Engineering the Future of Cities

About the episode

As the world is expected to gain 2.2 billion new urban residents by 2050, emerging technologies will dramatically transform the way growing populations live, work and commute in urban areas. Future cities will face big challenges in terms of rapid urbanisation, more pressure on infrastructure and the need for sustainable solutions to address energy, transportation, and environmental concerns. So what will this mean for the future of urban engineering?

Transport engineering expert, Associate Professor Taha Rashidi, and geotechnical engineering expert, Dr Asal Bidarmaghz look up to the skies and discuss the feasibility of flying cars and drones as a form of transport, as well as looking down by making the case for increased infrastructure to be built underground.

 

UNSW Sydney
Asal Bidarmaghz

Dr. Asal Bidarmaghz is a Senior Lecturer in Geotechnical Engineering at the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UNSW Sydney. Her research expertise lies in Energy Geotechnics and Energy Geo-structures. Asal received her PhD in Civil Engineering from the University of Melbourne in 2015.

Following her doctorate, she worked as a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Infrastructure Engineering, University of Melbourne from 2015-2017. She then went on to work as a Research Associate at the Engineering Department, University of Cambridge from 2017-2019 before joining UNSW in 2019 as a Lecturer.

Asal's research activities are focused on geo-energy systems, with a particular emphasis on the hydro-thermo-mechanical characteristics of urban subsurface and underground structures. Her research involves large-scale simulation of urban underground climate change and the quantification of its consequent geotechnical, environmental, and hydrological impacts. By improving the sustainability of underground spaces and resources, Asal's research contributes to the field and drives progress in optimising our usage of urban subsurface.

UNSW Sydney
Taha Rashidi

Taha Rashidi is an Associate Professor in Transport Engineering at the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UNSW and a member of the Research Centre for Integrated Transport Innovation (rCITI).

Dr Rashidi is currently leading research into the interconnectivity between travel behaviour and time use and the potential of new mobility technologies to influence this paradigm as well as working on industry partnerships to undertake research on autonomous driving.

Dr Rashidi is also examining the capacity of social media data to complement existing data resources as part of the development of an integrated multi-level modelling framework to demonstrate the relationships between land use and transport systems and the consequences this has for city planning and travel behaviour more broadly.

 

  • Voiceover:

    Welcome to UNSW’s Engineering the Future podcast – a series where we’ll speak to academics and industry leaders who are embracing cutting-edge ideas and pushing the boundaries of what is truly possible.

    In this episode, we’ll take a deep dive into exciting developments in urban engineering and discuss what impacts we can expect on society as a whole over the next two decades.

    We’ll hear from leading experts in the field, Associate Professor Taha Rashidi and Dr Asal Bidarmaghz, as they explain how emerging technologies will dramatically transform the way growing populations live, work and commute in urban areas.

    They’ll look up to the skies and discuss the feasibility of flying cars and drones as a form of transport, as well as looking down by making the case for increased infrastructure to be built underground.
    So join us as we discover how world-changing action starts with fearless thinking in…. “Engineering the Future of Cities”.

    Neil Martin:

    Hello and welcome to Engineering the Future of Cities. My name is Neil Martin and I'm a journalist and STEM communicator working in the Faculty of Engineering at UNSW. Joining me today to discuss what changes we can expect with regards to urban development over the next 20 years is Dr. Asal Bidarmaghz, who is a senior lecturer in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UNSW.

    Asal's research concerns the use of energy geostructures for heating and cooling above and underground spaces, sustainable use of the urban subsurface and underground climate change. Welcome, Asal.

    Asal Bidarmaghz:

    Hello, Neil and thank you very much for having me.

    Neil Martin:

    Also with us is Associate Professor Taha Rashidi, also from UNSW's School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Taha is a member of the Research Centre for Integrated Transport Innovation, and his research is in the field of transport engineering, aiming to inform smart city solutions. Welcome, Taha.

    Taha Rashidi:

    Hi, Neil. It's a great pleasure to be with you today.

    Neil Martin:

    So I think it's obvious that cities are a very important way of the way many people live, work and play. I read a press release from the United Nations saying that it expects the world to gain 2.2 billion new urban residents by 2050. So it seems pretty crucial that we try to solve problems that already exist in the city over the next two decades. I know engineers in Australia and around the world are working hard to find solutions while navigating the complex interplay of technology, sustainability, social dynamics and urban planning. Taha, your area of specialty is transport, but just talking in general, do you think cities will be dramatically different places to live and work in 20 years' time?

    Taha Rashidi:

    20 years' time might be a little bit tricky to say if it's going to be 20 years or 50 years or 30 years or 10 years. But as we've also observed after COVID, something extraordinary may happen and that introduction of that extreme situation may provoke shifts to something that becomes the new norm. So when that happens, changes after that extreme change might look completely different from what we are experiencing at the moment. So, I'm not sure if it happens next year like COVID happened suddenly and we were not expecting it. But if that happens, if it happens next year, 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, a century after, I'm expecting the world to be completely affected by the advent of emerging technologies, specifically in transport that we are experiencing to be a different situation. So yes, my understanding or what I wanted to say was that yes, I expect the future of urban systems, smart cities, and even regional livings to be significantly different with the flow of emerging technologies and mobility options that we are experiencing these days.

    Neil Martin:

    Asal, when people think of future cities, they might think of people in flying cars and lots of interconnectivity and everything linked up to the internet. Do you think it's slightly unreasonable to think that that's going to happen 20 years from now, if at all?

    Asal Bidarmaghz:

    Yeah. I think it is unreasonable to think that that's going to happen in 20 years' time. Even though I would love to see something like flying cars everywhere, that will take certainly longer than that. So I think in the next 20 years, we will see the outcome of what we have started already, the initiatives for smarter, more sustainable and resilient use of cities and spaces and resources will be actually the normal in 20 years' time. Hopefully, if we keep working hard on that, it might not even happen in 20 years' time.

    I think the problem is already highlighted by researchers, by urban planners, by governments, by United Nations. Space and resources are limited, especially in the cities, and the majority of the world population is going to end up in cities in less than 50 years' time. I think in 20 years' time, what we're going to see is that we're going to guarantee hopefully that we will have a sustainable practice in place for space and resources.

    Neil Martin:

    So your area of expertise is in transport, Taha. What are the major issues that we need to address with regards to urban transportation?

    Taha Rashidi:

    If the situation stays as is, so nothing changes, we are still using the same mobility options that are already available, shared mobility options, ride hailing, car sharing, public transport, private cars - fossil fuel to be still a common source of energy to our mobility options. If we proceed the way we are using fossil fuel, it's not sustainable. This is obvious. A big chunk of emission and pollutants are coming from the transport system, and we cannot continue using our own private vehicles the way we are using them.

    So technology, the way it's offering new mobility options seems to offer us a solution to change our mobility behaviour, our choices of mobility options. And now with the advent of new technologies, we are becoming more creative as transport engineers and planners. We are considering these options that might get realised by the entire world and the population as ways to go around these solutions so that trips are reduced, traffic congestions are reduced, and the source of energy and emission is also changed to something that is sustainable.

    Neil Martin:

    And can you explain a little bit more about those new technologies that you talk about?

    Taha Rashidi:

    Electric vehicles, for example, if we look at the entire life cycle. So electric vehicles are commonly used as a solution for solving all of our emission and global warming greenhouse gas problems. However, if the whole life cycle is not green - definitely the problem is not solved. We know that if they're used less than three, four years,  so the recycling process can cause more damage to the environment. So we need to have solutions, and that's why I was referring to new technologies, solutions that are sustainable, but we see them. If they're used wisely, if they're used based on evidence-based studies, we can use them in our advantage to reduce emission coming out of the transport system.

    Neil Martin:

    And Asal, do you have any comments with regards to how important it is for engineers to address the issues of transportation in cities? That seems to be one of the big bugbears for anybody that lives in an urban area.

    Asal Bidarmaghz:

    Absolutely, absolutely. And as I again said, space is what we are struggling with in cities, and it's definitely one of the most important issues to be addressed by engineers, and the cohorts of all engineers should get together to find a solution for that. So as a potential next 20-year solution, I can picture that we're going to move our transport, freight, delivery, utilities, everything to urban underground because, well, as human being, we do require air and natural sunlight but for short period temporary activities. We might be able to move them to the subsurface and that has been initiated in some parts of the world.

    The logistics, I can definitely see them. More than I can see flying cars in the next 20 years, I can see our delivery and freight and transport and utilities to be transferred to urban underground to use that space.

    Neil Martin:

    I think there's definitely an interesting discussion with regards to urban underground that we'll maybe come to in a moment, but Taha, the comment about rather than going underground, going up in the air as Asal mentioned, people do talk about flying cars. Do you think they're actually feasible or maybe some kind of new drone technology that would assist with transport?

    Taha Rashidi:

    Feasibility of it, I leave it to other experts who are engineers, mechanical engineers. But from my point of view, there are many technologies coming together, and as soon as the connection between those types of technologies happen, we can expect something extraordinary happening. As another example of technologies that might change the game completely is 5G and then 6G and other generations of communication technologies. And now when we talk about 5G, it's just faster streaming capability to us as users.  

    But those technologies can facilitate communication of smart cars and as a result, we may end up having more efficient traffic flow, congestion to be reduced, accidents to be reduced. However that comes at the cost of so many other complications in the system like privacy, data management and infrastructure. But as soon as that happens, we may end up having a more efficient structure that is automated and can help us to operate the system more efficiently.

    Neil Martin:

    Which sounds like it could reduce traffic jams, which seem to be the thing that a lot of people find very frustrating about living in cities.

    Taha Rashidi:

    That's absolutely an outcome. Again, if we look at it in isolation, that might be the case, but as soon as congestion goes down, people may end up making more trips. So, trips gets induced because congestion is reduced, and that is also a phenomenon in transport. Maybe a year or so, congestion goes down, but after that, it gets picked up with new travel patterns.

    But coming back to your question about drones. So another challenge that might be worth exploring is the legal aspects associated with drones. As soon as drones come into the market and they're widely used, are we expecting them to use the Euclidean distance between origin and destination, the shortest path? That might not be necessarily feasible, first of all, because specific height above my home is owned by me and I might not be able or I don't want to share it with others, specifically drones delivering goods above the surface because of the safety aspects of it. Or maybe you purchased your home because it's also at a dead-end road and that was the reason you purchased it because there is no congestion or traffic happening on that street. But now all drones, they're using it for drop off and pickup. These are other challenges we need to take into consideration. That might also stop many of these technologies to realise in short term or in other ways, as I said, a solution may come up and marry many of these technologies in introducing something that is totally new.

    Asal Bidarmaghz:

    So as you said that we might actually move the traffic, some part of it to the sky and then there might be some more induced traffic on our roads. So that's exactly what should be considered for every futuristic plan that we put in place that what are the consequences? So we might end up after 10, 15 years that we have flying cars as many as before, cars on our roads, more CO2 emissions, more recycling challenges for batteries. So we always have to think. You cannot think of space without thinking about the resources. So they go hand in hand. We have to come up with a sustainable way of having both under control without one affecting the other one and coming up with futuristic city planning.

    Neil Martin:

    Every solution poses its own future problems, I guess is the takeaway.

    Taha Rashidi:

    That's true. But something else I can also add here is, it's also a personal observation, but when I refer to our reference articles from 10, 20 years ago, us as academics, we were leading the community of people generating new ideas. For example, 20 years ago, academics, they mentioned topics like on demand transport and it wasn't feasible because dialling, calling a centre and they allocate a car to you was not feasible, but with a smartphone, that was also a facilitator. A new technology came and so many other ideas that we thought they're not feasible, they suddenly became feasible. But we were generating these ideas.

    But as an observation, it's been I would say maybe five years to 10 years that the start-ups, they are generating new ideas. They're testing them. They are failing. They get picked up and they also succeed in introducing new ideas and then us, as academics, is studying them, examining them. So I would say this might be also requiring attention from our point of view to become more futuristic. We maybe work hand in hand with start-ups and entrepreneurs to explore ideas.

    Neil Martin:

    There's obviously lots of issues, and you talk about space, Asal, just to pick you up on that point. I said at the start that the United Nations say that 2.2 billion people will move into urbanised areas by 2050, which obviously puts a lot of pressure on space. I know your research is with regards to more underground spaces being utilised. How feasible do you think it is for people to live and work and travel increasingly below the ground?

    Asal Bidarmaghz:

    Space is the main driving issue here that we're going to think of. So I think it's one of the most feasible ways. Just going down is the way to go ahead. I say that because we have used the sky as much as we could. But we put together all these high rises in cities and now we are dealing with the problems and challenges. This has caused climate change. This has caused urban heat island. This has caused people suffering health issues in cities because of the climate and the changes that it has brought with it.

    So I think the short-term solution is that we utilise this underground further, and I don't see that feasible for living purposes in the near future because human being requires sunlight and fresh air. But there's so many other activities that we can, much easier than other futuristic ideas to move to urban subsurface and use that. We are already using urban underground for mainly transport. The problem that we have is that we are making the very same mistake that we did when we were building up our cities. We just using picked the location as long as it is fulfilling our purpose and fits our purpose, that's it. We're not going to think of what is going to happen in the next 50 years. So we're going to end up with so many tunnels, one next to another, crisscrossing each other in the near future and then we will end up with the same problem as we have in the above ground.

    So I think the future of cities is going to be, to a big extent, relying on urban underground. But to do that in a sustainable way, we have to start planning now. As I said, transport, freight, utilities, shopping centres, cinemas, things that you're going to spend a very short period of time, few hours in there can certainly be moved to urban underground.

    Another use that we might have from urban underground is actually urban farming, which is a very promising area. And because underground offers us a more controlled space, I think in terms of climate temperature, I think that's going to be also a way for future to use underground spaces for urban farming with a much higher productivity.

    Neil Martin:

    Do you see underground being a good area of development for transport, Taha?

    Taha Rashidi:

    As Asal mentioned, it's already been considered specifically because we started using the surface significantly for transport purposes. We ended up not having a space for public transport, and that was one of the reasons even decades ago, we considered underground as a source of space to develop public transport.  Because it's extremely costly, the problem of transport infrastructure. It's underground, on the ground, on the surface, it's extremely costly for freight, for passenger - the infrastructure is the most expensive infrastructure. And it's still around the world as you know, most of the transport infrastructure is still maintained and owned by the governments.

    So I would say underground is definitely one way if we can reduce the cost, if it's not increasing the cost, cost might be the main variable. If developers and corporations still see that the cost is higher than what they can develop underground, they may start exploring like a space, not just even the elevation that drones can use. Like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, they're exploring options, very high elevations for commercial passenger movements. If it's sustainable, if it's green, that's another conversation but they're exploring it and they seem to be moving toward a way that they are financially making it feasible.

    But when it becomes feasible, is it not realistic to also consider manufacturing to be moved to this space? Even mining, manufacturing, anything that can be done by robots to be more moved to their space and where the resources are also more readily available.

    Neil Martin:

    So your factory is up in the sky and your cinemas down in the ground. Is that what we're thinking of?

    Taha Rashidi:

    And more interesting is that we are also living in a metaverse. So we are living at our home or cubics in which we are interacting with people in a virtual world. So factories up in the skies, there's cinemas underground, and we are living in our cubics in our metaverse.

    Neil Martin:

    Asal, just to finish with regards to underground cities, are there places around the world that are at the forefront of this that are already showing how things could be?

    Asal Bidarmaghz:

    Well, we know that Helsinki, for example, it has a long history in using underground spaces given their tunnels that they had during the Cold War and they're still using it as museums, just showcasing the feasibility of using underground. So they're definitely pioneers.

    Singapore is actually developing the master plan for subterranean city, given their space limitations. In the UK, they are at the point that they're actually mapping the urban underground to understand what's going on, what are the availabilities? Because we have to have a very clear understanding of what exists there to be able to further develop. But it's not at the stage that we can say we are utilising urban underground for purposes rather than transport in a large extent, yet. But there are so many researchers and governments around the world working on it.

    Neil Martin:

    Moving on to maybe another topic, although it's all interwoven. You mentioned before, Taha, about energy resources. How important do you think it is that future cities become more self-sustainable?

    Taha Rashidi:

    I think it's a no-brainer. I cannot imagine an alternative to it, that we need to reconsider the way energy sources are provided and used and transported even around the globe. If it's sustained, that's definitely a source that we have not explored or renewable energy sources that it seems to be everywhere around the world. Even countries who were not considering them, now they're proactively considering these alternative renewable energy sources for many purposes not just transport, for other purposes.

    But I would say as soon as that happens or the transition toward a sustainable world may require us to incentivise people who are adopting these renewable energies or penalising those who are not accepting it at the rate that society expect them to accept. So a mechanism that can systematically incentivize people using green mobility options, I think is also required to achieve the targets that we have for 2035 or 50. If it's net-zero target, we cannot just expect people to voluntarily accept all of these and then behave the way we expect them to behave. But the transition toward that target requires a systematic method to incentivise people who are accepting it earlier.

    Asal Bidarmaghz:

    Taha, you mentioned that the transition towards a sustainable city or world is just the energy use and what we're using. I would actually rephrase that into our transition to a sustainable world and sustainable future is significantly reducing the CO2 emission. Without that, that is impossible. In any sector, from transport, we are now having EVs that we think we are using electric vehicles, but as Taha mentioned, the life cycle is not sustainable. It's not green. So for me and many others, the EV technology is not a done and dusted technology. It's still a long way to go. From manufacturing, from heating and cooling of buildings, in every sector, we have to find a way to reduce our carbon footprint. And if we do this properly, I can say we can secure our future and the sustainability of our future cities.

    Taha Rashidi:

    That's correct. That's exactly what I meant. And CO2 seems to be the means to measure and quantify the way that people can be incentivised. So that is also a practise that to reward people, we can see how much footprint they are saving.

    Neil Martin:

    And one other part of sustainability, Asal, is something you mentioned before, which is to do with urban farming, which I think you said can even be done underground. But just in general, can you explain what that urban farming would entail and what the benefits would be?

    Asal Bidarmaghz:

    I know that there's research, active research going around the world on underground farming and with very promising results and observations. The reason being is that, well, looking into urban farming, we can think of the rooftop gardens, vertical gardens, which are very common in Hong Kong, for example. And of course, that actually helps with the CO2 emission reduction and air quality. But when we think about farming, it means that we need to produce fruits and vegetables and that requires space. And as we don't have such space available above ground, the researchers have started using abundant underground spaces for underground farming. And what has happened is that because they don't use as much soil as we do in conventional farming, so therefore they don't use as much water - so that's one of the sustainability associated with that. And also, it is climate proof or risk proof in terms of the climate fluctuations and disasters. So it's not going to get flooded, there's no hurricane, etc. That's also another aspect to that. The air temperature, the light, everything is more under control. It's like you do everything in a larger scale but in a laboratory environment so you have more control over that. So they claim that they have massively, significantly high productivity in terms of their production of fruits and vegetables. So I think it's a very promising avenue for the future of farming.

    Neil Martin:

    I guess you also reduce the need for transportation of those products.

    Asal Bidarmaghz:

    Absolutely. It's right underneath the cities. And this, what I am referring to, is in London, so right underneath London, they're doing underground farming.

    Neil Martin:

    One of the other things that a lot of people talk about, even now, is so-called 15-minute cities where everything is very local. Do you think they will be commonplace in 20 years' time or are there too many problems to overcome?

    Taha Rashidi:

    So 15-minute cities is a concept that is in the intersection of land use and transport. We cannot expect suburbs to be where they are and city centres and employment centres to be also where they are. And still, we have high speed rails connecting these two locations together. So it doesn't necessarily mean faster mobility options. With the existing mobility options, we can still think about 15-minute cities, and it's again, a concept that has been discussed in the literature for decades. Mixed land use: so if we live where everything is accessible under the ground, above the ground, wherever it is in 15 minutes. There are a couple of aspects to be also taken into account. When we talk about accessibility, we first might consider faster mobility options, but we should also take into account equity and accessible mobility options to disadvantaged people. So it should be 15-minute accessible to everyone.

    Considering all of these, it's a combination of economic aspects, transport infrastructure facilitating mobility between locations and also land use. So I would say it's not an easy problem and that's why it's been discussed for decades and still, we are working but definitely it's not just a fast and quick solution.

    Neil Martin:

    Asal, I might widen that question and say are these problems harder to solve in existing cities that have been built up over many, many, many years, hundreds, maybe even thousands of years for European cities rather than going into an empty space and planning a city from scratch? Is it much harder to change an existing city for all of these issues?

    Asal Bidarmaghz:

    Yeah, I absolutely agree with you, Neil. I think it's much harder to have this strategy in an existing city and it's easier to have a city from scratch, but we have to bear in mind that if you want to do so, all the premium locations are taken. So we have to pick somewhere in the middle of the desert or somewhere that it's not usually your normal natural willingness to go and live there to have a sustainable city in there. Of course, you are compromising on the location but you get 15 minutes access to everything. So I think that it's much easier to have that from scratch.

    But not every country, not every continent has that space for a city. When we talk about city, we are talking about kilometres, tens of kilometres of space. So eventually, we might end up in finding a solution to convert our existing cities into a more accessible and equitable city for everyone.

    Neil Martin:

    But in terms of location, Taha, I guess you mentioned people living in the metaverse a lot more now, so they might not be quite so bothered about having that prime location being in Sydney by the ocean. Being in the middle of the desert might not be so bad in the future.

    Taha Rashidi:

    It's like suburbs. That was the reason people ended up going to suburbs, because they can have better location and possibly they're also closer to other amenities that they want to have. And then as a result, the commute distance increased, and now we are also considering faster mobility options to connect those suburbs to city centres.  And the beauty of scientists and researchers, the work of scientists and researchers is to try to explore and figure out those hidden sides and plan for them before they actually realise and we end up with a problem with a city that we cannot turn it into a sustainable city.

    Neil Martin:

    It's been fascinating to speak with you. Just to ask a final question, which would be if you were a 16 or 17-year-old thinking of going into civil engineering or career related to urban planning, what would you be most excited about, Asal?

    Asal Bidarmaghz:

    I would be most excited about making a difference and having impactful changes within construction, within design as a civil engineer, thinking in a sustainable way to solve a problem. One of the problems that does exist in this world because unfortunately, what we see is that we stick to the conventional methods as an engineer, especially as a civil engineer because we want to play on the safe side. So over-designed, conservative design to make sure that our structures are stable.

    As a teenager going to pick civil engineering, I would think that I will be open to new ideas and not to get stuck in the small problems. Trying to work with all different goals of engineers to think of a megacity in a sustainable way because we cannot think in a sustainable way as a geotechnical engineer but completely forget about the architectures and urban planners and transport people. We all have to work together and think of a sustainable city and sustainable solution. I would actually step out of the conventional methods that we have to hopefully come up with a very comprehensive sustainable solution for our cities.

    Neil Martin:

    And what are your thoughts about that as well, Taha?

    Taha Rashidi:

    I'm trying to put myself into the shoes of a young person of that age, and I would say possibly AI might be something everybody is talking about. And I would say that might be overwhelming in terms of how classical methods and approaches might be experiencing a major shift in civil engineering, in transport engineering and many other fields. Then where is my privacy? They're using our historical information. They're collecting whatever is collected from our cellphones, from our cars becoming our new cellphones, and from all sensors expected to be everywhere in a smart city, from garbage management, from weather conditions, all these sensors that are expected to be a big component of a smart city. So I would say my recommendation also to people considering engineering is to focus on ethics aspects of engineering and also consider learning and understanding how these generative pre-trained transformer methods might be further developed and evolved.

    Neil Martin:

    Well, I might use that as a plug because one of our other episodes in this series is about the future of AI. So anybody who is a bit more interested in the future of artificial intelligence can hopefully go and listen to that.

    Unfortunately, that’s all we have time for with regards to this episode. I think this discussion has really highlighted the fact that future cities face big challenges in terms of rapid urbanisation, strain on infrastructure and the need for sustainable solutions to address energy, transportation, and environmental concerns. Hopefully, the next generation of engineers are out there with some big bold ideas to help create liveable, resilient, and environmentally conscious cities.

    Dr. Asal Bidarmaghz, many thanks for joining me.

    Asal Bidarmaghz:

    Thank you very much for having me here. I had a great time. Thank you.

    Neil Martin:

    And Associate Professor Taha Rashidi, it was also great to speak to you.

    Taha Rashidi:

    Thanks, Neil, for having me. It was fun to discuss these topics with you.

    Neil Martin:

    To everyone out there, thank you for listening. I've been Neil Martin, and I hope you'll join me again soon for the next episode of Engineering the Future.

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