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Report: Harnessing the 4th industrial revolution for sustainable emerging cities

Key takeaways

  • Poorly planned cities result in poverty, disease, inequality and environmental damage.
  • Cities which are managed and planned using emerging technologies result in better access to services and transit, better use of land and buildings and a healthier city.
  • AI, blockchain, 3D printing, smart building materials and biomimicry are some of the technologies providing innovative solutions to help with the challenges of rapid urbanisation.

Emerging technology and emerging cities, where do the two intersect?

Research by PwC, Stanford University and the World Economic Forum on the fourth industrial revolution examines the roles, opportunities and risks of technology in fostering sustainable emerging cities. The report, Fourth Industrial Revolution for the Earth: Harnessing the 4th Industrial Revolution for Sustainable Emerging Cities, looks at five main areas where cities are harnessing pioneering technologies – to enhance urban economic productivity, increase society wellbeing and reduce environmental impact.

Smart planning and construction

Problem: The speed at which today’s cities grow means inefficiencies become embedded. The lack of coordination between urban policy, planning and regulation leads to urban spaces that aren’t well utilised. As such, the environmental consequences include higher greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution due to a lack of green/open spaces and as citizens commute to access services and business districts. These unplanned cities are also often socially isolating as lower income individuals and families are marginalised to poorly constructed homes and disconnected from the city’s main services.

Potential solutions: To counter this, emerging digital technology allows integrated urban planning that both monitors and manages land use, shared spaces and building management. Innovations include 3D printed buildings for rapid assembly, AI for automatic detection of land-use changes, robotics for efficient construction, smart pollution-cleansing building materials or drones for land-use planning.

A denser and integrated city with mixed use spaces and multifunctional buildings close to transit would aid in social cohesion and decrease the need for private vehicles.

Sustainable transport and logistics

Problem: Traffic jams not only pollute the environment, they make people and deliveries late, losing time, productivity and money. If people are not connected and cannot move smoothly through a city, it cannot function well. Moreover, the report suggests “without technological change, the traditional, car-dominated cities of the 20th century will not survive rapid urbanisation and increasingly stringent air pollution regulations”.

Potential solutions: Integrated transport and logistics systems, as well as the aforementioned benefits of the well-planned cities, would lower the need for private vehicles and ease road congestion. Real-time traffic monitoring and management via AI coupled with IoT sensors, GPS and even mobile phone data could be used to optimise routes; for instance, redirecting around bottlenecks or snarls, limiting needless emissions and decreasing time wastage.

Other technologies that could aid in sustainable transport and logistics include drones for delivery, nanotechnology in fuel cells for cleaner air, next generation battery technologies for more attractive electric vehicle use and eventually, autonomous vehicles for truly controlling road-use and carbon emissions.

Clean energy and utilities

Problem: Research suggests that 70% of global energy use and GHG emissions are spent powering building, industry, utilities and infrastructure in cities.1 They are, therefore, the most important consideration when it comes to affecting climate change.

Potential solutions: Renewable, decentralised energy, and the technologies associated with it, such as the use of blockchain for peer-to-peer energy trading, new technology enabling affordable batteries for storage, or 3D printed solar roof tiles, will decrease the use of fossil-fuel generated power dramatically. Temperature sensors and smart meters, coupled with accessible technology at the individual level, will lead to efficiencies in water and energy use, while at a system level, smart grids will allow monitoring and efficiencies at the utility level.

Urban health and resources

Problem: Deteriorating health and economic productivity in emerging cities is being aided by bad air quality, dirty water and unsustainable waste practices. Addressing these issues, the report notes, will require a paradigm shift to plan new cities effectively and to retrofit existing ones.

Potential solutions: Technology to increase the health of the city and its participants include applying sharing economy principles to waste, for example, the use of peer-to-peer systems in the recycling/upcycling of materials, using sensor platforms and AI to help predict and track waste generation and collection, and to analyse types of waste in order to optimise disposal and recycling. Up above, air quality could be tracked via 3D printable sensors, biosensors and drones. Naturally, increasing the amount of green spaces, including via ‘living’ buildings and urban agriculture would go a long way towards improving air quality and subsequent health issues.

Resilient urban systems

Problem: Emerging cities have to continually manage change. This is particularly true when it comes to responding to catastrophes, both natural and manmade. An rise in extreme weather events caused by climate change plus geopolitical conflict and mass migration put pressure on urban centres. These events can lead to “reduced financing abilities, different priorities and compromised systems [which can] divert scarce funds and focus from key sustainable infrastructure and low-carbon investments,” the report says.

Potential solutions: Urban management, therefore, needs to be adaptive and guided by real-time data in order to respond to these shocks and protect the people affected. Technologies such as IoT sensors, drones and AI can lessen the effect of events on cities by increasing risk preparedness and enabling an optimised response. Advanced building materials, such as self-healing concrete, memory metals, and the utilisation of biomimicry for flexible structures, can help rebuild better, more resilient infrastructure (with a lower ecological footprint as an added benefit).

Sustainable cities tomorrow

These are of course just a few of the ways that technology can be implemented in emerging cities. None of the above areas of need exist in isolation, and many overlap – as will their benefits.

Further development is needed, with many technological applications in their infancy, and more research is required to better understand how these technologies can be best applied and scaled. They are however, showing great promise when it comes to accelerating the transition to sustainable cities and a more sustainable urban future.

And a sustainable future is certainly worth harnessing.

The 4IR for the Earth programme is a collaboration between the World Economic Forum, PwC, and Stanford University, supported by the MAVA Foundation. The programme looks to accelerate tech innovation for Earth’s most pressing environmental challenges.