The Dark Green City

Photo by Nicolas Haro

Smart urban technology has the potential to transform our cities — but watch out for unintended consequences.

What would cities look like if they were built from scratch, from the internet up? This is the question being asked by Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation unit of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. What’s emerging from this thought experiment is a new approach to city-building, one that sees urban districts as platforms for testing and refining technologies that improve quality of life. Sidewalk Labs’ mission, it claims, is not to create a city of the future, but to create the future of cities. Continue reading

The future is urban

The future is urban

Around the turn of the 20th century, public imagination turned to what life would be like in the year 2000. In newspapers and magazines, writers and artists illustrated visions of a society replete with personal flying machines, pneumatic tubes, moving sidewalks, entire cities enclosed beneath glass domes. From today’s vantage point, these predictions are all too cliché. But take a step back from these specific predictions and you’ll discover a unifying assumption that these futurists got right: the future would be urban.

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Conscious Cities: Bridging Neuroscience, Architecture and Technology

Can neuroscience teach us about the built environment? If so, how can these insights be used to create urban spaces and technologies that improve human health and well-being?  And to what extent can industry and governance help in achieving these goals? These were just some of the many questions that were debated at the Conscious Cities Conference that I attended in London in early May.  Continue reading

Health, wellness, and experience in the built environment: From green buildings to Conscious Cities

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1. Health, wellness, and experience as core elements of green buildings

The concept of Conscious Cities has been defined as a new field that proposes to replace the focus on efficiency in the built environment with a focus on human health and well-being. It is a concept that “arose in reaction to the widening gap between our potential to design with the human experience in mind, and its lack of application in practice.” Although by no means substituting efficiency, there has recently emerged within the green building industry a complementary focus on human health, wellness, and experience.

This refocusing of priorities stems from the recognition of a failure of humanism in the way we design, building and operate the built environment, Modern humans have essentially become an indoor species, with people in the industrialized world spending almost 90 percent of their time inside buildings. Many of modern society’s chronic health issues related to lack of physical activity, stress, and poor diet, can be directly or indirectly linked to the architecture of buildings and cities.

And yet, the humanistic element has been systematically overlooked by many in the industry. This is not to say that those in the industry have completely ignored it. Building codes, for example, have dictated performance requirements related to indoor air quality, ventilation rates, and thermal comfort. And while health and wellness considerations have also been integral to various green building rating systems, it has often taken a backseat compared to other environmental criteria such as energy performance, water management and material selection.

Consideration of the human dimension in green buildings has gained momentum in recent years. The World Green Building Council noted in 2015 that “a new market demand is emerging within the building industry: to more intentionally address human experience, health, and wellness as core elements of green building practice”. Similarly, the American Institute of Architects predicted that “by facilitating greater collaboration with the public health community, there is an opportunity for green buildings to move past the premise of “do no harm” to a focus on holistic health promotion.”4

This development partly arises from economic considerations. On average, 90 percent of typical business operating costs are employee related (salaries and benefits), while nine percent goes to rent, and only one percent to energy. Therefore, even a modest reduction in sickness or absenteeism can lead to a meaningful reduction in overall operating costs.

To continue reading, visit Conscious Cities Journal No. 2

More transparency. Less energy.

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[Note: An adapted version of this article was published in the Fall 2016 edition of Issues in Science and Technology, the public policy journal of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.]

I fully support the promotion of new and more advanced building energy technologies as a means to improve building performance and reduce energy use and related carbon emissions (“The Potential of More Efficient Buildings”, Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2016). However, to fully realize these aims, we cannot rely on advancements in building technology alone.

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Building Partnerships for a Low-Carbon Future

Creating a low-carbon society will require public-private collaboration related to buildings and cities

Tokyo Skyline (Credit - Sean Pavone)

[Note: This is my response to this year’s Masdar blogging contest which asks the following question:

“In your view, what are the policies that governments should adopt to encourage public-private partnership and enable the private sector to develop the goods and services necessary for a global transition to a low-carbon economy by 2030?”]

In 1800, only 10% of the world’s people lived in cities. By 1990, it jumped to 40%. Today, over half live in cities. It’s estimated that by the end of this decade, 60% people will live not only in cities, but in megacities (cities with population of 10 million or more). By 2030, a staggering 80% will live in cities. This has had — and will continue to have — huge environmental and social consequences.

Therefore, while the transition to a low-carbon society will require action by various sectors and at multiple scales, the most important actions — and most pragmatic — will be those related to cities, in general, and buildings, in particular. As the world is quickly becoming more urbanized, if we are to transition to a low-carbon society we must not merely make this the century of the city, but rather the century of the low-carbon city. Continue reading

C-c-cold inside

Re Is Air Conditioning A Sexist Plot? (Aug. 13): It’s reported that new research suggests the reason why most women find office buildings too cold in the summer is because the air temperature is set using a decades-old formula best suited for the metabolic rates of middle-aged men.

While there may be legitimate concerns with this formula – it ignores many cultural, climatic, social and contextual dimensions of comfort, for example – pinning the blame squarely on one variable is far too simplistic.  Continue reading