, but most importantly, the ability to be self-reliant.


The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 11 aims to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable” by 2030. Making our cities more sustainable and inclusive is central to this universal call to action to protect the planet and ensure all people have access to at least a basic quality of life. We hope that the framework above, alongside the examples sourced from Hello Tomorrow’s global network of start-ups, provides some food for thought, and a basis from which to launch further positive action so that we may, as a global collective, rise above.


This is part of an ongoing series, Sustainable Urbanisation, produced by Hello Tomorrow Asia Pacific and supported by the Singapore Global Network (SGN). Here we expound on the opportunities (and necessity) for city-living to be gentler on our planet, and highlight emerging deep-tech innovations making it possible.


SGN is an organisation on a mission to build meaningful connections across the globe with Singapore at its heart. For first dibs on networking events, webinars, job opportunities and insights like these, join the network here.

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