Techno-Humanistic Cities: A New Vision of the Future?

Anna Tamara
November 22, 2023
06 minutes
Climate solutions, Cop28, IoT
Environmental Tech, Automation

The role of technology in the cities of tomorrow, and what progress looks like today.

As humanity struggles to imagine a future, smart cities have offered a hopeful story.

A human-centric vision. Of people-friendly urban areas powered by clean energy. Where technological innovation does the work of neutralising carbon at scale, and offers more sustainable housing, transport and space. This is the promise of smart cities. To drop cities’ contribution to global CO2 emissions (around 70%), and make our future more liveable, through a significant shift in how we integrate technology into urban environments.

But getting there isn't easy. In trying to imagine new futures, these projects tell us more about the complexity of the world as it actually is.

It’s a paradigm shift in how we plan our cities. Calling for a radical move away from the business-as-usual approach.

At its core, a smart city embeds innovation into urban areas through complex webs of technologies. On the ground level, this means data-driven infrastructure: wide-scale integration of IoT into everyday objects, enabling a network of remote sensors to measure efficiency, sustainability and safety. Smart cities need to make sense of this live data from the built environment. And renew attitudes to data sharing to help scale successful solutions elsewhere.

To make the transition globally, societies will have to be incredibly flexible. Proactive and agile in embracing new technologies and speeding up behavioural change to adapt. In some ways, smart cities need systems innovation. This means rethinking standard models – from governance and financial models to new technology and social behaviours. Taking risks and experimenting with solutions. To test, at scale, and learn what works best in specific social, cultural, and economic conditions.

Where are we today? Much like the dawn of IoT, there’s talk of promise, but progress is harder to see.

Today’s initiatives advocate for putting smart city plans at the centre of urban decision-making. In Europe for example, ten cities were awarded as leading the EU’s mission for 100 climate neutral smart cities by 2030, five of those in Spain. For their planned commitments to neutralise carbon and mobilise resources for the challenge.

It’s mostly a large-scale retrofit programme: adapting existing infrastructure with new technologies. Implementation is challenging, with cross-sectoral solutions cutting across interdependencies in food, health, mobility, energy and buildings, to name a few.

Many of these plans push for autonomous transport. Autonomous vehicle zones are now seen in Singapore, also leading in investing in safer smart homes for an ageing population. Another smart city frontrunner, Barcelona is deploying a stand-alone 5G network for its developments. Including city-wide smart bins that signal when they are full, and future plans for self-driving 5G buses. While London has launched a promising air quality-measuring network.

The year's UN Climate Change Conference, Cop28, takes place in Dubai's Expo City. A playground for smart city technologies.

Cop28 brings focus on the role of the United Arab Emirates in this story. The most populous city in the UAE, Dubai has seen rapid transformation over just a few decades. Now, smart city projects are at the frontlines of the UAE’s journey to green energy and diversifying the economy beyond oil and gas.

The government is betting big on smart city projects and technologies. With the goal of making Dubai “the happiest city on Earth.” Plans include the world’s first functional hyperloop line, aiming to send passengers underground from Dubai to Abu Dhabi in 12 minutes, and to transform a quarter of its transportation to autonomous mode by 2030.

To reach net zero, urban areas must embrace risk and rapid technological change – like Dubai has this century.

But not without scrutiny. Critics often focus on the carbon and human cost of the UAE’s development. (In October, reports of migrants working in dangerous heat to ready Expo City’s COP facilities captured its shortcomings.) They have also dismissed some of the UAE’s smart city visions – a trend in ambitious plans for luxury eco communities – as a ‘mirage’.

These stand-alone smart cities envision a new kind of contemporary metropolis. Seen in the likes of Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City, by the UAE government-backed renewables company Masdar. The vivid architectural imagery of Dubai’s plans for Urban Tech District, to be ‘the world’s largest’ to accelerate a low-carbon, green tech workforce. And the spectacular fantasies of The Line, within Saudi epic NEOM. Writer Rahel Aima calls this trend the ‘Khaleeji Ideology’, the new form of future-casting from the Gulf “in which money—and state power—accumulate to the point that they boil over into spectacular renders”.

Largely, the plans capture attention for the wrong reasons. But still they compel global audiences. Putting forward a new way to see the future. Visions of techno-biophilic design, where technology and nature meet as a sustainable operating system, inviting the natural world back into urban living. This new mental model of futurism softens the sci-fi megacity and the smoggy dystopias of ‘Gulf Futurism’, a defining aesthetic term for the 2010s.

Whether they materialise, what can they tell us about the fabric of sustainable cities?

The trend offers some insight as we struggle with the ‘how’ of delivering net zero. Masdar City, for example, aims to roadmap global use of sustainable technologies. Masdar operates one of the world’s largest solar farms and 11 megawatts of PV panels are installed throughout Masdar City to help decarbonise the electricity grid at scale. It centres on a roster of LEED Platinum-rated buildings, a global marker for green energy. And at the Masdar Institute, other solar-powered technology is said to produce drinking water from the air. Up to 1,000 litres a day per unit.

It also shows today’s slow and complex road to progress. Masdar City is notorious for being far behind on its ambitious build and population targets. Widely reported to be still in phase one of construction. Today’s small scale build is a glimpse of what digital transformation might feel like. With greentech infrastructure funnelling cool air down through shaded walkways. On streets kept car-free thanks to a number of driverless pods, ferrying its small community of start-up workers underground.

(The Line's development is less clear. Its advertising speaks on evolving the smart city concept into a 'cognitive', or 'predictive' one, by “integrating AI and robotics into every aspect of personal and commercial life”.)

The Masdar City Free Zone is another conversation-starter – a self sovereign area welcoming cleantech ventures. Boasting the kind of organisational freedoms required for the smart city transition. It brings into question the path to equitable smart solutions. Could these siloed areas fast track accessible global innovation? Or do they just wall off an elite?

Where is the middle ground in routes to sustainable smart living?

As well as hosting Cop28, Expo City aims to house UAE’s first ‘15 minute village’. Around the world, the ‘15 minute neighbourhood’ is another look at techno-humanistic urban planning. The aim is to provide residents access to all essential services within a 15 minute radius of their home. Experiments play out in projects such as Bogota’s ‘Barrios Vitales’. Where live data is used to reroute traffic, prioritise walkable areas and give space back to its people.

The concept helps us see the potential of today's innovation in improving our everyday lives. Expanding urban green space, promoting healthier, low-carbon communities and realising new solutions in sustainable technologies.

The 15 minute neighbourhood is a simple idea. That this idea manages to sound utopian, in comparison to the realities of contemporary urban life, is telling of where we are today. Much like Cop28, it's a reminder of the work to be done to make these visions a reality.