Smart cities can beat the heat if stakeholders work together

Technology can help make cities more resilient to the extreme weather events associated with climate change, but action needs to be taken now.

The threat that climate change poses to those living and working in urban areas came to the fore this summer as the UK experienced a record-breaking 40°C heatwave. With warnings from the World Health Organisation that extreme temperature events are set to increase in frequency, duration, and magnitude, it’s crucial to answer critical questions over how best to future-proof urban areas to increase resilience to climate change.

The nature of modern economies and lifestyles in developed cities across the UK requires a radical urban transformation that can only truly be delivered through the better utilisation of data and technology to more efficiently manage both the public’s use of cities and the resources necessary for their operation. As we face extreme weather, from flooding to drought, heatwaves to snowstorms, one thing is for certain – action must be taken now.

Technology-led measures to address urban overheating are varied and can range from building-scale initiatives to city-wide transformation.

At a city scale, change can be difficult to achieve as buildings and landscapes are fixed. However, as new development or regeneration takes place there are opportunities for policy to implement measures that positively impact the environment around them.

Many cities now require increased biodiversity with ‘green roofs’ to help cool urban areas down. Others have advocated for passive cooling building design and lighter-coloured material usage to help reflect more sunlight and trap less heat. Madrid’s new Nuevo Norte district is employing a combination of green spaces and trees, building layout and shapes to enhance ventilation. The aim is to make the climate bearable even in the hot summer.

At a building scale there is good news. Parts of the world that have traditionally used gas or oil are embracing electric heat pumps to provide heating. Because heat pumps draw energy from even cool air, they can produce several units of heat for each unit of electricity, making them very efficient. In high temperatures, the system can be reversed to provide cooling. Providing they are specified correctly, new buildings and retrofit systems can slowly allow cooling to be installed in new buildings and retrofitted to old ones. Smart controls and grids can then ensure they are used optimally.

Concerns of rising temperatures are often accompanied by concerns over the abundance or shortage of water across the world. Up to 1.2 billion people across the planet already live with water scarcity, and this number will only increase if protective actions aren’t taken. Drought can cause issues with urban sanitation as well as worsening energy crises.

Adopting Internet of Things (IoT) services can create a monitoring system to inform governments about the volume of water used on public services, ultimately revealing which areas are wasteful and enabling more economical use of water across cities. IoT can also be used in flood detection, to mitigate damage to citizens’ lives and property effectively. Using flood detection systems and rain sensors can pre-empt oncoming floods and gives cities sufficient warning to prevent against them, meaning citizens can move quickly and in turn reducing likelihood of death.

Ultimately, in the future net-zero carbon world that we aspire to, it will be far easier to address the issue of heating and drought. There is likely to be an unlimited supply of cheap energy, mainly from solar and wind, but its output will inevitably vary. As such, ‘smart cities’ will be all-electric and use batteries, hot water and demand-management techniques to help increase and reduce energy use to balance demand to supply.

The journey towards integrating smart city technology into our urban areas to improve climate resilience is a long road full of pitfalls and learning opportunities. Like the technology itself, however, all key stakeholders working to deliver this transformation must remain adaptable and forward looking if we are to rise to the challenge and create safe and sustainable urban cities for generations to come.

Barny Evans is sustainability director at Turley.

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