The Hammarby Sjöstad district in Stockholm, which is known for its integrated infrastructure systems. SOURCE: CC Flickr Danial Mott

Why Future Cities Will Integrate Urban Systems

To address increasingly complex and interconnected challenges, cities must design infrastructure systems that work together synergistically.

Humans are highly innovative creatures, yet we have been very selective in how we innovate.

In a mere decade, we have mass-produced supercomputers that can be carried in our pockets, yet predominantly power these high-tech devices with coal, an 18th century technology. We have become adept at innovating ‘widgets’ yet have been poor at innovating whole systems.

An illustration of the current urban development model. Resources are produced and managed outside the urban core within centralized, single-function processes.

Looking at cities, the ultimate system of systems, we can see that the predominant urban development model is itself outdated, having been fundamentally unchanged over the past 100+ years despite radical technological advances. Essential urban functions like energy, water, waste, IT, and food are all managed in isolation of each other within industry ‘silos’ that feature independent departments, regulatory agencies, and budgeting processes. Corresponding business models require each silo to optimize benefits and returns for their respective interest.

Needless to say, this model is failing. Each sub-system is highly inefficient and riddled with waste that comes at great environmental, social, and economic cost. Take for example that America’s electric grid is 33% thermally efficient — that is two-thirds of energy produced is wasted. Similarly, less than 35% of solid waste is recycled. Furthermore, through decades of mismanagement, an increasing number of people are facing critical water shortages. It is projected that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population could be living in severe water-stressed conditions. Left unabated, the increasing competition for water and other critical resources could cause social unrest in cities and geo-political conflict between nations.

This conventional, linear ‘take, make, waste’ development model was designed to fail from the onset for one simple reason. Why? Because it is organized around mechanistic principles that view cities as the sum of their isolated parts, rather than recognizing cities as complex and holistic living systems best understood by the quality of relationship between its parts.

Those that understand living systems understand that optimizing sub-systems comes at the expense of the whole - that even well-intended efforts exacerbate problems elsewhere, creating unintended consequences and shifted burdens that stifle systems-wide progress and deteriorate overall resilience.

With this in mind, a critically important and untapped strategy cities must pursue into the future is to more effectively integrate urban systems.

Urban Systems Integration

Urban systems integration involves strengthening the synergies and interconnections between existing (often disparate) subsystems in an effort to add value to the whole urban system. It represents an intent to design out problems at the source and implement projects and programs that realize multiple goals with single, coordinated efforts.

The benefits of integrating urban systems are substantial.

  1. First, the approach enables far more effective management of resources. Outputs from one part of an urban system can become inputs for other parts of the system (think industrial symbiosis & circular economy), eliminating waste and helping cities capture the enduring value of resources that are conventionally lost and costly to manage downstream in traditional systems.
  2. Second, it employs a new integrated infrastructural business model that produces far greater urban systems performance at less cost. By stacking and bundling multiple functions within single programs or initiatives, communities can do far more with less resources and capital.
  3. Supporting this, the integrated systems business model opens up the door to decentralized, localized production and management of resources, which can support a cities’ ability to be much more agile, responsive, and resilient. Centralized systems require large capital expenditures and long development timelines, and are also vulnerable to climatic or man-made disasters when developed as sole points of service for a community’s critical needs (think a single water treatment plant). Smaller-scaled distributed systems can be responsive to focused growth areas, relieve capacity and demand pressure on existing grids, and create systems-wide redundancies to improve regional resilience.
  4. Additionally, when optimized for community benefit, integrated urban systems can be a vital strategy in making better, more attractive neighborhood places. As an example, green infrastructure solutions integrate diverse environmental functions (stormwater management, air/noise/water pollution management, energy/heat reduction) while also making urban places more comfortable, attractive, and biophilic.

Innovative Examples of Urban Systems Integration

Fortunately, we are beginning to see much needed attention placed on urban systems integration and are able to draw valuable insights from communities actively testing and applying integrated system concepts. A few notable examples are:

Chattanooga Integrating Energy and Broadband— In 2009, Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board (EPB), a public electric utility, saw an opportunity to install high speed fiber lines as part of an effort to modernize the city’s power grid. It faced strong backlash from established private telecom providers, yet ended up prevailing in the courts and getting the green light to provide 10Gbps internet services to local residents and businesses. By bundling electric and broadband installation, EPB was able to dramatically reduce installation costs and subsequently provide the community far better internet services and lower rates than the private providers in the area.

A billboard at Chattanooga’s airport celebrating its world-class fiber network.

The municipal broadband network has been an incredible success story for Chattanooga. It cost the city $220M, yet an independent study published last year noted that EPB’s network, which has become a source of tremendous local pride, could be directly tied to the creation of between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs and that the economic benefits for the city have been roughly $1 billion over the course of the last five years. This example demonstrates the robust value of linking even two traditionally disparate urban systems.

Stockholm’s ‘Hammarby Model’ — As a more comprehensive representation of a community incorporating an integrated systems approach from the onset, Stockholm’s Hammarby Sjöstad district is perhaps the most recognized example. It is widely known for its ‘Hammarby Model’, a district-scaled effort to integrate energy, water, and waste infrastructure within a closed-loop district metabolism. The key integration processes within the Model include collecting and converting wastewater sludge and solid waste into renewable energy for a district electric and heating/cooling grid; incorporating stormwater infrastructure into the site; and utilizing an automated pneumatic waste collection system to manage solid waste.

The Hammarby Model has helped the district achieve a 50% reduction in energy consumption and carbon emissions without sacrificing any quality or reliability of service. It has also anchored a vibrant EcoTourism industry that brings 13,000 visitors a year to the community.

A birds eye view of Hammarby Sjostad’s public realm, and how it effectively integrates energy, water, and waste infrastructure systems within it.

Helsinki’s Mobility as a Service Platform — Urban systems integration can also be demonstrated and enabled through digital infrastructure. A great example of this is in Helsinki, which has developed a Mobility as a Service (MaaS) app-based platform that integrates end-to-end trip planning, booking, electronic ticketing, and payment services across all modes of local transit — both public and private.

The MaaS system currently uses an app called Whim that works out the best option for every journey across all transit modes. The integrated platform strives to make public transit so efficient that the need for privately owned cars will be eliminated in 10 years. In doing so, it will help improve overall urban systems performance and qualities of life by reducing congestion, pollution, and transit system costs. Digital, smart cities solutions will play an increasingly vital role in connecting, measuring, and managing urban system connections and synergies into the future.

Key Considerations

Urban systems integration represents a fundamentally new urban paradigm. It requires adopting new collaborative partnerships, regulatory environments, and financial models to succeed. As the movement continues to evolve, it is important that the following considerations be kept in mind:

  1. Resiliency and Redundancy. As mentioned earlier, the integrated approach has the potential to improve city resiliency through decentralized implementation. However, there is risk that integrated systems can reduce resiliency if parts of an integrated system cease to function and cause other coordinated elements to fail. With this in mind, effective systems integration requires proper consideration of redundancies/backups, as well as ongoing adaptation and evolution of each part of a system such that it can be changed at no risk to the whole.
  2. Human Connection. Systems integration has the potential to be very technology-based and erode social connection. We have already seen how the integration of technology and commerce has transformed modern lifestyles. Ordering items online has undeniably improved system efficiencies, yet it has also reduced social interaction. It is therefor important not to lose sight of the human element when designing integrated solutions.
  3. Communicating Value. An additional challenge of integrated systems is communicating its value, considering that projects are inherently more complex than single-function, direct-return approaches. Integrated projects often blend various tangible and intangible values that are captured by numerous stakeholders and beneficiaries. It is therefor critical to get diverse stakeholders on board and articulate how meaningful value can be delivered for each respective interest.

Accelerating a Future for Integrated Urban Systems

The future for integrated urban systems is incredibly promising, as an increasing amount of attention is placed on the interconnections between key systems and sectors, most notably the energy-water nexus. Yet as a nascent practice in the urban context, there are few functioning examples of cities successfully implementing the integrated approach in its entirety.

A system flow rendering of Regensia’s Integrated Utility Hub (IUH). Through symbiotic, closed-loop processes, the IUH is capable of recovering up to 95% of a municipal solid waste stream; Purifying wastewater to reusable (even drinkable) standards; Generating renewable energy at up to 80% thermal efficiency; and producing healthy and local seafood, vegetables, and herbs using 90% less water, land, and resources than conventional agriculture approaches.

The firm I founded, Regensia, is highly motivated to accelerate the uptake and application of integrated urban systems. We have created a robust set of solutions that make the approach compelling and actionable, from a visionary regenerative city performance standard and holistic assessment platform that provide an integrated systems view of urban places, to the design of next-generation integrated utility solutions that coordinate traditionally disparate clean technologies within closed-loop processes to unlock new levels of city performance.

Regensia has designed and modeled integrated utility systems for a wide variety of communities throughout the world, from major redevelopments in downtown San Francisco to informal settlements in Cape Town, South Africa. This experience has demonstrated that the integrated business model is capable of functioning at diverse scales and contexts. It has also demonstrated that most communities do not question the viability of core integrated system technologies, engineering processes, and even financial returns. The key barrier to greater uptake has related primarily to governance, partnership, and regulatory models, ie, how communities can break down sector silos and share costs, perceived risks, and returns. This is an area that needs support from courageous civic leaders (like those in Chattanooga) and policy makers who can take on incumbent interests locked in the status quo.

Concluding Thoughts

It is time to leave the mono-sectoral urban planning and management practices in the past, and step into a future of greater coordination between sectors and systems. Doing so can help communities unlock a powerful value proposition that not only addresses root causes of pressing development challenges (including climate change, resource insecurity, and socio-political fragmentation), it creates better, more attractive, prosperous, and equitable urban places.