David Smith, Chief Strategy Officer at Stantec, looks at the challenges of creating sustainable and resilient cities in the face of population growth, rapid urbanisation and the growing impacts of climate change.
David Smith: There’s no doubt about it – urbanisation is one of the biggest challenges to a sustainable future. If managed correctly, however, it can bring truly exciting opportunities to an innovative, creative and prosperous global community.
The world’s cities continue to grow exponentially in both geographic footprint and population as the number of people on the planet creeps toward 8 billion. As a result, there are currently 425 metropolitan areas inhabited by 1 million plus people, with as many as 650 forecast by 2025. There is even talk now of 100 million population cities with the Nigerian City of Lagos projected to be the first.
Even moderate climate change scenarios see many major cities vulnerable
In the 21st century almost all of us are at risk of sea level rise, pollution, overcrowding or the knock-on impacts of decades of global environmental neglect. Even moderate climate change scenarios see many major cities vulnerable, including Bangkok, Dhaka, New Orleans, Miami, Greater New York, Tokyo and Rotterdam. In more extreme cases, some coastal cities may now be forced to consider a ‘managed retreat’, as the projected costs of defences against storm surges, flood and extreme weather become prohibitive.
So far, we are failing to recognise the vast challenges these communities face over the next two decades, not least from climate change, energy and water resources, and food security. For example, the increase in global energy pressure could lead to a 165 percent increase in fresh water needs where there is a high dependency on water for generating energy. Energy production requires water and vice versa. The spiralling effect is clear.
Extreme weather to one side, scientists suggest that higher temperatures will have deep and unpredictable impacts on water resources, with knock-on influence on energy supplies and particularly on food production, with impacts on not only land-based productivity, but changes in the sea acid balance threatening fishing – a primary source of protein.
Megacities – large and densely populated habitats can be very resilient and resource efficient
To meet these challenges, cities must be innovative – we must turn our megacities into creative cities.
Large and densely populated habitats can be very resilient and resource efficient, and we have already begun to harness the technological developments of the past 20 years to make our cities more interconnected. Advancement in the usage of the Internet of Things, crowd-centred data aggregation and mobile computing are already changing the very infrastructure our megacities are run on. Interconnectedness should therefore be of paramount importance to city leaders and planners as we look to secure the modern-day societies which make up our megacities and preserve scarce resources.
Advances in one sector can offer unique opportunities for effective, design-led integration and innovation in another. For example, solar, wind and tidal energy installations can be deployed to provide localised power to desalination plants located near oceans. There are projects underway that provide solar powered desalination water supplies to communities separated from utility grids. As solar power becomes more cost effective, the potential for large scale roll-out becomes viable.
Hugely complex technologies can simplify functionality of megacities
This is no new phenomena. Many boundaries between water, energy and agriculture are already breaking down as many stakeholders begin to understand that system-wide management strategies are essential for improving resource efficiency and therefore economic and social health. Hugely complex technologies can in fact simplify the functionality of our megacities.
At a city level, if properly understood by leaders, system boundaries will become blurred and disappear relatively quickly, giving way to highly integrated, holistic strategies focused on innovation and resilience. Integrating these systems will connect ecosystem designers and infrastructure engineers to address future security challenges in the world’s largest communities.
The expression ‘systemic failure’ is ingrained in peoples’ minds after the 2008 financial market crisis. Less familiar, but equally important, is the idea of ‘systemic innovation’, which describes how the convergence of technologies creates disruptive change.
Institutional investors considering long term strategies focussed on resilience and efficiency
As the OECD puts it, cities have the chance to deliver ‘systemic change that raises only slightly, or even lowers, overall investment costs’, and it is well-known that institutional investors are turning their heads towards long term strategies focussed on resilience and efficiency.
A recent survey of 80 investment managers, which together oversaw $550bn of assets, showed 40 per cent had already hired a responsible investment specialist or planned to do so. In fact, environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria have been increasingly creeping into board room discussions in recent years as societal outcomes have become a priority for the latest generation of investors.
This presents clear opportunities for local communities and major infrastructure projects alike. Realising the benefits of interconnected, creative megacities does not only boost human security but will also serve to attract the influx of modern day investors willing to invest capital to drive further innovation and sustainable economic development.
Innovative, integrated systems deliver step changes in resource efficiency, security, resilience and returns on investment, while fragmented infrastructures leave entire communities and many major cities fragile and vulnerable, particularly in the face of a changing climate and the repercussions on water security.
Unless co-ordinated system-wide action is taken world faces around 40% shortfall in fresh water supplies before 2035
Megacities are at the heart of many of the grand challenges over the next two decades. It is generally accepted that unless co-ordinated system-wide action is taken in our communities, we will face something like a 40 per cent shortfall in fresh water supplies before 2035. Cutting edge technologies are helping form the solutions to the challenges of urbanisation and population growth. The challenge now is ensuring that an integrated approach to cities leads us to a better world rather than instability.
Recognising the need and helping enable such transformation is the 100 Resilient Cities initiative (100RC), pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation. Stantec is in partnership with 100RC who is dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to physical, social and economic challenges.
Cities in the 100RC network are provided with resources and expertise necessary to sustain their strategy, access innovative solution providers and lessons learned through a wider network of support from the other 100 resilient cities. Approaches such as 100RC are vital to grasp the positive opportunity, as globally cities continue to face challenges including urban area water security, urban sprawl and knock-on cropland impacts, alongside fragile infrastructure and funding challenges.
Stantec is also providing the Millennium Challenge Corporation with independent oversight of the technical and institutional aspects of the Zambia compact to advance economic growth and reduce poverty in Zambia through specific infrastructure investments in the water supply, sanitation, and drainage sectors in and around the city of Lusaka.