Round table: How to evolve the urban environment through improvement of technology, education and innovation

Dubai has been at the forefront of the global smart city drive – a vision of using technology to integrate transport, infrastructure, the workplace, home living and even leisure and retail.

Projects such as the Metro and public solar-powered information and wi-fi terminals, are just two of the initiatives the city has adopted in line with HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum plan to make it the smartest city in the world in the run up to Expo 2020.

Architects Yahya Jan of Norr, Issam Ezzedine of the National Engineering Bureau, Robert Marshall of B+H and Janus Rostock of Atkins met to discuss what actually comes together to make a smart city.

And their first conclusion – a city is only as smart as it inhabitants make it.

Rostock said: “To me a smart city is a multi-dimensional city with a lot of focus on technology. Technology is a major part of it but a smart city has smart inhabitants, smart people who use their cities in a clever way.

“They use the technology made available for them but they also make smart decisions. They make sustainable decisions in terms of how they live their lives and use the scarce resources that we have. So it’s quite a holistic concept.

“A smart city is also about economics. It’s a city which allows its inhabitants to conduct business in an efficient way. It’s also about mobility – how you can use your transport system in the best possible way. Smart living is one of the things we are seeing now in Dubai.”

Ezzedine said people need to understand how to use the technology they have available: “Proper planning and integrating the technology is vital – but at the same time do not neglect the history and heritage of the city. Without integrating the people with the technology I don’t think the city can be operational.

“People need education and training otherwise they cannot take advantage of all that a smart city can offer. And this is coming – for instance 10 years ago no-one was talking about sustainability but now all students have taken on board green thinking.”

Marshall agreed sustainability is a key factor: “I think that when people use the term smart city they are mainly talking about technology and infrastructure. However as urban designers we need to think of a smart city as a sustainable city. A place that deals with environmental issues in a responsible way. It has social and cultural concerns and is also economically viable.

“Technologies can be introduced into the fabric of almost anything but designing something that is sustainable over the long term – that is what is important to me as an urban designer.”

Jan pointed out that the urban fabric of a city contributes towards the goal: “Defining what a dumb city is will go some way towards defining what this utopian ideal is. If there is one thing that a smart city has, that a dumb city hasn’t, it is adaptability.

“Smart cities are generally dense cities – they embrace density over sprawl.”

Marshall said: “I am a great believer that there are so many wonderful things which come out of density. One of the key things is mobility and access. It’s an interesting thing – who do you design cities for?

“People that are the most vulnerable are not taken care of in a city that is not well designed. If you have a denser city which is very well set up with integrated services, the youngest, the oldest and the poorest still have access to social services, to education, to everything that they need – probably more than anyone else.

Janus Rostock, design director at Atkins

“If you have villas and everyone has their own backyard and swimming pool, you don’t need parks or recreational facilities. You don’t need to think about connectivity in the same way as you do if people are living in apartments. A smart city is one which takes care of people through the whole arc of life. Whatever economic situation people are in they should have access to social services and education.”

The ability of an urban environment to give a good quality of life to its less economically advantaged inhabitants is a way to gauge its smartness, the panel agreed.

Marshall said the architect had a big responsibility in this area: “I think a wonderful way of measuring the success of a city is how it takes care of these issues. Looking at the UAE, designers must have a conscience as there is not the same level of community involvement and feedback that you can expect in more established democracies. Of course these can also slow down the urban development process as well. So it is wonderful that things can get done so quickly here. But designers also need to realise that they are designing for people who need urban services the most.”

Yahya Jan, vice president of NORR Group

Rostock used a local example: “How do we select which elements are the most important for a liveable city?

“Because a smart city is a liveable city. I would agree on densification, that is an important part. But at the same time we need to create open spaces. We need to ensure people are not stuck in traffic jams all the time.

“Dubai Marina is one of the densest places in the world. It has its inherent problems in terms of access and circulation. But there are ways around that and it is the responsiveness of the city which makes it smarter.”

The panel heard that the masterplan for Dubai Marina wasn’t designed with the social services needed for that sort of density but members agreed the developer learnt from that and probably would not now build any large scale project that didn’t have capacity for schools, parks and recreation centres, and the connective trails and linkages which make neighbourhoods.

Marshall said: “So many different layers of input have made the Marina quite smart. Areas like The Beach, which I think is brilliant, start to set up connectivity as well.”

The panel agreed the new infrastructure in Dubai gives it an advantage over older cities but it needs to be made cleverer still and traffic management is an issue which illustrates this. Cultural norms in the Middle East are also different from many other parts of the world, the members agreed – but even they are not static.

Jan said: “I believe we are in a time where our needs are changing. We are involved in a very exciting project in Saudi Arabia. The country, because of its culture abhors density because of privacy issues. But even that is changing because of the need for accommodation. Necessity is the mother of invention.”

He explained there is a tradition of a home having a place where just the men meet, but when confronted by the extra cost such a room would entail, homeowners agreed it was not strictly necessary and the household could work around it.

Jan said: “There are the animate and inanimate parts of a city. The inanimate is concrete and steel, animate is us guys.”

Rostock agreed: “It is the evolution of a social patterns which brings changes.”

Dubai Metro is another example of a change in the way a society functions. The panel agreed it was “at first considered unthinkable” as people wouldn’t ride on it for cultural reasons. But the members said following the rapid decision to build it “its acceptance and success has been phenomenal” although the line isn’t long enough or the trains fast enough.

Marshall said: “Transit is one of the cores that makes a smart city and Dubai has certainly embraced that. But there is still a lot of work to be done.”

Ezzedine explored the social aspects of a smart city, saying people usually look at the good side of Dubai but do not place enough emphasis on the lives of those who are not at the high end of the wage spectrum.

He said: “There needs to have a greater degree of insight into the lower and medium wage people. They don’t have open spaces and that is the dark side of Dubai. Architects need to look at what it is that people want, not the client or the developers.”

But the city continues to provide an exciting opportunity for designers, the panel agreed.

Rostock said: “If they try something here and it doesn’t work they stop it and change. There is no face-loss involved. That’s the way of the future – these ’rapid failures’ that allows us to test things very quickly and come back and redo it if it doesn’t work. You might say it’s not sustainable but it could be. That’s how software was developed.”

Jan agreed: “The software industry has a saying ‘fail fast and fail often’ and Dubai is an example of that when it comes to design. Fear of failure is something you need to overcome to embrace change. I see a city as moving, it’s not static. Even an old city such as Copenhagen is changing. It is very different to how it was half a century ago.”

Robert Marshall, global director of planning at B+H Architects

The panel discussed how the design and build business can get more views from the population rather than just “designing in ivory towers”.

Rostock asked: “How can we crowd source ideas from the community around us? That can lead to some really interesting ideas. No-one can have all the answers, but possibly working together we can all have a part of the answer. And when computers and people work together the results are really staggering.

“We have this front part of the brain which nobody else has. It’s called imagination. You can’t teach imagination. It’s something we have developed over the last couple of million years. We need to make sure are continually day dreaming about the future and what it might bring because that brings happiness.”

But looking at what has gone before can also provide inspiration, Marshall said: “When I think about Dubai pre-crash and now – the social aspect of the city has changed as has its culture.

“The people who stayed after the crash were committed. They were staying here and raising a family, or they had a good job with prospects and weren’t just thinking of staying for a year, making some money and then leaving.

“So they required a greater degree of social services and education. In most cities, in six years nothing really changes, but here there has been a huge change.”

Rostock agreed: “It’s the sense of community which has changed, the integration of cultures. You now see sports clubs and people doing things outside of work so there is a better work-life balance. I remember coming here in 2005 and the first question many people asked was ‘when are you leaving?’ Nobody asks me that anymore – for the last three years I haven’t heard that question. The public realm has changed dramatically. Ten years ago it did not exist, now there are spaces for people and things that create identity. There is a life between the buildings.”

The panel agreed there is more to be done to develop the less well-known areas of Dubai. saying in Deira and Bur Dubai families have lived for decades. The members agreed they need a smart city upgrade but in a sensitive way so that the area is not ruined.

The architects were asked whether design has a role in bringing people together and ewhether more open spaces integrate cultures?

Transport and accessibility can help they agreed, and they pointed out that in Dubai you do see large villas next to smaller homes, so unlike other places there are not people of similar ethnic backgrounds and economic circumstances all living in the same area, creating a ghetto effect.

Marshall said: “I think as designers we have to make sure people have accessibility and do not get left out of the wider economic scene.

“One of the advantages we have as designers, is because we are aware of so many different places we can bring the best ideas together. That is about exchanging information and having imagination to see things in a different location. There are some great things going on in the field of urban development today.”

Ezzedine agreed: “Dubai brought the future much earlier than other cities. It is on the smart city track. The Dubai Creek project for instance – there you will really be seeing what is the future of smart cities.”

The panel all felt that the future of urban design was something that could not be predicted. Jan concluded on an optimistic note: “We live in exciting times, that is for sure. Innovation, that will be the key to the survival of our cities – and our species.”

Meet the expert:

Yahya Jan is Vice President of Norr Group and is based in Dubai. He was chosen as This year’s Principal of the Year at the Middle East Architect Awards.

Atkins’ Design Director Janus Rostock was named as architect of the year 2016. His current projects include the Dubai Opera House.

Robert Marshall is Principal and Global Director of B+H Planning, urban design and landscape architecture department.

Issam Ezzedine is an Architect at NEB with a particular interest in social issues. He was named in the Middle East Architect Power List this year.