Pioneering Sustainable Urban Growth: Intelligent City’s Blueprint For The Future City

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by Hessie Jones

By 2050, it is estimated that 70% of the global population will reside in urban areas. This shift signifies a transition to a predominantly urban economy. Cities will need to evolve and adapt to cater to their expanding populations.

Urbanization presents opportunities for economic growth, enhanced living standards, and increased cultural diversity. Historical data underscores this trend: since 1950, the world’s urban population has surged from 751 million to 4.4 billion. This trajectory is expected to continue, potentially doubling the current urban population by 2050.

Currently, over 56% of the world’s population lives in urban areas. This influx into cities introduces challenges such as heightened demand for affordable housing, leading to potential overcrowding, increased pollution, escalated conflicts, and social inequalities.

Addressing these issues requires a commitment to sustainable development: constructing robust infrastructures, efficient transport systems, and essential services, along with creating ample job opportunities. Such measures are key to ensuring that cities remain inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.

I met with Intelligent City, based out of Vancouver, British Columbia with a mission to empower people to live better urban lives. Their goal is to provide a scalable global solution for two interconnected global problems: a housing industry in crisis and climate change.

I met with Oliver Lang, Chief Executive Officer and Cofounder, Cindy Wilson, Chief Culture Officer and Cofounder, and OD Krieg, Chief Technology Officer to discuss the future of increased urbanization and how their company is navigating their challenges towards a world where increasing sustainable practices becomes the norm.

The Necessity to Transform the Construction Industry

Oliver Lang and Cindy Wilson founded Intelligent City in 2008 to tackle three major issues that have been emerging over the past two decades. First, the growing impact of climate change; second, the persistent shortage of affordable urban housing and third, the construction and development industries’ slow adoption of technology, often referred to as the last holdouts against the widespread use of tech advancements.

About 15 years ago, they identified these global challenges and recognized the need for innovative solutions that could be scaled up to address these vast problems. This led to the creation of Intelligent City, as Lang reflects,

“To keep up with the rising urban population, we need to build a city the size of Shanghai or New York every month for the next 25 years. If we are to meet this demand without compromising the quality of life for future generations, it’s important that we transform the way we operate and build.”

Intelligent City considers themselves a new generation of “industrialized construction and advanced manufacturing that is marching towards a carbon-neutral future.” Lang adds that as an industry first, “We have commenced manufacturing of certified building systems compliant with the high rise mass timber building code using AI through data integration, software automation and advanced robotics.”

Krieg, Intelligent City’s CTO, confronts the traditional and manual workflows entrenched in the building industry and remarks, “Construction has historically been a sector where each project is unique—a one-off endeavor involving numerous entities, consultants, and planners who come together to design, engineer, and build on site. This model has remained largely unchanged for centuries.”

Despite some technological advances, such as integration of planning software Krieg emphasizes that the approach is still highly hierarchical. Other industries, in contrast, have adopted a more productized approach. He explains, “In industries like manufacturing of laptops or cars, the product design, engineering, and planning are completed long before the client selects the product.”

To revolutionize construction, Krieg proposes a shift towards industrialization by adopting a holistic, productized approach, “We need to think about what the building is made of, its requirements, and how it can be pre-engineered from design to manufacturing, and delivery on site, making it more akin to a product, but without losing the ability to customize.”

This transition could drastically shorten the traditional two-to-three-year process of building construction, making it faster and more efficient. Intelligent City developed a platform that allows for designing buildings that can be customized to specific needs and locations yet derived from the same foundational platform. This balances scalability with the necessary customization in construction.

Lang believes this balance is the key to delivering housing at scale, “By bridging the gap between scalability and customization, we can significantly increase the production and affordability of housing.”

Moreover, the use of mass timber represents a strategic choice. Lang describes mass timber as “thicker engineered timber that allows for high-rise construction and is both easy to use in prefabrication and sustainable.” He asserts that this material leverages Canadian resources to deliver housing more sustainably and efficiently.

Mass Timber as Construction Material’s Sustainable Alternative

Today’s construction methods rely heavily on materials such as concrete and steel, which have substantial carbon footprints due to their extraction, manufacturing, and transportation processes. The extraction and consumption of water, time and mineral resources can lead to depletion and disruption of the ecosystem.  

The construction and operation of buildings are responsible for 39%of “humanity’s green house gas emissions”. In addition, according to the Canadian Construction Association (CCA), in 2021 the Canadian construction, renovation and demolition sector generated an estimated four million tonnes of waste annually that included concrete, wood, metals, plastics, asphalt and gypsum. According to a study, only 16% of construction, renovation and demolition (CRD) waste was reused or recycled while the remaining 84% was disposed mainly in landfills.

Lang declares the company made a deliberate decision long ago to widely use mass timber, as it serves as the cornerstone of their construction for two reasons: Timber is a renewable resource, and trees sequester carbon as they grow, which means timber buildings store carbon rather than releasing it, unlike their concrete structures counterparts that have higher carbon footprints. As well, the use of mass timber involves cross-laminating engineered wood products to create exceptionally strong and dimensionally stable materials that are also fire resistant.

Mass timber has revolutionized the construction industry. When deciding this, the founders desired a natural material that seamlessly integrated renewable resources with advanced technology. Krieg explains, “This material is entirely machinable, using industrial robots, to tolerances within a millimeter. With advanced fastening and gluing technology, we can construct large building systems from this material, making it a dream material for industrializing construction in a way that was previously impossible.”

The recent update to building codes, which the team had worked on with regulators for the last decade, allows mass timber construction across North America. Now, in most U.S. states and Canadian provinces, buildings up to 18 stories can be constructed using mass timber under a more unified regulatory framework. This predictable regulatory environment makes it possible to scale the use of this material across the industry, providing many benefits that have become fundamental to the team’s work.

Is Mass Timber Sustainable?

Despite mass timber’s efficiency and sustainability within construction, there are still environmental concerns. One major drawback is that industrial-scale forestry, required to produce mass timber, can lead to habitat destruction, which can adversely affect wildlife populations and biodiversity, as well as soil erosion, diminishing the soil’s health and its capacity to support diverse ecosystems.

Cindy Wilson concurs there is a potential for timber to be harvested from improperly managed forests but adds that Canada has the highest level of certification of managed forests. Wilson alludes to the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC), which certifies “good forestry practices in Canada”, according to “strict environmental, social and economic standards.” Canada has the largest area of forests where the practices are third-party independently certified (CSA, FSC, SFI) in the world at 155 million hectares. Second in the world is the U.S. at 39 million hectares. Wilson demonstrates at this juncture, “wood is our only renewable building material and has a significantly lower embodied carbon footprint than either steel or concrete which are not renewable. It is the beauty of nature that makes wood an excellent material to build with and inhabited, while also helping to solve climate change by harvesting wood from managed forests.”

Krieg adds that in Europe, many forests are sustainably managed, meaning that biodiversity is monitored, and these forests continue to experience net growth even with ongoing harvesting. Harvesting is strategically spread across larger areas to avoid “clear cutting,” which is recognized as the most disruptive to biodiversity and releases the most greenhouse gases (GHGs) from the soil. Krieg advises sustainable forest management is crucial, “and with an abundance of old growth in Canada, deciding between conserving existing forests and developing new ones specifically for the forestry industry is imperative.”

It is still early day and as the world transitions, Lang describes in Canada and much of the U.S., less than half of the potential growth capacity of managed forests are utilized, and a significant portion of what is harvested is sold with minimal added value, such as logs, pulp, or lumber. He suggests, “By utilizing mass timber to address large-scale housing needs, this untapped potential can be harnessed. The forest sector requires improved management, which will align with the creation of demand for timber as a valuable resource, especially when coupled with Industry 4.0 and enhanced housing productization.”

All agree there are enough managed forest areas in the world to grow timber to sustainably meet today’s global housing needs. It’s now possible to build infrastructure that can be life cycle carbon neutral, but Lang suggests that, in contrast if the housing industry continues to operate as it has always done, “then the adverse effects of climate change and the consequence on biodiversity will become unmanageable very soon.”

Are We Ready for Increased Global Urbanization?

In less than 25 years, it’s estimated that 70% of the world’s population will reside in 7% of the of planet with increased migration to urban centers. We can expect an increase in densely populated areas, which, in turn, will boost demand for energy and construction materials, drive up housing costs, and impact both quality of life and affordability. We also face the risk of rising CO2 levels. Currently, urban areas contribute approximately ¾ of CO2 equivalent emissions. This, alone, is enough to potentially reverse the progress we’re expected to deliver in the next 2 decades.

In addition, the potential of heat islands can manifest themselves within these urban areas, which exhibit higher temperatures compared to surrounding regions, exacerbating global warming at local levels. Structures like buildings, roads, and other infrastructure absorb and radiate the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes like forests and bodies of water.

Climate issues like heat island effects and transportation challenges, as Lang expresses, require strategic countermeasures to create more sustainable urban environments. This involves integrating intelligent design, increasing green spaces, and employing building design solutions “with low energy needs, low cooling and heating needs, so they don’t overheat by design. However, many current urban structures, often characterized by poorly insulated glass towers, significantly overheat and rely on energy-intensive mechanical systems to stay cool. As a result, they consume more energy and contribute to heat pollution.”

Lang explains the way they’ve re-imagined building design addresses these issues,

“We integrate mass timber building systems, advanced manufacturing automation, robotics, and advanced software to optimize building design in ways that were previously impossible. This approach provides a powerful means to assess and optimize a building’s energy consumption, construction costs, and carbon footprint from both embodied and operational carbon perspectives. The goal is to find a balance between a building’s environmental impact and its construction and operational costs, ensuring that discussions about environmental impact also address affordability.”

He adds that carbon-neutral and environmentally sound buildings don’t necessarily have to be more expensive. Through optimization of materials and energy usage, buildings can run efficiently and be much more affordable. Long term, however, reduced environmental impact relies on improving construction practices, rethinking urban planning and transportation systems and a heavy reliance on consumers adopting more sustainable habits.

With more people moving into these urban dwellings, the sheer density could make it challenging to enhance energy efficiency as the pace of growth accelerates. Krieg illustrates within current cities mobility problems arise due to stark contrasts in urban density, and dense urban centers surrounded by low-density single-family suburban dwellings hinder efficient public transportation and infrastructure. He explains,

“The density is too low in these areas to justify such services. By increasing density to a moderate level, we can develop sustainable urban infrastructure that supports public transport and reduces the need for long-distance travel. This idea aligns with the concept of the “15-minute city,” where people can access all essential services within a 15-minute radius. Sufficient density fosters the development of strong communities, reducing the need for cars and promoting more efficient movement.”

In addition, he explains that high-density, 60-story towers exacerbate heat island effects and limit greenery. The “missing middle,” as Krieg describes are those buildings between 4 and 12 stories high, providing an ideal density that supports efficient public transportation, community growth, and green spaces. Unfortunately, cities have not yet adopted this middle ground, often due to the efficiency of steel and concrete in constructing high-rise buildings. Mass timber presents a viable alternative for buildings between 8 and 18 stories, where it is cost-competitive with steel and concrete while also being more sustainable.

Lang highlights North American cities typically have low-density urban centers, except for places like Manhattan. These cities are characterized by long avenues lined with one to three-story buildings, which are ideal for densification. Lang adds, “There are three trends align to create the opportunity for such densification: people’s desire to avoid long commutes and embrace the concept of the 15-minute city; the recognition of their urban arteries for future 8 to 12-story buildings; and new building codes that will enable more mass timber construction for mid-rise buildings.”

Concrete construction, Lang shares, is typically efficient for buildings over 20 stories high and is less practical for smaller structures. Timber construction, therefore, is more effective for mid-rise buildings that can densify cities within their existing frameworks, adding, “Such densification can leverage investments in public infrastructure, like rapid transit and schools, to create vibrant communities.”

When envisioning the future of sustainable construction and city planning, policy changes will play a crucial role in reducing emissions from energy consumption and promoting environmentally friendly practices. Lang stressed the importance of policy change in supporting the use of renewable resources and biomass, particularly timber construction. He sees this increasing energy efficiency in buildings paving the way for alternative energy sources such as solar power, heat pumps, and ground-source heating and cooling, which will naturally reduce the energy demand per structure and allow for a more seamless transition to greener energy sources.

Lang highlighted how Canadian regulators have recognized these opportunities, providing incentives for environmentally friendly construction practices: “For instance, the federal government offers favorable lending terms for buildings that meet passive house standards, which require up to 90% less energy. In Vancouver, builders can achieve 20-25% additional height and density for timber structures, and some cities are considering up to a 50% increase.” Such incentives, combined with supportive regulations and streamlined approval processes, are vital in driving the adoption of innovative technologies and fostering sustainable construction practices.

Towards Canada’s first Smart City

Canada is still wrestling with building its first smart city. Technology Review’s article, “Toronto Wants to Kill the Smart City Forever” acknowledged that ” Sidewalk Labs’ two-and-a-half-year struggle to build a neighborhood “from the internet up” failed to make the case for why anyone might want to live in it.” The outcome of the Sidewalk Labs debacle revealed a disparity among proponents who sold the glitz and glamour of what the technology could do rather than effectively addressing the real human concerns that surfaced during the process.

For Krieg, Sidewalk Labs’ attempt to create a smart city neighborhood focused heavily on data collection to improve efficiency. However, a significant concern arose in a single company having considerable control over such vast amounts of data–something that becomes increasingly important as buildings and cities grow smarter and more interconnected. While data collection has many potential benefits, such as enabling a building to assess the number of occupants, open windows, and energy needs, how the information is managed will be crucial to alleviating citizen concerns.

Krieg reflects, “Efficient energy management, like predicting maintenance needs and optimizing energy use with the help of AI, requires accurate data interpretation. On a city-wide scale, sharing energy produced from sources like solar panels among buildings can lead to energy-sharing networks and efficient energy brokering.”

He adds cities could improve transportation by analyzing public transit demand to adjust bus and train schedules for energy savings, “…however, it is vital that this data is anonymized, shared responsibly, and not monopolized by a single company. Policy needs to ensure that data is used in a safe and reliable framework to benefit cities and promote sustainability rather than for corporate profit.”

As the world moves towards a predominantly urban economy, cities must evolve to accommodate this shift, while adhering to an urgent global mandate to limit carbon emissions in the next 20 years. Intelligent City recognizes the need to transform the construction industry to address climate change, urban housing shortages, and the slow adoption of technology and their innovation to revolutionize building design, towards one that’s making it more efficient, and scalable, while balancing energy consumption with a view to reduce carbon emissions.

Ultimately, achieving sustainability and smart city development requires a “village” that combines intelligent design, effective policy changes, technological advancements, education and consumer behavior changes to support the inevitable population growth in the world’s urban centres while mitigating climate impacts, with the aim to foster vibrant, inclusive communities.

View the interview on Youtube.

Please note this article originally appeared on Forbes

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