Technology shaping urban planning

29 February 2016

Technology and mobile applications could transform urban planning as cities with population pressures look for innovative ways to make better use of space. 

In a world where technology is penetrating daily life more and more, the traditional dream of a house, car, family and garden could become a thing of the past. 

Lifestyles and work patterns that would have been inconceivable even 20 years ago could soon become a reality. 

There are already signs that technology is reshaping contemporary living. 

Airbnb and Uber are perhaps the best-known examples of organisations that have turned traditional industries on their heads. They are symptomatic of a much broader trend - deploying technology to make better use of available infrastructure and services. 

"As more people live, work and play in cities, there is increasing pressure on resources and capacity. Technology can help us use those resources and that capacity more efficiently," says Daniel Wong, Head of Macquarie Capital, Europe. 

Maximising property

Take residential property; most traditional homes include several rooms, which lie idle most of the time. Airbnb encourages homeowners to put spare bedrooms to work. Companies such as Vrumi allow homeowners to rent out rooms by the hour or the day to workers looking for flexible office space. 

“As more people live, work and play in cities, there is increasing pressure on resources and capacity. Technology can help us use those resources and that capacity more efficiently.”

But more radical steps may need to be taken to house the world’s rapidly growing urban population. 

"In a world where there is excess and growing demand for living space, the way we organise housing stock could be seen as increasingly bizarre and anachronistic," says Wong. 

Some parts of Asia have responded to this issue by creating shared accommodation, where each resident has a bedroom of their own but kitchens and living rooms are communal.

Flat-sharing is already a growing phenomenon in cities, as young people struggle with the cost of renting or owning entire homes. 

However shared accommodation of the future would be designed specifically for communal use. 

"It would be both practical and desirable," says Wong. 

Technology could help people with similar interests to share not just residential real estate, but commercial property as well. 

Working together

Companies such as LiquidSpace allow businesses all over the world to rent surplus space from other companies. The service is quick, easy and flexible, adapting to demand on a daily basis. 

The hotel group Marriott is one of its most enthusiastic supporters, offering conference rooms, and banqueting suites when they are not being used by guests or clients.

"It is all about demand-side management," says Wong. 

"In the past, we would build things largely based on rather crude assessments of peak demand. Today, technology allows us to measure demand by the minute and that changes a lot." 

Accurate measurement of demand could have a dramatic impact on the use of resources such as electricity and water, particularly if that information is communicated simply to end-users. 

Peak distribution

If consumers know, for example, that electricity is far more expensive at certain periods of the day, they may be inclined to use less of it – such as turning the fridge off at peak times and washing clothes at night. This could save consumers money and ease pressure on national electricity grids.

These grids are also changing as technology enables more localised, distributive energy from solar panels on individual roofs to smaller power stations positioned closer to where electricity is needed. 

"Instead of having huge centralised power stations in the middle of nowhere, smaller plants are now becoming more flexible and more efficient," says Wong.

Future Uber

The need for greater efficiency is likely to fuel another dramatic change in people’s lives: driving their own car.  

"A car sits in a driveway or on the road, lies idle 90 per cent of the time and uses up valuable space. That cannot continue," says Wong. 

"People think of Uber as a taxi app but that is just the beginning. Ultimately, Uber and companies like it could end up owning virtually all the cars in a city, and they could be driverless," he adds. 

Driverless cars do not stop and start or slow down because the driver spots something interesting at the side of the road. As a result, traffic should flow more smoothly. 

And, as technology becomes increasingly dynamic, these cars could be powered with perfect navigational skills, constantly finding the quickest and least congested routes, further easing traffic and making urban life both more productive and more pleasurable. 

Finite supply, growing demand

Relieving bottlenecks is one of the most important contributions that technology can make to the urbanisation phenomenon. 

Be it homes, workspace, utilities or transport, there is a recognition that urban space is finite, it needs to be put to the best possible use and technology can help. 

Some people call it ‘the sharing economy’; others call it ‘the digital world’. Whatever the tagline, the concept is similar – making technology work for a better urban future.