Rise of the eco-metropolis

Read time 19min 40sec

On a stretch of reclaimed land just off the South Korean port city of Incheon, lies a piece of the future. With an international business district, Venetian-style canals and 100-acre 'Central Park' of its own, Songdo City plans to be one of the world's greenest when completed. It will feature green-certified residential and industrial buildings, a hi-tech water-recycling system and low-carbon transport infrastructure - all with the aim of emitting one-third the greenhouse gas emissions of a similar-sized city.

“How do we build our future cities in a way that reduces energy use, grows the global economy, protects the environment, and improves the quality of life for people around the world?”

Amy Novogratz, TED Prize director

The most striking aspect of Songdo, however, isn't its physical infrastructure, but the sophisticated information network underpinning its eco-friendly design. An 'urban services layer' will connect citizens, information and municipal services via an open IP-based platform that enables seamless communication across living, working and learning environments.

Songdo is one of several 'intelligent' urban hubs being developed across the globe, as countries try and adapt to increasingly urgent environmental and population challenges. More than half the world's people currently live in cities, with the urban population expected to double in the next 20 years. It's estimated that China alone will add 350 million people (more than the entire current US population) to its urban populace by 2025. With cities generating around 80% of global emissions and guzzling 75% of the world's energy, the challenge of how to manage these mega metros is growing progressively more complex - and pressing.

The question has become so significant it even saw the organisers of the famed TED conference change the format of its annual prize this year. Instead of granting the award to a visionary individual, the $100 000 and 'wish' (a proposed project to help improve the world) will go to the person with the most promising idea for realising the smart city of the future - “one in which more than 10 billion people must somehow live sustainably”, according to TED.

Prize director Amy Novogratz says the same theme kept coming up during the initial search for this year's winner: “How do we build our future cities in a way that reduces energy use, grows the global economy, protects the environment, and improves the quality of life for people around the world?”

The City 2.0 'wish' will only be unveiled on 29 February during the TED conference in California, but across the globe projects have started that aim to embody the City 2.0 principles of sustainability, inclusion and intelligence. Here's a look at some of the most innovative approaches to creating the urban landscape of the future.


Green and gold?

While SA's heavy reliance on coal has prevented it from gaining global green status, its major cities have begun efforts to make their operations more sustainable. The City of Johannesburg has drawn up a 2040 Growth and Development Strategy, part of which involves improving service delivery through smart systems. It's an ambitious aim given only 15% of the country's households have access to computers, and even fewer to the Internet. A public-private partnership is seeing the rolling out of a high-speed fibre-optic network to parts of Joburg that have traditionally been under-serviced. The city also recognises the need to move to smart infrastructure, including smart meters, intelligent traffic management systems and surveillance systems, for more efficient and sustainable service provision.
Cape Town aims to become a lower carbon city and achieve an 'optimal energy future' by focusing on three areas: renewable energy, energy efficiency, and transport efficiency. The city's energy and climate action plan sets out a target of 10% cleaner or renewable energy by 2020, and a 10% reduction in electricity consumption by 2012. Supporting projects include energy efficiency retrofits in government buildings and the development of an integrated rapid transit system. Another is a climate change think tank - a research group facilitating collaboration between academic institutions, researchers, specialists and local government officials to develop interventions aimed at preparing for climate change.

The Dutch city may be more than 700 years old, but it's rapidly transforming into a blueprint for an intelligent metropolis. From smart grids to electric mobility, Amsterdam is considered a leader in the field of sustainable city development, with a goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 40% by 2025. It also hopes to source 20% of its energy from renewable sources in the same year, and reach carbon neutrality by 2015.

The Amsterdam Smart City initiative is built on four implementation blocks - sustainable living, sustainable working, sustainable mobility and sustainable public space - all enabled by an underlying smart grid linking electricity networks with ICT. The city plans to spend EUR100 million annually over the next four years to upgrade its energy infrastructure, and several projects have been rolled out under these four focus areas. One sustainable living project in the district of Geuzenveld, for example, has more than 500 households testing smart meters in a bid to reduce their household consumption. The meters can be connected to energy-saving appliances, provide displays of energy use, and give customised feedback to users depending on their readings.

As part of the public space focus area, several projects have been rolled out along the bustling shopping route of Utrechtsestraat, in an initiative dubbed Climate Street. These include waste collection by electric trucks, solar-power bus stop display signs, energy-saving streetlights, and tram stops that generate energy instead of only consuming it. Participating companies and entrepreneurs in the area have also been equipped with energy monitoring technology that provides personalised saving tips.

With almost a third of all trips in the Netherlands being made by bicycle, getting around is already a fairly low-carbon exercise. But to further boost sustainable mobility, Amsterdam has installed 73 shore power connections so freight vessels and river cruisers can connect to the electricity grid when they are in port, rather than using onboard diesel generators. The Netherlands government has also introduced various incentives to encourage the switch to electric cars, offering substantial grants and specially reserved parking spaces, with the aim of 10 000 electric vehicles by 2015.

The city is rolling out charging stations at a cracking pace, with around 200 at present and plans to increase this to 1 000 by 2012. In November last year, the car-sharing service Car2go was rolled out in Amsterdam, providing 300 electric smart cars on a shared rental basis.

The sustainable working initiative includes an upgrade of the ITO Tower, a large office building, to incorporate smart building technology including lighting, heating, cooling and safety management systems. The installation of LED lights saw an energy saving of 72%, while smart technologies and smart plugs realised an 18% energy reduction through automated switching off of devices and 16% savings on office printing. Resident businesses have also been encouraged to share unused space and adopt telepresence facilities for improved efficiency.

No amount of clever technology can replace the need for behaviour change, however, and city officials soon realised citizen interaction was vital to its greening efforts. Programmes now include primary school children learning about energy saving via an online portal, and an interactive Web service called Urban EcoMap. Created by the Connected Urban Development initiative, EcoMap displays citizens' environmental footprint to raise awareness and help them make more informed decisions around energy and resource use.


Barcelona is one of five cities involved in a three-year EU-sponsored project to adopt a living labs approach to sustainable urban development. Along with Helsinki, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Paris, Spain's second-largest city is embarking on an open innovation framework that builds on citizen participation, open data, and sensor and fibre networks.

With this in mind, one of the city's most prominent initiatives is an innovation district called 22@, with various ICT and media projects working to foster collaboration between companies, universities and the public sector. With a more than EUR200 million investment in the 22@ infrastructure plan, Barcelona hopes to bolster technology research and knowledge transfer by using the city as a testing ground for companies wanting to run trials in the field of smart technologies.

The district features a Media-ICT building that serves as a showcase for green architecture, a fabrication lab developing innovative manufacturing and building techniques, and the SIIUR project - an integration of urban infrastructure and services for more intelligent and efficient city management. Street lamps in the SIIUR, for example, are equipped with LED technology and sensors that detect presence, temperature, humidity, noise and pollution.

Many of the projects at the 22@ cluster are extensions of existing city implementations. For example, the district heating and cooling network, Districlima, was introduced to22@ in 2005 to help minimise primary energy consumption from fossil fuels, reduce emissions, and lower noise and vibration in buildings. The system prevented 10 100 tonnes of CO2 emissions and reduced the use of fossils fuels by 56% in 2010.

When it comes to creating shared information platforms, Barcelona has deployed sensors in the city via several pilot projects. Examples include sensors in solid waste containers for the efficient management of routes and schedules, street sensors that monitor parking availability, and environmental sensors that measure the degree of air pollution. The city is creating a platform for municipal employees with a single database containing all the information from these various sensors.

Barcelona aims to be one of the global centres for innovation in electric mobility, and has made several investments on this front. These include charging points for electric vehicles and piloting electric and solar-powered motorbikes for the municipal police force. There's also an open public-private platform called 'Live Barcelona' aimed at promoting the use of electric vehicles in the city.

With more than 240 recharging stations at present, the long-term goal is for every citizen to be able to access a station within five minutes from home.

To enable citizens to engage with these initiatives, Barcelona has instituted various public participation projects, including Virtual Memories, where elderly people and youth explore ways new technologies can benefit them, and a WiFi citizens' network, offering 250 free hotspots at public venues. Participa 22@ is a citizen engagement platform comprising three locations with big screens where users can share opinions via SMS and tag clouds. It allows people to play an active role during live events by creating and sharing views through mobile phones and the Web.


Unlike the UN climate change conference it played host to in 2009, Copenhagen has made major progress in its sustainability efforts, with a goal of reducing emissions by 20% between 2005 and 2015, and becoming completely carbon-neutral in 2025.

The city is also taking the urban lab approach, using its own buildings, utilities, land, and citizens to test smart, green solutions. The Copenhagen Cleantech Cluster is a global consortium aimed at creating a business environment conducive to clean-tech research. This is in line with Denmark's national policy to be completely free of fossil fuels by 2050.

The Cleantech Cluster set up an innovation platform in October last year, where companies, research institutions and public bodies can contribute ideas to help develop an open digital infrastructure for smart cities. The focus is on creating an information sharing framework that's freely accessible, to help advance sustainability solutions for existing and new city regions.

The city is already an expert at efficient waste management, reusing around 90% of all building waste and incinerating about 75% of household waste. This energy is used to power the district heating system, used by 98% of the city. It also runs two district cooling networks, with free cooling from sea water, abstraction, absorption chillers and electrical chillers, together expected to save 14 000 tonnes of CO2 per year.

Transport goals include getting 50% of the population commuting by bicycle and a redevelopment programme which will see 90% of Copenhageners able to walk to a park, beach, natural area or sea-swimming pool in less than 15 minutes. A new electric bike called the Copenhagen Wheel is being tested by the city's healthcare staff. The bike features a hybrid engine with a sensor that captures pollution levels, CO2, temperature and humidity, and the user can view this data on a smartphone. Widespread use of the Copenhagen Wheel would have major impact, as cyclists currently travel 1.1 million kilometres every day.

Copenhagen is also working to establish sustainable neighbourhoods and communities. The city introduced a mandatory green roof policy with the aim of creating buildings that 'breathe in' carbon emissions and other pollution, and has challenged residents to reduce their personal CO2 footprint by more than a ton, through day-to-day savings.

It's also developing a housing project in Nordhavn, with space for 40 000 citizens and an equal number of work spaces. With a sustainable energy supply, green buildings, public transport and excellent cycling routes, Nordhavn is set to become the Danish City's model for a low-carbon neighbourhood.

Masdar City

Masdar City, situated in the arid Arabian desert 17km from downtown Abu Dhabi, is the United Arab Emirates' attempt to establish a model for hi-tech, low-carbon city living, and global hub for the clean-tech industry.

With one of the 10 largest oil companies in the world, the UAE realises if it's to keep its role as a major energy player, it will need to invest heavily in R&D of renewable technologies as the global market evolves.

Masdar consists of five integrated units - Masdar City, Masdar Power, Masdar Capital, Masdar Carbon and the Masdar Institute, a research-driven graduate university working in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Initially planned to be the world's first zero-carbon city, Masdar had to downscale its targets to a 50% reduction in overall energy demand, a 30% reduction in emissions caused by building materials and products, and 50% reduction in emissions caused by the city's day-to-day operations compared to business as usual.

While the city only has a few hundred residents at present, the plan is to expand to 40 000 residents and hundreds of businesses when completed in 2025. Serving as a living test bed for cutting-edge green technology, the city is unique in that it has been constructed with sustainability goals in mind from scratch, as opposed to established cities that have had to retrofit and update infrastructure.

As such, city planners had to integrate buildings with various smart utility and infrastructure services - including electricity, water, sanitation and transportation - across an entire city. Masdar is monitored down to the finest detail by an intelligent grid that senses and controls energy use, including remote control of lights and appliances, turning off showers after a certain amount of time, and regulating temperature.

Public energy displays serve as a constant reminder to inhabitants of their consumption. One example is the display on a 45m wind tower, which captures upper-level winds and directs them to the open-air public square at its base. Through a complex system of sensors and air movement techniques, the tower directs and carries winds downward, with mist generators adding additional cooling to help moderate air temperatures at the bottom square.

Masdar doesn't encourage lazy travel, and buildings feature prominent staircases and out-of-the-way elevators to promote walking. A monthly organic farmers market and annual street fair between April and October are aimed at supporting a culture of sustainable eating and living.

Without the legacy of 20th Century transport systems, Masdar has been able to engineer a low-carbon network of driverless cars, electric trams, trolleys and buses looping through the city. The goal is to ensure no destination is more than 250m to 300m from public transport.

At the heart of the city's clean-tech research efforts is the Masdar Institute, with international students and researchers focusing on advanced alternative energy and environmental technologies. Other innovation initiatives include the Zayed Future Energy Prize, an award recognising visionary renewable energy and sustainability projects, and the annual World Future Energy Summit, to help facilitate progress in alternative energy. The city was also announced as the home of the International Renewable Energy Agency.

The city's power arm develops and operates renewable energy projects, with concentrating solar power (CSP), photovoltaic solar energy and on- and offshore wind energy being priorities. In a joint venture with Abengoa Solar and Total, Masdar Power is developing a 100MW CSP plant in the western region of Abu Dhabi, set to be the largest of its kind in the world. Along with similar projects, this will contribute to Abu Dhabi's goal of generating 7% of its energy needs from renewable sources.


Crowned Asia's greenest city in a study by the Economist Intelligence Unit last year, Singapore is strengthening its reputation as a compact, clean, and hyper-efficient city.

One of the aims in its recently announced 10-year green roadmap is to transform from “a garden city” to “a city in a garden.” Forming part of this goal is the construction of two giant conservatories at the Gardens by the Bay centre - 'Flower Dome' and 'Cloud Forest' - which feature ecological mini-climates. In addition, close to 10% of Singapore's total land area is set aside for parks and nature reserves, with plans to extend this in the next decade.

Energy is high on the agenda for the city, with much research being done into both the source and management of future energy. It hopes to add S$3.4 billion in value to the economy through this sector, as well as create 18 000 jobs by 2015. One of its projects is an intelligent energy system for testing smart grid solutions. The city hopes to realise an advanced infrastructure that incorporates smart metering with end-user communication technologies and data management systems.

The Pulau Ubin pilot aims to turn an offshore island into one powered by renewable energy, with a micro-grid distributing electricity generated by solar, wind, tidal and biomass sources. Two major renewable players have also chosen Singapore as their base city - Vestas' global wind R&D centre and Renewable Energy Corporation's integrated solar manufacturing complex - one of the world's largest.

An initiative with broader social scope is Singapore Live, a five-year research project led by MIT's SENSEable City Lab. It's aimed at assessing how integrating various data outputs can help the city operate more efficiently, and serves as an open innovation platform for public and private players to explore ways of collecting, combining and distributing various urban data streams in real-time. These include information coming from transport systems, ICT networks, sea and airport operations, environmental sensor networks, and information generated by citizens.

One of the project's key features is that it's meant to be a scalable platform that can be used in other urban projects, enabling new functions to be integrated as they mature. Singapore Live also focuses on making real-time information about the city accessible to citizens, for greater awareness and better decision-making.

The city's transport system has always been upheld as fast and efficient, with a focus on rapid rail systems. It has also introduced an electric vehicle (EV) testing platform, where companies can assess different EV and charging technologies and infrastructures. The government has set up an EV task force to review potential options, with private sector and government fleets testing vehicles in their daily operations.

In 2010, Singapore opened a CleanTech Park, to serve as a "living lab" for clean technology solutions. The Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore is also focused on building integrated photovoltaic technology, which would enable the generation of solar power from the roofs of buildings.

With a keen eye on the future, the government of Singapore recently allocated S$1 billion to the National Innovation Challenge, the first challenge being to develop a cost-effective solution for energy resilience for sustainable growth.

Around S$350 million has also been pledged over five years for clean energy research, development and technology, under the guidance of the Clean Energy Programme Office. Its role is to plan and deploy strategies to develop Singapore into an innovation hub for clean technologies.


The Japanese city of Yokohama was the winner in the city division of 'World Smart City Award' at the Smart City Expo International Conference in Barcelona last year, and is fast emerging as a key player in the world of smart, eco-friendly cities.

The Yokohama Smart City Project is a five-year programme with a consortium of seven Japanese companies - Nissan Motor, Panasonic, Toshiba, Tokyo Electric Power and Tokyo Gas - that aims to develop systems that use local energy effectively. This is essential if the city is to meet the targets set out in its climate change prevention plan: reducing greenhouse gas emissions by over 30% per person by 2020, and over 80% by 2050 (compared with 1990 levels).

The project will see Yokohama introduce a smart grid covering 170 000 households, with the goal of slashing CO2 emissions by 64 000 tonnes by 2014.

The city is using economic instruments to bolster its greening plans, including taxing residents and businesses to fund the creation of more green spaces. It has also formulated an assessment standard for the built environment, with buildings larger than 2 000 square metres being required to have their environmental performance assessed at the planning stage.

New forms of energy have become more critical than ever following the devastating tsunami, and the city is spearheading various initiatives to promote renewable energy use. In some cases, households with solar panels and smart meters can act as electricity generators, selling their extra electricity back to the Tokyo Electric Power Company.

The government has invested 52 million yen in a project for promoting low-carbon manufacturing, which will support small and medium-sized businesses in developing green products and technologies. It will also promote energy conservation in manufacturing processes and encourage companies to move to low-carbon business principles.

While Yokohama has a relatively efficient transport system, part of the Smart City Project is a goal to introduce 2 000 electric vehicles and 500 charging stations in the city. It plans to increase the use of electric vehicles by boosting their use among government bodies as an example. Subsidies will also be provided for the introduction of EVs and the installation of double-speed charging stations.

The city has achieved major successes in its solid waste reduction programme - the G30 Plan ('G' for gomi, which means 'waste' in Japanese). By getting citizens to participate, it met its goal of 30% reduction in combustible waste five years ahead of schedule. City officials clearly understood the need for communication if waste-reduction and recycling initiatives were to be successful. This resulted in around 11 000 meetings being held over a two-year period to explain the programme to citizens and how they could contribute.

Following the success of G30, Yokohama has introduced the CO-DO3 initiative, a series of citizen education programmes to reduce emissions per capita by more than 30% by 2025. The plan includes a tenfold increase in renewable energy, and encouraging energy saving in Yokohama's businesses.

* Look out for part two of this smart city feature which will outline the major trends shaping the evolution of urban living.

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