A smarter ambition for Auckland

In mid-2014, roughly 54% of the world’s population lived in urban areas according to a study conducted by the United Nations (UN). This number is projected to increase to 66% by 2050, along with an increase of 2.5 billion people.

While the bulk of this growth is expected to occur in Asia and Africa, New Zealand is not going to be spared the boom, with our population expected to cross the 5 million mark in the 2030s.  Despite the fact that the majority of our country is rural farmland, and the backbone of our export economy comes from the agricultural sector, New Zealand is actually one of the most urbanised countries on the planet, with our urban population overtaking the rural way back in 1911.  As of 2014, roughly 72% of the country was living in recognised urban centres, 33% of which lived in the greater Auckland isthmus alone – and this growth is showing no sign of slowing.

If this is to be New Zealand’s reality, we need to build and develop our cities to reflect this trend.  We need to introduce innovative thinking into our city planning in order to increase the liveability and connectedness of our cities, and not just simple things that should be standard like public transport, but clever concepts that increase the overall appeal of the city.  This paper will explore and examine innovative instalments and concepts from cities around the world that further the livability and appeal of those cities whilst also reducing their carbon footprints. The paper will also discuss the potential for similar initiatives to be actioned here in New Zealand.

The concept of a ‘Smart City’ refers to the collection and analysis of data from the physical environment and from the city’s populace, mapping the behaviour of the end users through intelligent analysis in order to arrive at efficient and sustainable solutions for the future.  This is especially important today due to the threats posed by climate change.  Three-fourths of the world’s carbon emissions come from cities, and as such the instigation of smart cities is a perfect place to start in order to try and rapidly reverse the effects of those emissions.  This becomes even more obvious when the fact that three quarters of the world’s cities are situated near the coast is factored into the equation.  As rainfall continues to intensify and the polar ice caps continue to melt, the threats to our urban environments are becoming ever more real.  

A good example of smart city planning for the future can be seen in the city-state of Singapore.  The first example of this is their public transport system, with the entire network, both rail and bus, being designed based on well-studied endpoints where the majority of commuters need to end up, thus removing the need to drive and reducing the number of cars on the road.  This is especially impressive when the fact that the system can carry 40% of the population is taken into consideration.  Furthermore, Singapore has been ranked as the 8th greenest city in the world, with c.90% of their buildings complying with the country’s green building code, all of which is a part of Singapore’s go-green advocacy which started in 1963.  A prime example of this is the Parkroyal hotel on Pickering, which has an artfully tiered façade dotted with tropical ferns and creeping vines.  The hotel also has an efficient cooling system and the ability to harvest rainwater amongst other eco-friendly installations.  Singapore also has a Green Singapore 2050 (GS2050) initiative in effect, which encourages the youth to express their concerns about environmental issues and possible solutions.  This not only creates noise around the issue, but also gives younger generations the opportunity to brainstorm potential solutions for the cities of their future.  

Image: Parkroyal Hotel on Pickering Singapore

The secondary aspect of the Smart City is the use of technology to make life in a urban living easier for the citizens of that city.  Different systems and devices will communicate and interact in order for the Internet of Things (IoT) to better organise and manage resources, transportation and services for the benefit of all.  A basic example of this is the use of social media technologies by City Management in order to communicate with those who’re to be affected by their projects and developments.  However this is a very basic example.  A more complex one that has yet to be implemented, but is gaining more and more momentum, is the idea of driverless cars in driver-free cities.  Currently, the prevailing fear with autonomous cars is the risks they potentially pose, such as their onboard computers crashing or being hacked, thus leading to road accidents.  But what the majority of people don’t think about is the dangers that will be removed by driverless cars – the human element.  The risk of being hit by people driving drunk or texting and driving would be removed, along with the potential to be hit by distracted or fatigued drivers. Instead these threats would be replaced by a world where cars adapt to road and weather conditions and drive accordingly. The cars won’t feel fatigue, consume alcohol to excess or have bad days at work.  Driverless cars will simply drive according to the road code of their resident country, thus promising us safer cities and commutes.  On top of this is the potential to save space in cities  and cut down on co2 emissions by using electric driverless cars. The cars could even integrate with our smart devices. This would allow the car to read our data preferences, calculate the length of time for the trip, and offer up entertainment suggestions accordingly – perhaps news headlines for a quick 10-15 minute trip or maybe a full length movie such as Mad Max or Back to the Future for longer trips.  The onboard computers could even be used to report back on road conditions and track the most popular routes taken.  Based on that data, the cityscapes themselves can develop and grow, for example the less used roads could be turned into bike & skate paths or public parks.

Summer in New Zealand is unlike summer in any other country.  Our cities empty, work slows, and whole populations migrate to our beautiful beaches, settling into rented or owned batches, launching our boats to catch our dinners, and generally spending hour upon hour in the sun.   However, the clincher of this idyllic image is that our sun is notoriously bad given our lack of pollution and typically clear days, thus resulting in very high levels of ultraviolet radiation – with over exposure potentially leading to cataracts or cancer.  Certain areas of the United States face similar problems, and are slowly moving to address the problem.  At the forefront of this movement are the cities of Boston and Miami.  Dotted throughout the city of Miami are 50 sunscreen dispensaries, and the city of Boston has just followed suit, installing 30 in popular parks around the city.  Matt O’Malley, the Boston city councillor who proposed the initiative, described the dispensaries as a public service for the promotion of public health – reminding the population of the importance of sunscreen at no cost to the taxpayer.  He further states that “skin cancer and melanoma are among the most prevalent cancers and are also among the most preventable”, and as such the city should take preventative action for the good of the city. New Zealand could very easily implement a similar scheme, in a bid to increase sun safe awareness and further skin cancer prevention – the most common cancer in NZ. However, this example is at a very basic level and could be built upon.  For example, the dispensaries could offer WiFi capabilities, allowing them to communicate with smart devices within the vicinity, telling the owner that it is time to apply, or reapply, sunscreen depending on how long they have been there.

Image: One of the Miami Sunscreen Dispensaries

Following a discussion around the awesome power of the New Zealand sun should be a conversation around harnessing this power and using it in clever, innovative, ways.  Vice magazine’s Brooklyn office is a good example of how to use a small, city based area and turn it into something unique.  Built by design engineer, Matthew Kovaleski, the roof of Vice’s office has been turned into a wonderful rooftop garden complete with wooden picnic tables that are shaded by tilted solar panels to maximise the effectiveness of the sun’s rays.  These panels not only provide shade to the workers below, but they also generate enough power to charge a laptop for a full 12 hours, charge an iPad 4 times over, and give an iPhone 12 full charges – as well as running a few LED lights for good measure. On top of this, the desks are also fitted with batteries that can be charged by the panels and allow people to continue working once the sun goes down.  This rooftop trend has also been seen with the monolithic social media company Facebook at their new office in Menlo Park, California.  The structure is large enough to house roughly 2,800 employees under a roof spanning 430,000 ft squared, encompassing 9 acres of greenery, complete with over 400 trees.  The rooftop estate of the new Facebook HQ is roughly a 1.5 mile (2.41km) loop to walk right around.  As global warming becomes an ever-scarier reality, and our population continues to grow, we must find clever, innovative, ways of trying to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and energy usage.  By installing rooftop solar panels firms gain the ability to reduce their carbon footprint and energy usage – as well as being seen to engage in CSR activities.  The same goes for creating a rooftop garden.  Such an installation can produce oxygen as well as provide an alternative workspace for employees, or simply offer a nice place to lie in the sun for a 15-minute coffee break before or after meetings.  There is even the option to create a corporate vege patch.

Image: Facebook Head Office, Menlo Park, California

Another innovative instalment that is slowly becoming a reality is the smart bin.  In London’s square mile there are already over 100 smart bins that act not only as refuse & recycling receptacles, but also as hubs for news updates, traffic information and bus timetables.  They also communicate with smart devices through Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, reading the data on peoples phones to inform local businesses about what people are into, helping them stock popular items…and their bomb proof.  Similar action has been taken in New York City (NYC), with a number of solar powered Smart Trash Cans being introduced throughout the city to provide free public Wi-Fi.  The Smart Cans have been introduced through a co-operative venture between Bigbelly and NYC’s Downtown Alliance in a bid to make the city more livable and connected.  The smart cans have the ability to notify cities, towns, and campuses about how full they are, allowing staff to make cost effective decisions about what to empty and when.  Bigbelly calls this the “Smart City” initiative.  Within our own Auckland, rubbish bins are everywhere, but they aren’t particularly appealing, and beyond providing a place to chuck our rubbish, they don’t really add to the overall ambiance of the city in any way.  However, introducing such a scheme as a public service would be hugely beneficial in turning the city into one big, connected, hub.

Throughout the history of humanity we have gone through certain ‘phases’ in our collective growth where, as a race, we leap forward suddenly and move into a new era of civilization.  By these phases we specifically mean ages of discovery and development such as the Renaissance (1300-1700), the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840), the 20th century years of scientific discovery (1900-1997) and now, the Innovation Revolution.  All of these ‘phases’ have had centres of growth – the renaissance boomed in Firenze/Florence, Italy, The Industrial Revolution Boomed in Manchester, England, and so on.  But now, as we enter the age of Innovation and connectivity, the centre has become virtual – the Internet. Around the world, from Boston to Barcelona, Innovation Districts are popping up, providing the physical and social infrastructure for collaboration and networking, with public spaces, residences, shared work-and-socialising spaces, social activities, mentoring programs and supporting networks.  Our own Wynyard quarter is developing along the lines of this model, and with the opening of the GridAKL in the Lysaght building in late 2015, will become an engrained part of our city.  This model is also being seen in both Wellington and Christchurch with BizDojo and the greenhouse respectively.  These precincts are very much geared towards supporting and encouraging start-ups to grow through support and encouragement from mentors and a collaborative environment, and as such are the perfect places to test new, innovative, actions in a city such as Auckland.

Image: Wynyard Quarter, Auckland, Home of the GridAKL

As the biggest city in New Zealand, Auckland has the responsibility of representing New Zealand on the world stage.  While Wellington sits as the capital, and truly is the coolest little capital in the world, Auckland is the face of New Zealand.  In Monocle’s Regional Survey of Auckland and New Zealand, they talk about the embarrassment that an Aucklander would have felt a decade ago if they had a friend visit from abroad.  Our city was decidedly bland and didn’t live up to the international standards of foreign metropolises.  However, this is changing, and rapidly.  As the survey states “anyone living here today can feel a multicultural, urban buzz; the city feels international”, and largely thanks to our tech sector and growing food-services scene, this statement is completely accurate – our city is buzzing.  But to keep this momentum, we need to innovate, we need to take Auckland to the next step – we need to become a smart city.

This article originally appeared on Previously Unavailable