Industry opinion: Reducing negative impacts of urbanisation through emerging technologies

How digitalisation and decentralisation can work in tandem to unleash significant benefits for the smart cities of the future

It is predicted that over 66 per cent the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, up from the current 55 per cent, and our cities will have no choice but to cope with an additional 2.5 billion people over the next 30 years.

But with urbanisation already leading to several environmental and social issues such as overcrowding, congestion, lack of energy security and air pollution, are our cities ready for the influx?

Measures have already been put in place to tackle the consequences of swelling cities, such as upgrading alternative transport systems, but with the population growing exponentially, innovative solutions are becoming all the more necessary. What’s more, it’s vital that the planners of our towns, cities and any future developments recognise that the strategy to reduce the negative impacts of urbanisation is not one that can be solved independently, but rather it requires both public and private sectors to work collaboratively.The uptake of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) is one significant change that will contribute to the reduction of pollution levels

Public and private sector solutions ” across transport, energy, health and telecommunications ” must be aligned, not only to reduce the negative impacts of urbanisation, but also for our towns and cities to flourish.

Mitigating air pollution

As more people amass in our cities, so too will vehicles and the harmful toxins they emit. Major cities have put various measures in place to tackle air pollution and have vowed to ban diesel cars by 2025, but how effective are these current proposals?

For example, the recent introduction of ultra-low emissions zones penalising certain vehicles in central London is a big step to try and reduce pollution, but environmental campaigners have highlighted that such zones fail to block all vehicles with high emissions. Moreover, it’s reported that there are currently two million people in the capital living with illegal levels of air pollution.

To add to the staggering numbers of people affected by air pollution, it was reported that globally, four million children develop asthma every year as a result of traffic pollution. It’s clear that we need drastic, solution-based change ” there is no magical solution to this extremely complex issue and this is where emerging technologies step in.

The uptake of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) is one significant change that will contribute to the reduction of pollution levels. Fuelled by green energy as UK energy generation for the grid continues to decarbonise, BEVs will encourage more and more of us to ditch fossil fuels and the toxic fumes they produce. Our towns and cities will become sustainable but for this to be a success, the onus is on both the private and public sector to push for the adoption of BEVs.

In addition to cleaner methods of transportation, a sustainable solution which could make a significant impact is the wider spread use of Advanced Thermal Treatment (ATT) technologies and other renewable energy generation methods. ATT technologies not only reduce the amount of pollution compared to current waste incineration technology but will also reduce the amount of waste going to landfill. Through the use of such technologies, raw waste can also be converted into gaseous fuel that can then be combusted for cleaner energy.

Digital infrastructure

A digital infrastructure and a flexible approach towards new urban environments is vital. It is critical that local authorities, transport operators and telecommunication companies join forces and co-operate like never before.

Through collaboration, these private and public sector bodies can embrace and facilitate the Internet of Things to deliver smart cities which work in harmony with their inhabitants. Establishing the IoT and enabling devices to efficiently communicate is fundamental to the success of connected autonomous vehicles and therefore critical in reducing the negative impacts of urbanisation.A digital infrastructure and a flexible approach towards new urban environments is vital.

We must not forget, however, that a precursor to the IoT is the provision of low latency 5G networks. For towns and cities to be truly ‘smart’ and understand passengers needs and requirements, data will need to be shared reliably, efficiently and at speed. Ride-hailed mini-buses will need to ‘talk’ to every element of the network including traffic lights, road signs and even the roads themselves to inform driver decisions.

This connectivity will help to reduce congestion and coordinate journeys to reduce travel times but given the sheer volume of data being transferred, latency could be a huge setback. Low latency 5G provision which is capable of not only helping with the CAV’s but also helping to plan routes, pay for the service and divert you when needed to is required. The planners of our towns, cities and any future developments must take note of the changing transportation preferences sooner rather than later.

Decentralising energy

Despite the immense challenges, the rising popularity of EVs present nations with significant opportunities. Among them is the move towards more localised forms of energy generation and distribution.

It’s all very well making huge strides and solving air pollution and congestion but how will cities and towns be affected by the ever-increasing demand on the electricity grid? An essential precursor to the widespread uptake of EV and connected autonomous vehicle innovations will be to decentralise energy; allowing energy to be generated and distributed where it is needed is critical.

As more and more of us switch to EVs, we should not assume that the existing grid can support thousands of battery-powered cars being plugged in at the same time, in addition to all the other devices requiring power. Brownouts and energy shortages are a very real risk which we cannot afford to overlook. Priority must be given to strengthening energy infrastructure, which is already struggling to adjust, in order the meet the demands of tomorrow.

At the UK Central Hub in Solihull, for example, Rolton Group’s specialist energy team is developing a strategic energy solution to address the predicted shortfall in power supply as the area becomes more populous. The Hub is set to experience significant growth over the next 15 years, including the redevelopment of Birmingham International Station, growth at the NEC and Birmingham Airport, a new metro tram service and future development at the 340 acre Arden Cross site (including development of the new HS2 Interchange Station) ” in addition to the growing number of electric vehicles (EVs) in the area also requiring power.à‚ 

The significant increase in anticipated energy consumption must be addressed to realise the ambitious growth plans at The Hub, with a robust strategy for energy infrastructure needed to supply not only EV charging stations but also industry and other development in the area. It is critical the infrastructure allows for flexibility of nodal charging of future ride-hailing connected autonomous vehicles which will likely have a high output supercharge requirement.

A smart future

Smart cityscapes will be people-centric and enhance the human experience of urban life ” not only by alleviating negative environmental impacts but by also improving the way people navigate the urban environment.A smart city future

As society shifts towards MaaS and the number of privately owned vehicles on our roads is set to decrease, car parks as we know them will likely be repurposed and could be replaced by fast ride-hail automated charging points; passenger drop off zones will feature on street corners; and this is on top of all the additional homes necessary for the growing population. The likes of BP Chargemaster, E.ON Drive and many others are driving changes to establish a network of EV charging points and Gridserve, a UK-based solar energy business, is beginning work on its à‚£1bn network of electric car charging forecourts which is giving us a glimpse of what the future could look like. Within the next five years, the UK-wide programme will see 100 electric forecourts featuring dedicated charging points for private vehicles, taxis and buses.

In addition to a network of EV charging points, the UK’s Department for Transport has unveiled a à‚£40m plan to develop wireless charging systems to be embedded in car parks and along major highways to power up vehicles without the need for drivers to plug in. While these kind of Scalextric-style solutions may seem far off, Sweden has already installed the world’s first e-road and a similar system is being tested in China.

It’s clear that our transport, energy and communications networks are becoming increasingly and inextricably linked with developments in the built environment and a cohesive UK-wide strategy is vital to reduce the negative impacts of urbanisation.

The cities of the future have almost unlimited potential to improve how we live, work, play and travel. However, a city will only ever be as smart as the foundation it is built on. While adoption of EVs and CAVs is unquestionably a positive step forward as we move towards a sustainable future, we must not neglect the real and pressing need to address how they will be powered. Likewise, the benefits of CAVs cannot be underestimated, but this too is dependent on the provision of a strong and reliable base in the form of 5G networks.

Cross-sector collaboration between government, the utilities sector and wider industry is essential to ensure the UK continues to grow and flourish in this increasingly sustainable world. With sophisticated technology and the development of people-centric initiatives, we can enhance human experience of urban life. We must take a more holistic approach ” combining infrastructure, energy and transport strategies ” if the UK is to realise its bold ambitions and meet with the global evolution to a smart city infrastructure.

Rolton Group is an established multi-disciplinary engineering consultancy offering advice, strategy and implementation within the built environment, including the application of renewable technologies and carbon reduction.

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