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Creating smart African cities that address inclusive urban transformation

One of the focus areas for a African smart city looks at designing for safety.

The theme for the 2019 United Nations World Cities Day, which is celebrated on 31 October, is Changing the world: innovations and better life for future generations. The rapidly rising African population and the unique challenges that African cities face coincides with the rise of the internet of things (IoT), automation, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI). It means that the public and private sector need to take a step back to start envisioning the smart cities that will incorporate these digital tools in ways that will make African cities future-ready.

BIM models and digital twins of precincts and cities

A digital twin is a digital replica of a living or non-living physical entity. Digital twins can be developed for a range of ‘applications’ such as products, buildings, a process, factories, cities, and even people. But an overriding value lies in the potential of a digital twin to guide a city’s expansion and development. With digital twins of our existing cities, everyone from city owners to developers and engineers can contemplate ways to improve them in the digital version and then track responses.

Singapore is the first city to have a 3D digital twin, which draws on the internet of things (IoT) sensors, big data, cloud computing and building information modelling (BIM) to create a living 3D model of the city. In Africa, we need to not only focus on digitising our cities but ensure that the integration of a smart precinct is inclusive because smart cities have immediate effects on their surroundings.

Localising solutions for our challenges

Aurecon’s goal is to initiate smart city projects that approach African problems through an African lens. The starting point is empathising with the people who will live with the design outcome and then finding ways to enhance those outcomes with a smart or technological solution. Consequently, when approaching a complex problem in Africa that requires a smart solution, an understanding of context, history and culture is critical.

Our rapidly growing urban population brings the opportunity to embrace technology in terms of affordable services and smart cities. Developing smart solutions for big challenges such as sanitation, transport, air pollution, energy and water supply, and climate change, is at the centre of our design philosophy for the African smart city.

Designing for safety and well-being

One of the focus areas for a African smart city looks at designing for safety. The need to design for safety stems from challenges linked to various socio-economic factors such as the inequality, unemployment and overcrowding that we experience in Africa.

Our perception of safe design typically involves territorial reinforcement and target hardening measures i.e. perimeter walls, electric fences and burglar bars etc. This includes use of physical features designed to express ownership and control of the environment, and delineate private spaces reducing ambiguity of space ownership. People usually protect territory that they feel is their own and have a certain respect for the territory of others. However, the inclusion of these features can conflict with other community-based activities and can also detract from the amenity of an area, resulting in an increase in the perception or fear of crime.

The first step is to consider the careful application of various design for safety principles such as the use of uniform surface materials to define ownership, use of clear sight lines to eliminate entrapment points, effective lighting, landscaping and active frontages to enhance natural or passive surveillance, or ‘eyes on the street’. This allows the community to feel safe, and those with criminal intentions to know they are being watched.

The next step would be to use technology to form an invisible layer that binds the design together. The smart solution could include facial recognition cameras which track and record behaviours, uniform lighting on pedestrian routes that can be turned up or down to direct movement, and georeferencing of security related incidents for faster response, all of which can be monitored, controlled and predicted from a central, integrated security centre. AI detects irregular behaviour and can alert security even before crimes are committed.

Designing for well-being

Designing for well-being refers to opportunities that allow for physical activity in the routines of daily life. Encouraging walkable cities such as buildings with staircases, running tracks and the provision of organised activities must be planned to fit seamlessly into the design. Designing for well-being doesn’t stop with physical activity. Additional aspects, such as easy access to high quality potable water, improved air quality, and the availability of fresh and healthy food, are also considered.

Co-creating future-ready spaces

Adopting a design-led thinking process puts the users of a city at the starting point of the design process. Aurecon’s approach is to investigate the aspects that will make an African smart city an outstanding success for its users, and then use our creativity to bring exceptional design solutions and options to meet those needs. The company typically undertakes several workshops and interviews with prospective users, so that we can better inform the project team and better understand the nuances and complexities likely to be encountered in a project. It will then explore some of the possible design options with actual users to test whether assumptions are valid in the African context.

Energy modelling on a precinct or city scale

Aurecon uses parametric modelling, which is a smart tool with adjustable parameters that are created to test several design options until the best option is determined. The model may be a visible geometry or an analysis type model, or a combination of both. Parametric modelling allows a building structure to be analysed and/or outcomes such as energy performance to be determined.

Specific parameters using algorithms are set up to create relationships between different elements of the design. For example, a parameter might ensure the windows must start at a certain height above floor level and reach the underside of the ceiling. Then, if the floor to ceiling height is changed, the windows will automatically adjust to suit, while maintaining a specific window to wall ratio.

The same algorithm might be used throughout a model so that if an element or parameter is changed, it changes throughout the model. In effect, the model is a representation of all the parameters that the user has defined.

The goal of parametric modelling is to include as many factors as possible that influence the design and deliver a solution based on rational scientific data as opposed to intuitive inputs.

Shaping the smart city agenda

As engineers, we need to not only focus on playing a more active role in creating smart, digital cities, but we need to make sure we are a part of shaping the agenda. Creating future ready cities will continue to require the collaboration between government, urban planners, ecologists, sociologists, architects and engineers. We look forward of being a part of this revolution.

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