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Can digitilisation help society cope with rapid urbanisation?

As developing countries play economic catch-up with developed nations, greater numbers of people stand to benefit, yet with rapid urbanisation comes mounting pressure on resources such as housing, infrastructure, amenities and utilities.

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Urban areas across the world are growing rapidly as the economic fortunes of towns and cities improve. As developing countries play economic catch-up with developed nations, greater numbers of people stand to benefit, yet with rapid urbanisation comes mounting pressure on resources such as housing, infrastructure, amenities and utilities.

Described by the European Environment Agency (EEA) as ‘the increase in the proportion of people living in towns and cities’, urbanisation has been gaining momentum in recent years, although the development of concentrated population centres goes back a long way.

Several thousand years ago the region of Mesopotamia, in modern-day Iraq, was home to several ancient cities, all now long gone. Other cities in the ancient world, such as Rome and Athens were large for their time, but their population growth was relatively sedate.

This has changed over the past couple of hundred years. Increased industrial activity, and with it the prospect of better-paid jobs and an improved standard of living, have resulted in more people moving to towns and cities from rural areas. The UK saw this 200 years ago during the Industrial Revolution. More recently, countries such as India and China have witnessed such population shifts as their economies have boomed.

Managing the impacts of urbanisation on the built environment 

When it is well managed, urbanisation has huge potential. But allowed to develop too rapidly and unchecked it can result in serious issues.

How can the built environment respond to the trend for rapid urbanisation so that critical projects are delivered while resources and quality of life for all are maintained and enhanced? Can digitalisation play a role in helping the construction industry deliver better, fairer urban spaces?

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) argues that one of the positive impacts of urbanisation is its potential to improve the well-being of societies. Despite around half the world’s people residing in cities, the UNDP suggests they generate more than 80% of global GDP. ‘Cities are also younger’, it says, ‘home to relatively more young and working-age adults than rural areas, making them pivotal places to capture demographic dividends.’

But it also warns about the negative impacts of rapid urbanisation. Nearly 40% of the world’s urban expansion may occur in slums, intensifying economic inequality. Proper planning is essential, the UNDP says, if communities are to be protected from the effect of natural disasters such as storms, cyclones and floods, while the need for urban infrastructure is a ‘must’ if a city and its population are going to prosper.


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What challenges and opportunities does rapid urbanisation present? 

Planning remains a key element to creating an urban environment that benefits us all. According to the Zurich Information Group (ZIG), ‘the inability of governments to provide appropriate infrastructure and public services is at the core of many urban challenges in developing countries.’ ZIG identifies four areas that need to be considered in future construction projects.

First, improving infrastructure. Given the quality of a city’s infrastructure is central to its residents’ quality of life, economic opportunities and feeling of social inclusion, ZIG says, ‘there is a growing need to transform how infrastructure is planned, delivered and managed as urbanisation, digitalisation and climate change increasingly impact the world.’

Second on ZIG’s watchlist is protecting public health. ‘When urbanisation is rapid and unplanned’, it says, ‘a combination of high population density, ageing populations, poverty and lack of infrastructure can have a negative impact on public health, primarily by fostering conditions in which communicable diseases can flourish.’

Thirdly, making cities more resilient to extreme weather events should be a priority for both local governments and the private sector. City infrastructure and its planning also has to become smarter and more sustainable. ‘This includes integrating digital technologies with physical assets and using data to see and understand things that were previously too big or interconnected to make sense of’, ZIG says.

And lastly, there is a need to minimise what ZIG calls ‘social instability’. ‘For example, high population density can lead to property bubbles which enrich some while excluding others. This combination, especially when experienced by urban populations living in relatively close proximity, can increase social instability and destabilise the wider urban economy’, it says.

Why construction should embrace digital ways of working 

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), to deliver better urban environments, the construction industry needs to ’embrace digitalisation, establish new working practices and increase collaboration with the public sector’.

Seamless communication 

Rapid urbanisation puts increasing demands on how construction teams communicate. The built environment has been responding by making greater use of digital – paperless – methods of delivering buildings, from building information modelling (BIM) to design software technologies such as Bluebeam.

Infrastructure also needs to embrace 21st century digital innovation, the WEF says. ‘That goes for both projects being built today and for existing infrastructure that’s being expanded, retrofitted or repurposed to meet new needs or circumstances.’

Greener, smarter buildings 

Urbanisation has prompted many to rethink how buildings for large population areas are delivered. One of the key impacts has been on the development and creation of sustainable buildings.

Another is modern methods of construction, where efficiencies and quality can be enhanced through factory-assembled buildings, delivered to a site ready to erect, along with successful management of processes and resources to minimise waste.

Similarly, the industry is increasingly geared towards meeting the demands of tech-savvy climate-aware occupiers looking for buildings that are both built sustainably and have a minimum operational impact on the world around them.

Shared objectives 

Silo thinking – an issue that will be familiar to many in construction – also needs to disappear, the WEF argues. ‘Fostering a more holistic, systemic approach to sustainable infrastructure and putting digitalisation to work requires a change in industry working practices and relationships that brings key stakeholders together in a unified pursuit of a clearly defined outcome’, it says.

Transforming ways of working in an era of digital construction and rapid urbanisation will not be easy, but this transition will be crucial for the future of the industry. Failing to recognise the negative consequences of how fast our cities are growing without taking appropriate action is a risk we cannot afford.

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