A woman with blonde hair stands in front of shelves showing books with nature images on them. She is Melissa Sterry.
Image: Melissa Sterry

How tech is shaping our future cities one building at a time

27 Oct 2023

From automation in construction to a completely smart city, how will the world around us be built as emerging technologies continue to accelerate?

With each industrial revolution, the world in which we live has seen phenomenal change and advancements. Mechanisation saw society move away from doing things solely by hand or with animals to working with machinery. The revolution of energy saw the emergence of electricity, gas and oil, bringing with it a whole host of transportation modes, from cars to planes.

The second half of the 20th century brought nuclear energy, the rise of electronics, telecommunications and computers, while the fourth industrial revolution – also known as industry 4.0 – refers to the current era of rapidly emerging technology, including advanced analytics, automation and next-gen manufacturing.

With every expansion comes a new way for industries to operate. Manufacturing, construction, design and architecture for the buildings we live and work in, the roads we drive on, the bridges we cross and so on have all changed.

And as we are still living through industry 4.0 with emerging technologies and innovations continuing to change the way we operate, how will the buildings of the near future be built and what could the cities of the distant future look like?

Revolutionising construction from the beginning

Let’s take a look at a real-world example: The Sydney Opera House. A phenomenal construction and one of the most iconic buildings on the planet, the Sydney Opera House is a globally recognised symbol of Australia. It is significant in its unusual architectural design as well as its vastness. But while it may be marvelled at today as one of the most beautiful buildings on the planet, it is also known as a project management failure.

The Opera House was meant to be completed in four years at a cost of A$7m. Instead, it took 14 years to complete at a final cost of A$102m – more than 14 times its original budget. As well as overshot costings and a missed deadline, the construction faced numerous design changes. These issues came down to poor project management.

There are plenty of advancements in machinery that can make such projects move faster, smoother and even be more sustainable. For example, the Charter Street project in the UK is building eco homes for homeless veterans and low-income families using 3D construction printing technology, while ABB Robotics and Porsche Consulting are working together to develop innovative practices in modular housing manufacture.

While these advancements are important, everything starts with how building projects are managed from the very beginning, which means the technological advancements in these areas cannot be overlooked.

Andrew Smith is part of the industry solutions team at Bentley Systems, a company that develops software and services for the design, construction and operation of infrastructure.

Smith has worked in this industry for more than 30 years and in that time, he has seen a massive transformation in how IT can be used to better manage construction and architecture projects. He said one of the key areas changing the industry is data-sharing technology that allows for multidisciplinary collaboration – allowing those in charge to identify problems earlier in the lifecycle.

“One of the key things we’re trying to do in this process is, rather than identify that we’ve got a problem or a clash or an issue in construction, we want to pull that back where we can into detailed design or construction sequencing.” This, he said, means that by the time workers get to the site, the number of changes or surprises will be significantly minimised.

“An individual can’t keep this in their head all at the same time. We need to have electronic systems that can actually bring all of this data together so you can see it in the context of all the other bits of data from everybody else. That can transform it into information,” said Smith. “That’s effectively what a digital twin is doing for us as well. It’s a framework that allows you to see data in context, to turn it into information that can, in turn, drive action.”

Entering the age of AI

As with most industries right now, advancements in AI are continuing to infiltrate how infrastructure is built. It’s far from a new concept; in fact, Smith actually did a degree in artificial intelligence more than 30 years ago.

His colleague Corey Johnson, senior director in product management, said processing images is just one area that AI can help the building industry.

“We take photographs, we file issues with photographs, we do a data dump of pictures. Then we work with Microsoft to do AI interrogation of images.” This, he said, helps deal with the issue of data overload and also helps easily identify construction-focused items such as stakes in the ground or manholes and pipes.

“People have seen AI in photographs, like with Google Photos, where it recognises people’s faces and trees and stuff, but now we’re recognising construction items. So, now you can do a quick search to find all of the manholes in all the pictures. I may have 20,000 pictures on a job because I have 10,000 people on that job taking pictures.”

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AI is undoubtedly a disruptive technology and using it to interrogate images is just one very small example of how it can help the construction industry. But it presents challenges as well, such as liability.

“If we actually fully automate a process with AI, who’s liable for the decision that has been made by the AI system that’s come out?” asked Smith. “Is it the developer, does the AI system itself end up with some liabilities in place?”

Smith said it’s crucial that a human remains part of the process so that the safety aspect still sits with them rather than the AI. “You can use technology to actually improve efficiency, automate data and automate data validation, things like that. But there comes a point always in the process where the computerised system hits the pause button and says, ‘I’m going to show this to an operator’. And the operator is the one who actually makes the decision on what’s being done,” he said. “That person is there, and they’re the one that’s actually responsible.”

Smart cities: Tomorrow’s built environment

These advancements in technology are already being used on construction projects and the continuing growth of machine learning and AI will only enhance these abilities further. But as we look ahead, it won’t just be about smart construction, but about smart buildings and even smart cities.

From sensors that can identify and map pollution hotspots to smart mobility, there are plenty of technologies that can make our cities smarter. In fact, a report from Guidehouse Insights earlier this year claimed the global smart city technology market is expected to grow to more than $301bn in value by 2032.

Does that mean in the near future we’ll be living in some sort of fantasy version of a city where every item is connected and the groceries you didn’t know you needed arrive at your door via autonomous vehicle because your fridge communicated with the supermarket?

‘[People] get very frustrated when the computer says no’

Design scientist Melissa Sterry doesn’t think so. “Some of the things you’ve seen in the press present the idea that it’s all going to be a bit 1950s sci-fi and everything’s going to be smart tech and we’re going to be living in this full-blown singularity where your fridge tells you what you need for the shopping and every facet of your home configures to your precise needs, having read your brain through a direct chip implant or something like this,” she said.

“I have yet to see a single proposal for integration of ‘smartness’, as we might dub it, that is actually sustainable, sustainable in terms of resource use, sustainable in terms of security issues, all of this stuff is hackable, it all has inherent security weaknesses.”

She also said that while plenty of people want the house with “all the gadgets, all the switches, all the singing and dancing”, most people like to live quite an analogue life, using technology subtly in the background. “They get very frustrated when the computer says no, when it has glitches, and of course, technology does ultimately fail. We’ve seen some big, big tech failures at the urban scale recently, particularly with airports, we’ve seen whole systems going down.”

Sterry said these failures can bring home the fact that while tech is brilliant and it can do amazing things, it’s important to remember that it has limitations. “It’s important to get the balance right.”

So, while completely futuristic cities such as The Line in Saudi Arabia have been met with understandable criticism and may not be what our true urban future will be, what does Sterry envisage as good smart-city technology?

“I’ve been developing a paradigm for architecture in an urban design which is resilient to wildfire. So, I’ve been looking at the ecosystems that are evolved to coexist with wildfire [and] how they sustain. And there are a number of things that they do that we can do and I’m looking at how we mimic that.”

One example Sterry talked about is how plants have a number of senses they use to identify when the threat of wildfire is coming, one of which is fungal mycorrhizal networks that essentially work as underground lines of communication between plants.

“The amazing thing now is that, not only do we understand a lot more about these plant forms of sensing and communication, but we can actually decrypt them, and we can integrate them into our e-tech systems, wherein we are fusing the biotech into the e-tech. And I think that has a lot of potential because that provides the capacity to be monitoring our environments that are very, very fine scale,” she said.

“Information systems that are right at the edge of human and non-human are really exciting, because we are literally learning how to communicate with other species. It is a little bit Avatar, it’s a little bit sci-fi. But I think that is very exciting and not just for cities, but more generally.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic