Digital, sustainable Smart Cities that are fit for the future will only come about if we can make smarter use of existing buildings and transport infrastructure. This is the view of Severin Beucker, founder of the Borderstep Institute for Innovation and Sustainability. The technologies and creative ideas to make smart cities happen have been around for some time. What are city planners waiting for?
Dr. Beucker, the building boom in Germany’s cities shows no sign of slowing. Many of the current new builds are energy-efficient green buildings. Is Germany well on the way to having sustainable, smart cities?
Beucker: There are indeed many exciting new-build projects that meet tough benchmarks on sustainability, often featuring digitally connected energy management systems. However, these are chiefly showcase projects to illustrate what is now possible with smart architecture and innovative technology. New construction alone will never be a panacea for urban problems. The 300,000 or so new apartments built every year are equivalent to less than one percent of the country’s total building stock. The really big leverage to make our cities more sustainable and fit for the future lies in the buildings that we already have. There are quantum-leap opportunities for improvement just waiting to be unlocked. What we now need are innovations that enable smarter, more energy-efficient use of existing buildings.
The smart, sustainable city of the future will be one in which intelligence is distributed throughout the entire network.
So should we be insulating walls and installing new windows, rather than putting up digitally connected high-tech buildings?
Beucker: No, that would also be too little and too slow. These upgrades are hugely expensive and time-consuming, which is why, despite state-funded subsidies, progress on modernization efforts remains sluggish. We want to show it is indeed possible to deliver huge achievements – and do so quickly – through smart use of automation technologies.
What exactly will that entail? Artificial intelligence in the home instead of insulating panels on the wall?
Beucker: I don’t care for hyped-up terms like “artificial intelligence”, because they tend to scare people off. But yes, smart, self-learning software can make a big contribution. For instance, take the
project we’ve just completed on a group of pre-fab multi-storey buildings in a residential quarter of Berlin. By installing a connected energy management system, we managed to bring the old high-rises up to Passive Building energy standards.
Smart Citys make stocks intelligent and not only renovate them (Image: iStock.com/Extreme Media)
How does it work?
Beucker: We installed small, connected control devices and sensors in the apartments. Using a modern graphic interface, residents can enter heating times and temperatures for each room. The heating system also learns from the behaviour of residents, and adjusts the temperature depending on weather forecasts and the times people are actually in certain rooms. Overall, the system makes real-time calculations of exactly how much energy each building needs at any one time. Through continuous fine-tuning of the energy in each of the apartments, the new system has managed to reduce overall consumption by between 20 and 30 percent. Once systems like this are standard, we will be much closer to having smart cities.
Could buildings upgraded with smart technologies be connected with each other to save energy?
Beucker: Buildings can interact with each other to make smarter, shared use of energy. But it’s also possible to connect buildings with non-central power providers or with the charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. The smart, sustainable city of the future will certainly be one in which intelligence is distributed throughout the entire network – not just in power grids and heating, but also in the transport network. Transport is the second-highest consumer of energy. So we need to include it in our ideas if we want to make our cities as a whole more sustainable and energy-efficient.
Public transport plays a key role in the digital city (iStock.com/free creation)
Modern cars are already digitally connected in many respects. But autonomous driving in the city, digital traffic management systems, and even the move to electric-powered vehicles, all still fuel controversy. Why is urban mobility changing so slowly?
Beucker: Our starting point in mobility is much the same as in the construction sector. For decades, the infrastructure in cities has been based on specific assumptions about how it will be used. Urban mobility, for example, has been geared to private transport and fossil fuel-powered vehicles. But we can’t simply say, well, let’s swap combustion engines for electric power, and otherwise leave the infrastructure as it is. That won’t work. As things stand, transport infrastructures are not smart, diverse or connected enough. We need structures that on the one hand work well for private vehicles powered in different ways: electric, hybrid drive, gas or various Power-to-X engines. On the other hand, what we above all need is a public transport system that’s much better and smarter: one that also embraces micro-mobility with electric scooters and the like.
Thinking of today’s public transport, smart infrastructures aren’t exactly what comes to mind. Can smart software really solve public infrastructure problems?
Beucker: It can certainly help to optimize many aspects of our present system, and make the transport infrastructure easier and more convenient for the city’s residents to use. For example, public transport can use sensors, artificial intelligence and mobile apps to create more seamless systems that are better able to identify which forms of transport are needed, when and where. Journeys will be faster as a result. Clearly, though, this will only work if there is also investment in the physical infrastructure.
Networked energy management brings Passive Housing to the digital city (iStock.com/Lex20)
What are the city planners waiting for? For new technologies such as artificial intelligence and electric cars to be ready for the market and everyday use?
Beucker: The technologies for smart cities have long since arrived. The creative and innovative ideas are also there. The big question now facing urban planners and legislators is: how do we manage to direct the necessary investments to ensure the new technologies are deployed resiliently and stably and can unfold their potential? How can we carve out space for innovative solutions in the highly regulated energy and transport markets? We have to create the framework to unlock these opportunities and make them part of the reality of our cities, and we have to flank them with efficient information processes. This is the challenge facing today’s urban planners.
Lead image: iStock.com/Extreme Media