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Blog: Creating Smart Cities

By Gregory Ceton, CDT posted 07-31-2018 02:25 PM

“The rush towards cities is unlike any other human movement in history. Current estimates state 75 to 80 percent of the world’s populations will be living in densely developed areas by 2050. The work we do will provide the cities for this migration, putting in place systems making cities work for humans instead of humans giving up space for a city’s needs”– Paul Doherty.

Doherty is CEO of a real estate development firm working to transform entire cities, according to an advanced set of technical specifications, and creating “smart cities.” The enormous difference in both scope and scale as compared with the work of a typical developer is immediately apparent.

“[Our company] typically partners with a local or national government to accomplish our work. We manage all professionals and specify precisely what is needed for everything we are planning,” said Doherty.

The specifications are therefore of paramount importance, in effect becoming a form of governance for the project, specifying outcomes suitable not only for a building, but also as life-cycle work for the whole city as a system.

I spoke recently with Doherty to talk about his work and the exciting and often cutting-edge technological developments his firm uses to improve the way we live in cities and the cities themselves.

Transforming the shape of the built environment

The interrelationship of systems just below the surface makes smart cities almost like biological entities, with buildings, utilities, and roadways acting as the organs keeping the city alive. In smart cities, building skins and roadways double as power plants. Street lighting and high-rise buildings also do duty as internet access points. The whole city buzzes with the data that is its lifeblood.

“We create ecosystems as real estate developers and owner of the land. Specifications are the only way to take innovations and connect them to other innovations. This is not just about putting in a wood window and having it replaced by another manufacturer. [Specifications] create these environments,” explained Doherty.

The specifications are needed not only for administering the contract for construction, but also for administering all system requirements, as only by having these interleaved systems reinforcing each other can the city really be smart. The specifications for any part of the city must work with all of the other parts.

For example, what would ordinarily be the standalone needs of transportation become integrated citywide, affecting other systems and even the nature of the built environment.

“Autonomous vehicles are fundamentally changing the shape of the city in the same way as elevators did 120 years ago. Due to [autonomous vehicles], we no longer need a street grid, parking, stop signs, or traffic lights. It creates a different type of urban environment where the buildings are placed not in a box or a rectangle, but in the context of the local climate and society, and the needs [of the city’s occupants],” said Doherty.

These autonomous vehicles can pilot through a smart city using a digital model of the area provided by smart buildings instead of trying to find their way using vehicle detectors and a satellite map. This type of technology is in place in Jeddah on the west coast of Saudi Arabia, where a building one kilometer tall is being constructed and the digital map is distributed using the buildings in the city as servers and network nodes.

As Doherty said, “the built environment is going to drive the automotive industry, and not the other way around. When you leave your building and start to walk, you are not thinking about all the buildings around you, you are just walking down the sidewalk and being guided by the environment. It will be the same way with autonomous vehicles. Every building is a server, either a node or connector. The automotive industry is focused on vehicle-to-vehicle communication, but why make a car a server when you have these canyons of data the cars will be driving through?”

“When you have that interaction between systems, a sort of biomimicry takes place, positioning the city like a living entity. When you do so, specifications cannot be something you print and put in a book; they have to be live. Not because you want to change them, but because they are being used in many different ways.”

Doherty went on to emphasize this new role of specifications points to new awareness and knowledge for spec writers to gain, and a role for CSI in shaping this version of the future of design and construction.

Green spaces

Doherty also challenged the more traditional notion of green space in cities, a result of a number of studies showing links between quality green space and overall occupant health and well-being. (For more information on this topic, read “Quality over Quantity: Contribution of Urban Green Space to Neighborhood Satisfaction” by Yang Zhang, Agnes E. Van den Berg, Terry Van Dijk, and Gerd Weitkamp in the May 2017 issue of the International Journal for Environmental Research and Public Health, “Green space as a buffer between stressful life events and health” Agnes E. Van den Berg, Jolanda Maas, Robert A. Verheij, and Peter P. Groenewegen in the February 2010 issue of Social Science & Medicine, and “Would You Be Happier Living in a Greener Urban Area? A Fixed-Effects Analysis of Panel Data” by Mathew P. White, Ian Alcock, Benedict W. Wheeler, and Michael H. Depledge in the April 2013 issue of Psychological Science.)

“The industry currently lacks a succinct definition of what green space is,” said Doherty. “We should move away from considering green space as a separate attribute to be measured, and instead think of all of the human-centric gains enabled by smart cities and the technological innovation they employ. Just as autonomous cars reshape our environment, the ways in which they are used and accessed can make parking lots unnecessary. This alone could free up a lot of space for governing bodies to repurpose as green space at their choice or to develop more valuable properties to provide the tax base to support green spaces, whether they be cultivated gardens, parks, or true wild spaces.”

New relationships and responsibilities

This development work not only changes commonly held ideas of how the built environment gets created, it transforms everything flowing from that set of ideas. Traditional lines of responsibility get shifted and need to be reestablished. The smart city works for its occupants as contrasted with people navigating a city built to serve itself.

“We can place [a material] in the roadbed to create energy from the vehicles driving over it. We harvest this energy and distribute it through [a wireless technology]. In the roadbed, we have for all intents and purposes created a power plant, raising the question of who is responsible for the maintenance of the road—the department of transportation or the power company,” wondered Doherty.

In a smart city, relationships between organizations, practitioners, and other stakeholders need to be redefined by the governing institutions. These solutions may also differ from locale to locale in much the same way new cities bloom individually to occupy the space they are planted on.

The life-cycle transformation of specifications

Among the other promising and challenging developments practitioners have seen in recent years in authoring and coordinating construction specifications with other methods of information delivery, smart city development work expands the traditional role of specifications. It expects a broader and deeper set of requirements for quality of components and life-cycle functionality for many interrelated systems. No matter how the information is captured and delivered, it needs to be updated and made accessible for proper operation of not only the system specified in a section, but also for any system dependent upon or linked to that system.

“The [CSI] classification of data during the creation of the digital DNA of the city, building, or road becomes vitally important. The classification is important for more than constructability and quality of construction, it is about life safety. You are saving lives by writing good specifications,” explained Doherty.

Doherty went on to support this claim with an example. “We currently have a system in place in a city pulling information from the building department for use by first responders when an emergency call comes in. A fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) service has been installed in the city and implemented, so every other street lamp is a Wi-Fi hot spot with enormous bandwidth. This means when first responders pass through a geo-fence surrounding the emergency property, software can identify and locate emergency personnel by radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags on their badges. Incident commanders can immediately know geolocation of firefighters, whether they are in or out of the building, and those firefighters can find their way through the building using augmented reality (AR) in their helmet visors.”

Looking past the amazing technological capabilities of these systems working together, this gives a clear example of how this expansion of the role of specifications affects individuals living in the city. Regardless of how they are created, the specifications information must be made available and meaningful for a wide variety of possible uses, and must be maintained well beyond handover. This type of usage also means as-built drawings must be accurate and the tie between specifications and trade contractors should be reinforced.

“If CSI really wants to be an umbrella organization, a better relationship needs to be established with those who do the work, such as pipefitters, plumbers, and electricians,” said Doherty.

The changes and increased efficiencies to the trades because of digital models, and virtual and augmented reality will continue to grow, helping to address the worldwide shortage of skilled labor and [high] project costs by making each body onsite more capable, informed, and efficient. The increased use of technology will also tie back into the as-built record information the systems in a smart city rely on.

Global impact and the burden of designing the future

This work is being conducted in select sites all over the world, from the United States and China to the United Arab Emirates.
“Due to existing populations, interests, and investment of people who live in current cities, we found it more productive to go out and intentionally found ‘greenfield’ cities, spaces where there was no development before. In doing so, we created our own market,” said Doherty.

“This is also why we have to be an owner because we could never do all of these things under contract to an owner. We are dealing every day with the leadership in Beijing and the Middle East as well as right here in Washington because of the depth of what we are talking about. We need to be in a position to affect policy,” he added.

These effects on policy expand beyond codes and standards—the usual concerns of architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) professionals—into international and economic arenas.

As Doherty said, “You read about trade wars, but the specifications information we are using is having a direct effect on trade balance. The gold standard is products made in the United States, and we have to use and specify the best to make our systems work.”
To ensure the quality needed to make these cities work many things need to be questioned and likely reshaped. Everything from the business models of some professions, traditional construction practices, and methods of project delivery to how we contract for those outcomes and what kind of information and data is available to city occupants.

As our conversation wound to a close, Doherty reflected on a favorite theme, the mathematical relationships of buildings and the correspondence of their spaces, ratios, and angles to the culture of the occupants. “Music and cooking metaphors work best for design and construction. Tempo and rest, flavors and colors, all create poetry in space. How you move through space is recognition of the music of [the space’s] time.”

In the end, it all comes down to composing something that reinforces how people live.

“We are musicians, we are not deejays playing others’ music—we have to provide environments for humans to be humans,” he concluded.

Greg Ceton, CSI, CDT, is CSI director of strategic initiatives and special projects. He lives in the D.C. area and likes disruptive technology, good food, and cats.

Specifications are of paramount importance when creating smart cities, as they become a form of governance for the project, detailing outcomes for the whole city to work as a system and not just for a building.