Building Smarter Cities: A Crucial Challenge

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of National Geographic Society. Author credit goes to Gan Pei Ling.

How can cities, especially those in developing countries, become more energy-efficient and sustainable? The recent World Cities Summit in Singapore brought no easy answers.

Dr. Isher Judge Ahluwalia from India highlighted during the conference’s keynote plenary that her country needs to pump in some $400 billion in the next two decades to improve its urban infrastructure including public transport, roads and sanitation.

“Some of the cities in India are ready to join the industrial world in [terms of] consumption standards but many of us are still dealing with the margins of existence,” said the chairperson of Indian Council for Research for International Economic Relations.

Smart city

image via Shutterstock

While Indian cities struggle to deal with slums and catch up on their infrastructure deficit, Chinese cities have had to resort to quotas to keep the unsustainable growth of car ownership in check.

Zhou Zhengyu, deputy secretary-general of Beijing’s municipal government, shared during the discussion that the Chinese capital was the first to impose a cap last year, allowing only 240,000 cars to be registered annually.

Previously, the number of cars in Beijing has grown by 500,000 in 2009 and 800,000 in 2010. Now, with the quota imposed in 2011, there are still more than five million cars in the city with a population of 20 million.

After Beijing, Guiyang and most recently, Guangzhou have also enforced quotas on car ownership in a bid to curb traffic congestion and rising carbon emissions.

Jeremy Bentham, Shell’s Global Business Environment Vice-President and one of the panelists at the keynote plenary, described prosperity as the “paradox of modern life.”

“Prosperity is a wonderful thing, it’s improving the capability of hundreds of millions of people to lead good lives; at the same time, it’s creating pressures that can undermine the benefits of prosperity.

“If we look up to 2030, we could see these pressures building up in our ecosystems, with energy demand increasing by at least 30 percent, water pressure 40 percent and food 50 percent,” said the economist.

These stresses do not act independently, but like a “nexus” in which they feed off each other and as a result, built up more quickly, in a non-linear fashion. He noted that it is incities especially that these environmental pressures are aggregating, due to rapid urbanization.

“Business-as-usual is just not feasible,” said Bentham, who foresees an era of increased business, political and social volatility in the next few decades.

He stressed that urban planners need to make the right choices now, by designing compact cities that enable smarter mobility. Otherwise, poor choices will be locked in for the next 30 to 50 years, due to the massive scale and investment involved in infrastructure development.

Buenos Aires and Bogota are two examples of cities that have taken great pains to reduce the number of cars and improve public transportation.

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