How to build and design an efficient City of Future?


The well-designed city does more than run smoothly; it is also an incubator of ideas. Due to the distinct constraints spawned by urban design, each city doubles as a unique problem-solving opportunity, with challenges that must be met by a combination of energy-related business initiatives and policy support. Those choices of businesses and policies should allow each to leverage their strengths, address their deficiencies, and meet a small number of vital but sometimes conflicting objectives.

With that in mind, this very topic was tackled on September 29, when Shell and Bloomberg cohosted the Future of Cities summit. A highly collaborative gathering, those in attendance were tasked with drafting hypothetical policy that could curb carbon emissions, and in the process they arrived at common ground to reveal what Springfield, U.S.A. can learn from Anytown, China (and vice versa).

At the heart of the gathering was an interactive workshop that focused on four very different urban areas, selected via Shell’s exhaustive city research:

  • Shanghai has a population density of 25,000 people per square kilometer and projected GDP growth of more than 7 percent per year. Much of its energy use is attached to industrial production, and in just 20 years the city has built an extensive metro network from scratch. Nationally, China invests more than any other country in the world in smart grid technology.
  • Mexico City also has a large population, but in contrast to Shanghai, the cityscape consists primarily of low-rise buildings. Its rate of car ownership per capita is five times as high as that of Shanghai—cars and minibuses are the dominant forms of transport. At the country level, energy policy is being overhauled, from a highly regulated and state-owned model to a more competitive model.
  • Johannesburg’s residential population lives far from the downtown area. Life expectancy is low, and crime is a major problem. The city’s electricity market is uncompetitive. Coal is the dominant fuel of the country’s electricity sector, but the country has among the highest levels of solar radiation in the world.
  • New York’s GDP per capita is nearly $64,000, but income inequality is a growing political concern. The public transport system is effective, and there is a competitive market to serve electricity to large commercial users. The more than 700,000 buildings in the city are responsible for most of the energy consumed. “Resilience” became the city’s mantra in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

Broken up into teams, the audience—comprised of energy professionals, electric power providers, technologists, transport experts, equipment makers, lighting specialists, city policymakers, investors, architects and designers— was tasked with choosing business models, technologies and policies that enhanced their assigned city. The conversations were rich with diverse perspectives, and the tables ultimately debated proposed solutions—just as actual cities do—in the form of a spirited election campaign for “city mayor”.

The solutions were varied. Here’s a sampling of what the groups came up with:

  • Shanghai: Building energy management systems, cogeneration plants, bus-only lanes (energy-related business options); carbon tax, loan softening (policy mechanisms)
  • Mexico City: “Complete streets,” waste-to-energy plants, traffic management systems, car sharing programs (business); utility regulation, green bonds (policy)
  • Johannesburg: Waste-to-energy power and gas production, urban agronomy, advanced lighting (LEDs) for municipal use (business); cash grants, utility regulations (policy)
  • New York: Building energy management systems, “cool roofs,” grid hardening, microgrids (business); building efficiency codes, ESCO funds, carbon tax, green bonds (policy)

The groups determined that some of the most elegant options, such as cogeneration, were those that tackled multiple problems at once. As one team put it regarding public lighting in Johannesburg, “If you illuminate the places where people gather, you achieve a variety of objectives.”

Some participants drew inspiration from a keynote talk delivered earlier in the event by Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia. He spoke of his belief that city-related problems are often political; that democratic societies should have a bias towards solutions that address the needs of many; and that the technologies that we need are often already at our doorstep—such as buses, for example.

The event was hosted by Thijs Jurgens, Shell’s VP of Innovation, who opened the event with some remarks about the world’s profound and underappreciated dependence on energy. “It sometimes feels,” he said, “that we have forgotten about the extraordinary benefits so many of us have enjoyed because of unprecedented access to energy.”

A firm believer that no country, company or university alone can tackle the challenges we face, Jurgens stresses the importance of new energy technologies. Such innovations, he believes, can help us generate data to develop an accurate understanding of how urban dwellers use a city as their ecosystem for work, recreation and everything in between. And with improved data, he said, comes smarter decision-making.

After the workshop concluded, Jurgens once again addressed the assemblage, making three key points regarding the future of cities. Among them was the need to remain realistic, as cities face serious challenges that, ultimately, must be met with constrained resources. With that in mind, Jurgens put an emphasis on collaboration, highlighting how it is those groups with disparate expertise and varying perspectives in particular that can spark progress. That led to Jurgens’ final point: the need for optimism. The goal of designing the “ideal city,” one that is vibrant and efficient, is within our reach.

Dusk descended on New York as the event concluded, and the setting, on the 28th floor of Bloomberg’s headquarters in Midtown, seemed apt in more ways than one. The tables that had been charged with improving New York City had looked deeply at the use of energy in buildings, and had chosen business and policy options centered on this issue. Out in the real world, it seems that city policymakers have also been attuned to this opportunity. Just two weeks prior to the event, city officials had announced the “One City, Built to Last” initiative, aimed at reducing emissions from buildings, including a goal to retrofit every city-owned building by 2025. In the meantime, Shell will continue the conversation around the globe and at its Powering Progress Together event in Detroit in April 2015.