Bold urban planning holds the key to unlocking true smart city potential

While incremental technological improvements can produce small upticks in quality of life for people living in cities, the most exciting (yet achievable) smart city plans for the near future rely on boldness and out-of-the-box thinking to provide the basis for a genuinely next-generation urban living experience.

What are the urban planning tools and approaches that spark our interest most as we look at the latest stable of smart city megaprojects slowly unfolding across the globe? What makes smart city design truly innovative and appealing if it can be successfully realised? 

Ultimate flexibility in design – Digital Twinning

While the digital twin concept is not new, its intelligent application is driving the most ambitious and strategically sound of new smart city designs. Existing cities are clearly showing their age, and more specifically that they were not designed to cope with the explosive growth of the world’s urban-living population. This manifests as unmanageable levels of pollution, traffic congestion, housing crises and all manner of inequality issues.

However, by combining traditional urban planning tools with digital twinning solutions, it’s possible to visualise a whole city in real time. From here, urban planners can truly visualise and grasp the nature, size, scale and complexity of the problems existing in their city. They can experiment with multiple potential solutions, running analysis on likely outcomes with sinking time and resources into pilot programmes. Maximum flexibility, minimal risk – the ability to wholly map out urban planning issues and the best answers to solve them is the gift that keeps on giving to the world’s most ambitious smart city architects.

Already, the digital twinning approach is bearing fruit in a big way. The city-sized country of Singapore is perhaps the world’s best example of what digital twinning can do. Virtual Singapore, the city’s 3D digital twin, is so accurate and comprehensive that it can guide traffic in real time, plan emergency evacuation routes for any disaster scenario, and even identify likely outbreaks of dengue fever by measuring the density of people who have been bitten by the disease-carrying mosquitoes.

Most recently, Virtual Singapore has been used by city planners to find the perfect places to put solar panels. The digital twin is proving invaluable in calculating the amount of solar energy the city can harness from its vertical structures by studying how much sunlight each part of a building gets, leading them to the ideal sites for solar panels big and small.

Spatial Urban planning – Blurring the lines between work, home and leisure

Bringing everything together for convenience and efficiency – this is perhaps the strongest driving force behind the broadly accepted understanding of the ‘smart city ideal’. Put simply, the smart city should be able to place everything its residents need within easy reach. Commuting, accessing gyms, restaurants, nightlife, green spaces – it should all be accessible in a simple, sustainable manner.

This goal is the central pillar on which the most exciting smart city designs of today stand. We’ve covered Saudi Arabia’s The Line in detail in previous articles, since this visionary concept imagines a city that’s 170km long but only 200 metres wide. By putting everything residents need within 10-minute walking distance, The Line promises the elimination of urban congestion and so many of the problems that go with it.

In a different but no less radical update, the South Korean capital of Seoul recently announced its vision for shaping the city over the next 20 years. The Seoul 2040 Comprehensive Plan envisages a wholly new spatial planning framework for the Korean capital, completely reimagining urban spaces and functions.

Instead of traditional urban zoning (residential, commercial, industrial, etc) the plan will allow for greater flexibility in creating the kind of living spaces that enrich daily lives. From ‘Nuclei areas’ to new waterfront spaces, the whole capital is being reshaped over the next two decades into an urban environment where residents have everything they need within easy reach, with life-enriching surprises and health/wellbeing focused experiences to elevate their urban lives from merely ‘existing’ to truly living. Achieving first-and-last mile locality infrastructure is the order of the day in Seoul.

The urban planning focus on efficiency and multifunctional infrastructure can also be seen in the rapid implementation of Seoul’s ‘smart poles’ or ‘S-poles’. These extremely versatile models, that look like standard streetlight poles but with much greater functionality, combine the role of streetlights, traffic lights, CCTV, security lights, public Wi-Fi towers, and smart crosswalks, while also providing EV and drone charging facilities. This amalgamation of roles is emblematic of what the smart city can achieve when ambition meets intelligent design.

MaaS Transit – Keeping the city’s population moving, wherever they want to go

While ‘bringing the city to the people’ is perhaps an ideal approach for new smart cities or existing cities with sufficient resources and optimal conditions for radical reshaping (such as Singapore or Seoul), many major urban hubs are too big, too complex and too crowded to make this viable in the short term.

For the world’s biggest cities, the existing infrastructure doesn’t always lend itself to being sculpted and partitioned into easily accessible neighbourhoods and urban living hubs. For these cities, getting smart usually means starting with smart transportation. If the city cannot be reshaped easily to bring everything within close proximity, then it must instead give residents the means to traverse the city quickly, safely, simply and cheaply, to access everything they need.

Citywide mass transportation systems, while generally huge in scale and expensive to deliver, are also prime targets for radical rethinks and ambitious innovations. India is a prime example of how new "mobility as a service" (MaaS) solutions can make a dent in wholly unsustainable urban congestion issues.

India’s massive urban population, which was approach half a billion in 2020, enjoys high levels of smartphone penetration, enabling the rise of MaaS solutions covering everything from last-mile connectivity to route planning, and transport integration for longer journeys. Taxi aggregators are a good example of this, as Uber faces off against the very popular Indian multinational ridesharing company, OlaCab. Similarly, we’re seeing FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) flood this growth market –auto-taxi company Rapido recently raised US$120 million; two-wheeler vehicle rental company Bounce managed to secure US$200 million. E-bike-sharer Yulu is now active in New Delhi, collaborating with Delhi Metro Rail Corporation on first- and last-mile connectivity services.

The rise of MaaS solutions in India is a ‘hand-in-glove’ evolution of the public transport system, as MaaS services sit alongside the expansive growth of traditional public transport systems (public buses, metro rail links, etc) and together they are positively impacting journey times and general accessibility of Indian cities. Metro development is in a new renaissance, with 1,700km of metro rail due to cover Indian cities by 2025.

Again, the key is not to just think big, but to think smart. The proliferation of smartphones means that Indian city residents can provide more data than ever on exactly how and when they get about. This is leading to a hypercompetitive MaaS market, where ambitious providers are keen to jump in, fill mobility gaps and reap the rewards. The most impactive of these MaaS developments are those with an eye for collaboration with Indian Government and municipal organisations. Collaboration is still the name of the game, and it’s what will build the next generation of smart transportation networks in India.

Thinking big, thinking smart, thinking ahead – Smart city design is what separates iterative improvement from radical restructuring of the urban living order

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of a ‘tech-first’ mentality when looking at the overall development of smart cities globally. Too often, urban planners will seize on the emergence of a new technology and immediately try to fit it into the existing fabric of their city, to make some measure of improvement. Increasingly, a wholesale reimagining of the look, feel and design of a city is necessary to make the most of all manner of technologies that can work in concert.

This is what the most ambitious and exciting smart city plans around the world have in common. They are not defined by the use of a single technology or small group of techs; they are based on the assumption that a smart city must be flexible enough to grow and accommodate all manner of emerging technology in a seamless manner. From modular smart poles in Seoul, to the comprehensive digital twinning of Singapore, these are the kinds of smart cities that are best placed to make the most of whatever technological advances arrive in near or far future.