What are Smart Cities and why are they the future of urban design?

Within a matter of years, it will be the norm for buildings and districts to be ‘smart’, using technology and very detailed planning to create built environments which are self-monitoring, self-configuring, self-diagnosing and self-correcting. The key ingredient for a successful smart city is data – measuring an area’s performance and its users’ experiences to optimise how it functions in real time. This process requires a lot of sensors, sophisticated automation technology, interconnected systems and robust data processing, but the result is a high degree of efficiency in terms of space, time, cost, maintenance requirements and environmental performance.

In this Insight paper, Antonio Aguilar and Chanipa Prommuangdee from our Bangkok studio discuss Chapman Taylor’s work on smart cities in several locations across Asia, with a focus on the role of design in ensuring that they achieve their central aim of providing a happier and more efficient place in which to spend time.

What is a smart city?

If you were to ask 10 people, even those deeply involved in the sector, to describe what they think a smart city is, you would receive 10 different answers. However, there is common agreement about the fundamental element, which is the collection of relevant data and its use to automatically regulate a built environment for the benefit of its users.

There are common threads to all smart city projects – our aim, on every smart city project Chapman Taylor is involved with, is always to provide a better quality of life, including easier interactions between people and the places in which they live, improved functional efficiency and environmental sustainability.

Where does the process of creating a smart city begin?

A smart city project could range widely in scale, from a building complex or a residential street to a mixed-use urban district or an entire town or city, as long as the development in question is using data and technology to continually monitor and adjust its own functioning in response to requirements. Therefore, although the manner in which we will proceed always depends on the nature of the project and the context within which it sits, the common starting point is the collection of data and its analysis.

The data collected may relate to numerous important features which could, or do, affect the way in which the place is experienced; this may include information about, for example, car use, walkability, energy use, hours of sun, rainfall, infrastructure and biodiversity. The data is objectively analysed to gain key insights into the project’s characteristics and requirements.

In many cases, the context includes existing buildings and infrastructure which may be years, decades or centuries old; for those, we will assess how we can improve the existing assets without damaging the character and historic legacy of the area. In heritage cities, the existing buildings and historic features can be enhanced by the use of data and technology without any negative impact upon the way those places are experienced – indeed there can be great benefits in terms of, for example, people and traffic management, environmental protection and energy sustainability.

For brand new buildings and districts, we begin by thinking about how we will ensure that the new environment will function effectively and flexibly, both now and in years to come, as development continues in and around it. This process includes assessing which factors will be key drivers for the development, such as, for example, sustainability and user happiness, and what sensors will be needed to ensure that the smart city operates efficiently and improves quality of life for its users.

What benefits do smart cities offer?

Smart technology creates new possibilities for people, including new experiences and new levels of interactivity. Smart cities can facilitate a better quality of life in an environmentally sustainable, functionally flexible and dynamic place. Smart systems allow us to predict future needs, save energy, anticipate, identify and prevent problems, improve operational efficiency, create new means of interaction between the built environment and its users and optimise how users experience that environment.

Smart city technology can improve liveability and safety; there is existing camera technology, for example, which can detect when an elderly or vulnerable person has fallen on a street and send an instantaneous order to a central command centre, using GPS data, to dispatch medical help and security – all without direct human involvement. It can even do this at night, using infrared vision.

Major efficiency gains and cost savings can be made through the use of smart technology to optimise how energy is used and how the environment is protected. For example, lights, heating and air conditioning can automatically be reduced or turned off for spaces which sensors detect are empty. Google’s DeepMind AI company, based in the UK, used data analysis to reduce cooling loads at Google’s data centres by 30%, saving an enormous amount of energy. The company is now working with the UK government to optimise the National Grid by, for example, predicting when, and to what extent, wind farms will be productive.

Information about water use and flow rates can help pinpoint possible leaks (some worldwide cities lose up to 40% of their water supply this way). Air quality can be monitored in real time, allowing measures to be taken to reduce air pollution or to warn people with lung and heart conditions of potential hotspots.

Traffic can be monitored automatically to reduce the risk of traffic jams by warning cars directly of busy routes and offering less busy alternatives. Smart parking systems can help drivers avoid wasting time looking for places to park where there are none, with real-time information about where spaces are vacant. The Chinese city of Guangzhou, using Alibaba Cloud’s machine learning and data analysis technology, has improved intersection traffic speeds by up to 50%, allowing traffic to flow more smoothly purely through the use of measurement and analysis.

One client for whom we work offers residential apartments with a smart concierge-type system, so that any emergencies or maintenance problems can be dealt with immediately without the need to phone or email anybody.

Smart technology has also proved to be of crucial help in the COVID-19 epidemic, with mobile devices enabling swift movement tracking following someone’s diagnosis; other people can then be traced and tested if they came into contact with the person in question, potentially inhibiting opportunities for further transmission of the virus. In a smart city context, the location of every mobile phone can be traced by their unique identifiers, through mast triangulation, to a precise pinpoint – upon a positive diagnosis, it could be possible to quickly disinfect every shop, corridor and room an infected person has visited.

Smart cities rely on data collection – are there privacy and data security concerns?

Privacy is an extremely important aspect and consent is key if people are to have confidence in the system. Any group data that is collected must be anonymous – nobody should be capable of being identified via the data collection process without their explicit consent.

For example, measuring the number of cars on a road at a particular time does not require us to know to whom the cars belong. Face recognition technology, by contrast, being necessarily tied to individual identities, should always require the approval of those to whom the technology is being applied.

How is the technology chosen?

One of our jobs, in collaboration with other consultants, is to advise clients about what technology is appropriate for their specific circumstances – there are lots of technology types, brands and models on the market and choosing the right equipment requires a detailed understanding both of what that hardware or software is capable of doing and of what the project requires, now and in the future. Does the technology allow for adaptation to new circumstances, for example, or is it appropriate for the characteristics of the place (such as climate, culture, topography, patterns of interaction and key uses)?

We use our experience and knowledge of the market to guide clients through what can seem a labyrinth of options; on some of our recent smart city developments, we presented clients with a selection of possible technology choices from which they could choose their favoured WiFi infrastructure to monitor traffic and people movements and to facilitate a quick response to any accidents or emergencies.

How have their specific contexts informed Chapman Taylor’s approach to smart city projects?

We never approach any project with preconceptions or ready-made solutions, and that applies to smart cities too. We always ask ourselves what the problems need to be solved in that particular place and what we want to achieve there. Throwing a lot of technology at a project just because it worked elsewhere is no use if it is not serving the fundamental needs of that place and its people.

We are currently designing a 500,000m2 GFA mixed-use smart city district in a Vietnamese city; we began by examining what problems were being faced by people in the area on a daily basis and figuring out how we could help. Noise pollution was a major problem, due to traffic, construction and other activities, and there was also a lot of air pollution caused by fumes from car exhausts and nearby industrial buildings. In addition, we found that power was unreliable there, with the electricity supply often failing or being switched off, while flash flooding was common during monsoons because the nearby river often burst its banks.

These are fundamental issues for local people, and these had to be addressed before thinking about other matters. We followed the same process with a 1,800,000m2 GFA mixed-use smart city design we are currently creating for Thailand, and are currently doing so on another smart city development in the same city for which we are now in the research stages – a 2,000,000m2 GFA mixed-use urban district with major civic and cultural components.

We are also working on an important transport-orientated smart city development in another Thai city, which will begin construction next year, and two more smart city designs are currently under way for India.

What is the future direction for smart city design?

The way forward will be to integrate smart components within the built environment in a manner so discreet that people using those spaces will not appreciate any sense of their existence. For example, when travelling by car, bus or bicycle, everything will seem completely natural, though journeys will be quicker and smoother. Discerning the difference that smart technology has made might only be possible by experiencing traffic in places which do not have similar technology.

Artificial Intelligence will become much more prevalent in the coming years, with the technology now progressing very quickly. Traffic or building management systems are very complex and can process and analyse large amounts of data very quickly where it would take a very long time for a human to do so.

The other major change which will become normal is the level of interactivity between people and their built environments. Where most people now have to get up to turn a light switch on or off, we will soon see voice or gesture control becoming more common. We will also see a marked increase in the use of facial recognition technology. It will all help to create a more seamless interaction with buildings and wider developments, including at a city-wide level.

In South East Asia, there is now a strong push by governments to develop smart cities, with the use of tax incentives and other measures to encourage the creation of many new smart districts in the coming decade. Chapman Taylor is already at the forefront of this expansion and will continue to promote the benefits of smart city design, both in South East Asia and throughout the rest of the world.


Senior Architect

Antonio has more than thirteen years of experience, working internationally in the United States, China, Middle East, Europe and currently based in Thailand. Driven by a passion for design and technology, working internationally has allowed him to deliver large scale projects and complex developments to the highest level of quality and detail.

Areas of expertise:

Smart Cities, Masterplan, Hospitality & Resorts, Transport, Commercial, Residential, Mixed-Use.


Urban Planner

Chanipa Prommuangdee graduated from the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, Faculty of Architecture, Chulalongkorn University. With years of experience experience across South East Assia, she uses thorough research and analysis to develop well planned strategic visions for projects.

Areas of expertise:

Masterplanning, Mixed-Use, Office, Commercial, Hospitality, Residential, Leisure, Retail, Transportation, Houses

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