The human story in smart cities

  • 25 Aug 2023
  • by
  • Kate Romano
The pulse of a smart city might be measured by sensors, but a city’s heartbeat is only heard by humans, writes Kate Romano.

In the smart city of the future, 5G networks will pulse with lightning-fast data, connecting every corner of the city in a seamless web of communication. Driverless cars will glide effortlessly through the streets, their sleek electric frames whispering silently past pedestrians and other vehicles. Sensors and smart devices will hum with activity, collecting data on everything from air quality to traffic flow, beaming this information into the cloud for analysis and optimisation.

Does this description sound like science fiction? Well, ChatGPT wrote that first paragraph for me. 
If artificial intelligence can write about smart cities today, it may very well design them in the future. What, then, will be the purpose of a city designer? And what is the role of a masterplanner in the future of a smart city?

By 2050 – the year the world must achieve its net zero ambitions to avoid the worst consequences of climate change – our global population is expected to be around  9.7 billion. More than 70 per cent of those people will live in cities. It is an eye-watering evolution in a century, given just 30 per cent of the 2.5 billion global population lived in cities in 1950.

These statistics are powerful reminders of why smart cities matter. We simply cannot solve the challenges of the 21st century without smart technologies and advanced digital infrastructure. 
But our cities are far more than stores of data and networks of high-tech buildings and driverless vehicles. Our cities are places of promise and prosperity. They are centres of connection and comfort. They are hubs of human experience.

As a developer, I sit at the front end of projects, working with masterplanning teams to imagine how places and spaces will be used decades before they materialise. We use sensors to capture data on a range of parameters: local weather, noise levels, air quality, footfall and more. The data these sensors collect is used to understand how people interact with space but we know the best places in our cities aren’t created in data sets. Our buildings can be packed with sensors, but it is how we make sense of the data that brings humanity to our cities.

Common ground through conversation

Our best places are those that capture the “sidewalk ballet”, which acclaimed urbanist Jane Jacobs so passionately championed. Places of interaction and connection.

Take London’s Elephant Park, a $4.5 billion regeneration project, where Lendlease has been working in partnership with Southwark Council for more than a decade. This major regeneration seeks to address some of the weightiest challenges facing major cities today – whether that be the construction of several thousand desperately needed new homes within central London, or the operation of a net zero carbon development.

At the heart of the development, we’re delivering a superb new park, and establishing a popular new retail and dining destination that showcases some outstanding local, independent businesses. Our team was committed to a process of true engagement – of listening and learning. Chief among the community’s concerns was the potential destruction of old plane trees that dotted the site. Once it was understood how much the natural feature was cherished, Lendlease could create a much richer masterplan. Our tree strategy committed us to deliver a five per cent increase in tree canopy by the time the project is completed in 2027, and we’re well on our way to achieving this.

Closer to home, Sydney’s Darling Square on the edge of Chinatown exemplifies how a truly smart city is human-centred. Darling Square is home to some spectacular spaces, from the International Convention Centre Sydney – with its undulating roofline and series of interlocking glass jewel boxes – to The Exchange, a library that looks more like a bird’s nest than a building.

In the public realm at Darling Square, we installed tried-and-true smart cities technology, including wireless access points located on smart poles and buildings to deliver free public access Wi-Fi. The data we collect sheds light on how the public realm is used during major events such as the Vivid Sydney festival, and how people move as Sydney’s 24-hour city evolves.

But some of the smartest ideas for Darling Square were unearthed in conversations with the community, not by analysing people movement data. For instance, the old convention centre’s façade featured a mirrored glass wall, repurposed as an outdoor dance studio. The local community was reluctant to lose this understated asset, and the design for Darling Square’s outdoor spaces was informed by this insight. These spaces proved the perfect platform for Sydney Square Dance in 2021, a “socially dis-danced” festival of dance battles, classes and impromptu flash mobs to encourage healthy movement and human connection.

Elevating First Nations voices

Each city is a canvas, but not a blank one. We must remember the tens of thousands of years of inhabited human history and storytelling at the heart of every place. Much of my current work sees our team come together to learn about and elevate the voices of Traditional Owners in our projects.

As developers, we sit in a dynamic ecosystem of place-makers. There is never one sole visionary on a project. Instead, we bring together dreamers – everyone from architects to artists, First Nations Elders to economists, community groups to smart cities experts – to create places that are multi-layered and diverse, inclusive, vibrant and resilient.

Measuring success

Smart cities need smart people. At Victoria Cross, our $1.2 billion tower is being built above North Sydney’s new metro station, and will become one of the city’s most well-connected and sustainable workplaces. Once operational, the metro will open entire new talent pools for businesses to access as commuting times are slashed and new areas of the city are brought closer to North Sydney. We are also collaborating with girls’ schools from around North Sydney to support their STEM programs, inspiring the next generation of smart-city shapers.

We do not measure success as cutting a ribbon or counting ones and zeros. Success is measured when we walk through a precinct that was envisaged many years before and find it has evolved in unimagined ways. It might be as simple as a resident sitting under a tree with a good book or as powerful as a seven-storey shell wall. It might be a florist’s shop spilling out onto the footpath with fresh blooms or a flashmob dancing along a 100-metre rainbow that celebrates diversity, inclusion and pride. These interactions are distinctly human, and this is why the next evolution of the smart city will be a human story.

Content originally published in INDESIGN 90’s City Futures special issue, August 2023.