Designing tomorrow’s cities today

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What kind of city do we want to live in? One that is smart, resilient and sustainable, of course. To achieve our vision, we need to start planning now, with a little help from ISO standards. Dr Bernard Gindroz, Chair of ISO/TC 268, explains.

Cities used to grow organically as necessity required. People needed places to sleep, eat and worship and infrastructure was created to deal with immediate needs for water, sewage, transport, gas and electricity in vast networks of improvisation. Then, gradually, things changed and cities began to happen “on purpose”. Today, high-tech materials, sensor networks and quality data all conspire to let town planners and architects build cities that are beautiful, environmentally friendly and more pleasant to live in. And that can only be a good thing since over half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas.

Underpinning the services that feature prominently in tomorrow’s sustainable cities – new economic and governance models, improved public health and safety, advanced water management and transport systems – are new networking capabilities that are emerging all around the world. These in turn are supported by foundational standards developed by ISO’s technical committee ISO/TC 268, Sustainable cities and communities, through global collaboration that spans geographical, industrial and technological boundaries.

With over 20 standards published so far and many more in the making, the ISO family of standards for cities is growing to anticipate the current and future needs of urban areas around the world. Dr Bernard Gindroz is the Chair of ISO/TC 268 and the man behind tomorrow’s sustainable cities. Here, he shares his hopes for a smarter urban future.

ISOfocus: How did you end up working with ISO?
Bernard Gindroz

Dr Bernard Gindroz, Chair of ISO/TC 268.

Dr Bernard Gindroz: After graduating in mechanical engineering, I went on to complete a PhD in the field of energy. This sparked my interest in sustainable energy and environmental protection. Moving towards the development of standardized measures and guidelines for other organizations and cities to follow was just a natural progression.

Back then, I was working with AFNOR, ISO’s member for France, which boasts a membership of nearly 2 500 companies. Its role is to lead and coordinate the standards development process in France and in Europe, while encouraging the use of standards. About four years ago, AFNOR approached me to become the Chair of technical committee ISO/TC 268 on sustainable cities and communities.

I was impressed with ISO’s holistic approach to the development and implementation of International Standards for sustainability. By providing step-by-step processes, ISO standards give cities a relevant and cohesive system to carry out urban sustainability assessments and help with future planning. ISO recognizes that most of the world’s resources are concentrated in cities, meaning that we need to deal with them in a more efficient way. One of our main goals is to reconcile new technologies with the varied needs of cities around the world to ensure the well-being of their citizens now and in the future.

If a busy mayor or city decision maker is interested in using ISO standards in their city, where should they start?

The challenges facing cities around the world are extremely complex and often very specific. Each city is unique and we need to consider the local and cultural context for it to retain its character. That said, the feedback we’ve received has been consistent – all cities want an overarching framework that they can use. This has been achieved through international consensus on what best practice means and how to apply it.

The framework also needs to match up with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, designed to create a brighter, more prosperous world for all. The standards need to ensure that issues such as energy and water management, road safety, transport, cybersecurity, health and governance, climate change, and the well-being of citizens, including that of ageing populations, are all being addressed.

To kick-start the process, I would recommend reading ISO 37101, Sustainable development in communities – Management system for sustainable development – Requirements with guidance for use, which is the reference base for sustainable cities. It provides a quality management system that clearly sets out the basic requirements for cities to determine their sustainable development needs and strategies. This standard is supported by other standards in the ISO 37100 family offering more specific information, structures and measures. Together, they provide a toolkit of smart practices for managing governance services, data and systems across the city in a collaborative and digitally enabled way.

Cycling on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, Germany.
The words “smart” and “sustainable” are very commonly used. What is the difference as they relate to cities?

These buzzwords can sometimes lead to confusion. Broadly speaking, smart cities rely on useful and appropriate information to help them effectively manage their resources and plan their future development. By contrast, sustainable cities have plans and programmes in place to cover their social, economic and environmental impacts. Cities must evaluate their resilience in the face of an increasing population without negatively affecting the needs of their citizens in the future. In both definitions, human well-being remains at the heart of all these considerations.

The standards of ISO/TC 268 will make a defining contribution to all 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, one of which is specifically dedicated to cities. Voluntary standards are powerful tools to help ensure that cities continue to create jobs and prosperity without putting undue strain on the land and resources.

You’ve been known to emphasize the importance of statistics…

Well, all cities need alignment and investment, but they can only do this by learning more about sustainable development through case studies and benchmarking best practices. With strong communication and reporting, cities can measure, monitor and evaluate against their key targets.

ISO recognizes that most of the world’s resources are concentrated in cities.

We all agree that it is important to have the same terms and definitions as well as key performance indicators (KPIs) that are defined and understood by all cities. Statistics need to be standardized in much the same way. People, and that includes city dwellers, trust standards and thus statistics from standardized measurements. Statistics and ways of measuring performance can be achieved through consensus, best-practice examples and by combining the latest technology available.

Measurements and statistics can then be used by cities to compare their performance with other cities and identify potential opportunities for improvement. They can also apply these against successful case studies, best practices and common indicators, which allow future performance targets to be set and measured. It’s all about having a common understanding and common indicators that result in common value.

Let’s also not forget that a continuous improvement loop is always needed. Situations change, and cities need to plan and respond to them. Our ISO standards use quality management throughout the entire process. It goes as follows: identify the vision, make the decisions, plan your programmes, implement those programmes and check on the results. Then ask yourself: “Did we deliver?”

What are the main challenges you have faced?
Aerial view of two yellow trams crossing on a main city square.

There are so many countries participating in the standards work. At first, it can seem a little difficult to work out what a city in Africa, for instance, might have in common with a city in Europe. Our challenge is to consider these differences in such a way that we can define the prevailing pain points and work on them together.

Our standards need to be relevant to all cities around the world. Despite the challenges, we have extremely good collaborators and cities are already reporting very positive results. In France, the standards of ISO/TC 268 now form the basis of the standards required for public and governmental sustainable development projects; they are also recognized across the European Union through a dedicated Smart City Guidance Package.

What future plans are there for ISO/TC 268?

We are receiving feedback from the cities that are already using our standards. Their support helps us identify the gaps we need to fill, and to revise and improve our existing standards.

It’s always going to be a long-term vision: How do we want our cities to look ten, twenty or thirty years from now? That might seem like a long time ahead, but we need to be paving the way for the implementation of sustainable and smart solutions now. The city of 2050 is the city that we’re already planning for today.

After dealing with such complex issues facing cities around the world, what do you do to unwind?

Good question! First, let me say that I’m very fortunate to work with such talented and nice people in ISO/TC 268, but when I do need to relax, nature, music and my wife are the best antidotes. I’m very lucky, she’s a professional relaxation therapist!

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Elizabeth Gasiorowski-Denis
Editor-in-Chief of ISOfocus