How innovating in sustainability and smart cities can pull us back from the brink

With time running out in the climate change battle, all sectors must work together to ensure a brighter, safer future says Katarina Uherova Hasbani, Partner and Global Director of Strategy and Advisory at AESG

Climate change is one of the most significant global threats, with temperatures projected to rise 1.5-degrees Celsius in the next two decades, according to a report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This will cause more extreme weather such as heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, and floods. It is thought that we are almost at a tipping point, where consequences could be catastrophic and there may be no turning back. The urgency to act is particularly tangible in the Middle East, which has very strong exposure to the effects of climate change, with studies indicating a persistent rise in temperature across the region, particularly in the extremes of the summer months.

In response, Middle East governments have placed sustainability at the forefront of policy, with several regulations and initiatives in place to help reach Net Zero aims. The UAE, for example, has a Net Zero 2050 strategic initiative in place, and Saudi Arabia has implemented the Saudi Green Initiative, both of which have ambitious targets to set the course for Net Zero.

The construction industry remains a major contributor to global CO2 emissions, with as much as 70% of global annual emissions relating to and the comprehensive lifecycle – materials manufacturing, transportation, power generation and more – of buildings. This is why addressing emissions in the sector is crucial in the race for sustainability.

Smart cities will further the Net Zero agenda

There’s a strong focus on smart cities in the Middle East, which goes hand in hand with supporting the sustainability agenda. The region is spearheading innovative new ways to design and build cities that focus on both smart and sustainable living.

As we reinvent the way we live and build, we need building facades that can generate power for solar, pavement materials that transform kinetic energy into electricity and water absorptive materials that can contribute to the water treatment cycle. We need connective technologies that allow us to track the behaviour of physical assets live and empower users in a way that leads to better sustainability and carbon performance. And the drive for smart, sustainable cities will help to make these a reality.

It’s clear that smart cities will support both better living conditions and a more sustainable way of life, but there are barriers which need to be addressed. Let’s explore the three main challenges – and some potential solutions:

Overcoming material constraints

The materials we need for building smart cities with integrated sustainability credentials are still brand new, with some fresh from the testing labs. Not only that, the materials are not yet available in the Middle East market.

This challenge can be addressed with collaborations across the value chain, where developers, architects, construction companies and material suppliers continuously update the technical specifications and requirements of the new types of materials needed. We also need to create opportunities to test new solutions, via private or public sector innovation centres and laboratories, where large companies from the region can experiment and learn from innovative start-ups.

Addressing cost concerns

The high cost of the materials and associated construction of smart cities that are aligned to sustainable and Net Zero requirements also poses an issue. More sophisticated designs come naturally at a higher cost – though this isn’t always as high as expected. We have found that there are lower carbon material alternatives available in the market in the UAE without a cost mark-up. Additionally, 20-30% carbon reductions in the carbon footprint of newly designed assets can be achieved with a 5-10% increase in the initial capital expenditure.

A solution to this challenge could be creating economies of scale that will enable the unit price to be reduced. For this, we need the region’s large developers to adopt low carbon and sustainable construction practices as this will create the right market dynamic – and it is encouraging to see some of the big names in the region already committing to this.

Developing expertise

The capacity of the workforce in the region to adopt and scale the new digital and sustainable solutions is also a concern. This is not only about understanding the technical and engineering side of new technologies, but also about designing and introducing new processes and ways of working. For example, all aspects of passive design that may result in better sustainability and Net Zero performance need to be considered by design teams at the early stages of the project and then respected during development.

To overcome this barrier, we need to deliver capacity building and upskilling programmes at all levels – from executive to middle management to workforce in the field. Both the private sector and the government need to take responsibility for this. The government should offer the minimum level of education requirements and the private sector must continue this education across its workforce by continuous training on the job.

A smart, sustainable future

With time running out in the climate change battle, all sectors must work together to ensure a brighter, safer future. Bringing the Middle’s East’s vision of smart, sustainable cities to life will take commitment from and cooperation between both the public and private sectors. This will not only enhance the health, wellbeing and happiness of citizens and residents, but will support the region’s aim of combatting climate change and pursuing its net zero aims.

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