Cities concentrate opportunities and exchanges, culture and business, while, at the same time are a key contributor to climate change. They are highly complex organisms, with multiple actors involved, that bring to light underlying social interests and conflicts present in society. In 2007, the world's urban population surpassed the rural and this difference has been increasing ever since. According to the 2018 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects report, 55% of the world's current population lives in urban areas, rising to 68% by 2050. This will represent an increase of 2.5 billion people in urban areas, with almost 90% of this increase occurring in Asia and Africa. The Smart Sustainable Cities: Reconnaissance Study also points out that urban centers account for 67% of global energy demand, emit 70% of greenhouse gases and, on top of it all, buildings consume 40% of all energy worldwide. The prospect of a mostly urban world, along with the alarming onset of climate change, both raise challenges regarding living conditions in the coming decades and centuries, and all the implications that will accompany these changes.
Preparing for tomorrow’s challenges
Resilience is a concept that has been increasingly incorporated into the vocabulary of urbanists and architects. It has to do with the ability to face adversity, adapting and learning lessons from traumatic events or crises. Another term is "future-proofing cities", which refers to a city's
capacity to anticipate and adapt to unknown future challenges and needs be they environmental, social, economic or technological, in a way that enables the city itself and its citizens to thrive.
Natural events have worsened over the years, and concerns that once seemed distant are now part of our daily lives and require comprehensive and urgent actions. At the same time, rapid urbanisation continues to place pressure on the land, infrastructure, and nature. A challenge for architects, urban planners, engineers, real state developers and public policy actors is how to grow cities sustainably in all senses of the word while preparing them for future challenges and providing a good quality of life for current and new residents. According to the IPCC, “a resilient path to development is a continuous process to manage changes in climate and other driving forces that affect the whole, combining flexibility, innovation, and participatory problem solving effectively in mitigation and adaptation to climate change.”
The potential for change of the construction industry to reduce climate risks
The WRI (World Resources Institute) summarized 3 major adaptation approaches that can reduce climate risks if sufficiently financed and quickly implemented, based on the IPCC report. These approaches include social programs to promote equity and justice; the protection and restoration of ecosystems; and new technologies and infrastructure which relates to the architecture, engineering and construction industry (AEC). These actions, in turn, require appropriate designs and qualified designers to implement them. As mentioned in the previously cited IPCC report, "Some of these climate adaptation responses, however, can be harmful if poorly designed or implemented inappropriately."
In order for both cities themselves and the construction industry to effectively contribute to reducing climate risks, major changes must be made to reduce their significant environmental impacts such as energy consumption and carbon emissions. Such changes can be comprehensive, made through structural legislation and shifts in the construction process; or they can be embryonic, integrated into new projects or renewals. They can also bring changes to the construction site itself, or in the way a new building or urban environment is designed. Facilitating this shift are technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and Internet of Things which are already being incorporated into various processes through different types of software. New data-driven tools in a designer’s toolkit, they have the power to help create better spaces and buildings, which are more efficient - allowing for resource and material savings - and better suited to their surroundings and for the people inhabiting them.
How new technologies can help architects and urban designers design better buildings and cities
In the construction industry, AI is being used across different phases of a project from design and modelling to safety on building sites, cost control, verification of errors and inconsistencies to even the incorporation of virtual and augmented reality to facilitate the installation of components.
Artificial intelligence allows us to take advantage of what computers do best: to compute a vast amount of data, process it and correlate this data with others to become more accurate in the forecast of results over time. An example is Generative Design, which combines parametric design and artificial intelligence to process data that is input by the designer. It is based on the search for multiple alternatives, which are derived from certain assumptions defined by the designer, for a certain purpose, from materials and structure to regulatory requirements, density to environmental factors such as wind, noise, and views, among others. These can include optimising a building to reduce energy use to the layout of urban masterplans to ensure good microclimate conditions. Regardless of the scale or desired outcome, the technology helps professionals more easily create, test and choose options that save resources, are more efficient, and have less environmental impact.
Another example is Spacemaker, an Autodesk software that works with cloud-based AI enabling teams to collaborate, and analyze and design real estate sites with an outcome-based approach. Thus, when starting the design a new project, it is possible to test thousands of possibilities to maximise the potential of the site and connection with the city, while ensuring good living qualities with regards to natural light, noise, microclimate, sun, etc.
Carl Christensen, Co-Founder of Spacemaker and Vice-President Unified Design at Autodesk, says, "When we think about how new tools in an architect’s toolbox enhance the design process, AI is an evolution of this; to have the most meaningful impact, we believe it’s inseparable from the creative process and architectural intuition. This enables designers and AI to join forces to achieve more together and be able to tackle the urgent challenges of today more effectively. It’s about the way people and machines collaborate and benefit from each other’s strengths rather than being in competition." In addition, automating repetitive and strenuous tasks that are best suited for a computer can free up time for architects to do what they do best: use their experience, intuition and creativity to conceive spaces that are livable, appealing and sustainable, as well as understanding and decoding the local context, including its aesthetics, culture and socio-economic conditions.
Håvard Haukeland, Co-founder of Spacemaker and Senior director at Autodesk, believes that "a data-driven planning process will be more collaborative, transparent and objective. It will result in a dramatic improvement of quality, speed and accuracy and yes, it will inevitably change the way we work.” Of course, we cannot consider technology as the panacea of all our problems and the architect’s intuition can never be replaced. But providing architects with tools that enable them to leverage data for informed decision making will help them design better, more resilient cities and buildings that become part of the solution to mitigate future climate change and stand the test of time.