The Engineer’s Role in the Future City

Our recent publication “Planning Smarter Cities – A manifesto for addressing its fundamental challenges” considered the opportunities that technology provides to supporting improved city operations and living as well as the constraints that exist in embracing and utilizing its potential.


The following short essay, reflecting on the role of the Engineer in future cities, appeared in part on two websites recently. In this updated version, however, the intent is to examine the challenges engineers face in balancing, on one hand, the risks of the new against proven approaches and, on the other, the interests of the fee-paying client and those of the wider societies upon whom our work impacts. At the same time, these challenges can, in part, be seen to explain the lack of pace in the development of ‘smarter cities’.

During the past two decades, there has been an inexorable shift in the approach to and delivery of urban development, whether new urban quarters or regeneration of urban areas with declining social and economic indices. This has been characterised not just by the converging pattern of world demographics but by the increasing focus and level of technical (engineering) detail required of development proposals at the early feasibility and planning stages.

“Civil engineers are being called on to develop integrated (system of systems) strategies to ensure that not only movement of people and goods is efficient but also strategies for resilient power supply, management of water resources and for treating waste as a resource”

A renewed interest in infrastructure

This ‘renewed’ interest in ensuring adequate thought is given to the infrastructure systems of cities has been driven primarily by concerns about the environmental impact of urban development and a growing awareness of the need to conserve dwindling natural resources as well as the consequences of global warming. More recently, one of the important consequences of the Great Recession has been to focus much greater attention upon cost and benefit of projects and ensuring that adequate business modelling (including analysis of relevant infrastructure) is undertaken. Add to this the emerging consciousness of increasing social inequality and its consequences and the complexities of working in this space begin to emerge.

The result has been a greater emphasis placed on ensuring that the impact of urban development is more sustainable and able to deliver more responsible solutions in providing increased value to the City, its citizens as well as its various economic sectors. To achieve this, civil engineers are being called on to develop integrated (system of systems) strategies to ensure that not only movement of people and goods is efficient but also strategies for resilient power supply, management of water resources and for treating waste as a resource. And to this we can add the need to ensure cost effectiveness, public and political advocacy, and an ability to act as a lynchpin between the planning and design of projects and their execution and delivery. Part of this role, as it has existed since the industrial revolution, is to ensure that the scientific discoveries and advances in technology can be applied to the benefit of clients, municipal governments and citizens alike. Or, as their Charter more eloquently states, “…for the general advancement of Mechanical Science, and more particularly for promoting the acquisition of that species of knowledge which constitutes the profession of a Civil Engineer, being the art of directing the great sources of power in Nature for the use and convenience of man…”

Technology and data as a change driver

One of the responses to these drivers of change has been for greater attention to be given to the potency of data and information communication and technology (ICT). The engineering profession needs to break out of the silos it has gradually managed to develop over the past century. Simple examples from other industries demonstrate the benefits of whole systems thinking and integration. In this respect, ICT has an additional function in helping to link together the many strands of infrastructure that go to make up a city. The construction industry and engineering sector, however, has not been as progressive as others with regarding to innovation and technology. What is required are engineers who understand how an information and knowledge economy can benefit their solutions through a clear understanding of the business case, risks and opportunities. Equally, we need engineers who are able to grasp the more detailed technical aspects of ICT and have the ability to integrate this infrastructure with other infrastructure systems from building scale to city scale. So we have the need for engineers with a broad understanding across multiple infrastructure systems and a skills base that spans business planning and computer sciences beyond the more traditional engineering training. If engineers are unable to strive for this, it is difficult to see which other profession can and it goes someway to explaining the emergence of the ‘smarter city’.

In my recent interview with Steve Lewis, CEO of Living PlanIT ( – a progressive player in the ‘smart city’ market), I asked this very question. His response was telling. In his view, the technology industry has failed to grasp the complexity of the real estate and construction industry, let alone the even greater challenges represented by cities. Rather, it has focussed on services and products instead of engaging in debate, achieving a better understanding of the numerous, inter-related layers of infrastructures (social as well as physical) and thinking about the potential solutions from the bottom-up as well as the top-down. His vision of the future encompasses many of the current professional players involved in planning, design and construction of cities but in an environment in which there is far more collaborative thinking, in shorter time-frames and with greater insight provided by technology and analysis of data.

His view is relevant for two reasons. Firstly, in terms of the implications that stem from it – that ‘Smart Cities’ are never going to be just about technology. The need for smartness and the future of cities extends beyond this narrow confine; there is the need to create ‘layers of smartness’ – and ensure that they are understood, relevant and integrated. Indeed, the word ‘smart’ is somewhat limiting in terms of the future city model that we need to aspire to; one embracing not just resource efficiency but promotion of good health, economic stability, a sense of shared community and with an ability to adapt to future challenges. In short, we need a more sophisticated and universal language. Secondly, and as importantly, it provides yet another perspective on why the ‘smart city’ revolution has not yet materialised – the profession has not managed to get its ‘act’ together.

The evolution of smart buildings

Take the example of smart buildings. Their planning and design, supported by computer-controlled and linked building environment systems, has evolved over a number of years. In terms of best practice, the improvements in building structures and environments has been significant, especially in certain aspects such as power consumption. However, the returns on investment are diminishing (the level of investment required to create an ever more efficient, low energy building can outweigh the direct benefits) and there is a need to look at other opportunities to improve building performance. To date, there has been very little implementation of product lifecycle management tools in the design, simulation, delivery and operations of buildings, which could strip significant capital costs. Equally, through improving the coordination of the virtual building models with real-time building management systems, operational costs could be likewise reduced. The enabling factor to this approach will be analysis of data and the implementation of smart ICT.

Thinking more broadly and applying similar principals at a city scale should offer even greater scope for returns on socio-economic and environmental measures. In addition, the implementation of the above will undoubtedly create new value chains in design, delivery, operations and maintenance and demand cross-industry skills which extend existing architecture and engineering disciplines in bioinformatics, materials science, nanotechnology, data sciences, and others. So with pressure to respond to global concerns, greater regulatory measures being imposed and the technology available, we really need to begin to deliver on the promises of the ‘Smart City’. For those of us who are engineers, we need to be prepared to extend ourselves beyond the current role of technical planner and purveyor of ‘mechanical science’ to one that reclaims the ‘directing the great sources of power.’

“We need to be prepared to extend ourselves beyond the current role of technical planner and purveyor of ‘mechanical science’ to one that reclaims the ‘directing the great sources of power.”

Engineers need to think differently to meet future needs

Einstein once said that “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Engineers have a key role to play in creating and maintaining sustainable communities across the planet and we have to rise to the challenges we face very quickly. Governments of both developed and developing countries are faced with the demand for more, bigger, smarter and more liveable urban settlements and yet these very same cities, where 50% of the world’s population lives (and set to rise dramatically), account for 75% of the carbon footprint of the planet. Knowing what we know today, delivering what we deliver today and using current tools and processes invites disaster. As engineers, we need to adapt our thinking, embrace advocacy and business planning, technology and computer sciences, work across wider domains and ensure that cities are truly able to meet the full needs of our future.

Andrew Comer, BSc CEng FICE FIHT, Director, Cities Group, Buro Happold

Sections of this essay were originally published in March 2016 for the ICE and in June 2016 for the IEA

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