Sustainable cities through the power of data

Thought leaders in the design space on how data is key to planning new cities and retrofitting old ones.

Jason Pomeroy, founder of Pomeroy Studios and an architect specialising in carbon-negative buildings, believes that society’s current mindset towards urban design needs to face some hard truths about their role in the climate crisis.

“We need to face up to the damage that we have done and not fall back into the same way of doing things,” says Prof Pomeroy. He adds that small interventions such as “self-clearing dustbins” are missing the point of using design for sustainability.

Instead, urban planners should use design to affect real change, to address the source of carbon emissions. Small interventions within the existing systems make no sense, he says.

Pomeroy was one of the speakers at the Digital Ecological: Designing For the Future of our Planet, a casual fireside chat held by the Greater Club on 26 May. Also present were Tim Stonnor, managing director of Space Syntax, and Sarah Mineko Ichioka, founder of Desire Lines.

All three of them examined how hard data and evidence can help cities plan for the future, as well as the challenges cities may face when implementing green master planning strategies.

Who our speakers are

A familiar face in Singapore’s architecture scene, Jason Pomeroy is an award-winning architect, academic, author and TV presenter. Pomeroy Studios prides itself on their “evidence-based approach”, using data to guide their carbon-neutral design principles. It is behind the transformation of the old Lakerol factory in Sweden, into a carbon-negative public housing complex.

Sarah Mineko Ichioka is a strategist, urbanist, curator and writer. She is the founder of Desire Lines, a consultancy for environmental, cultural and social impact initiatives and organisations. Ichioka is the author of Flourish: Design Paradigms for Our Planetary Emergency, a book she co-wrote with Michael Palwyn, a thought leader in regenerative design and circular economy. She is also based in Singapore.

Tim Stonnor is the managing director of Space Syntax, a London-based architectural practice and urban planner. Stonnor is an expert in the field of human behaviour patterns, designing in tandem with peoples’ movements, interactions and transactions in buildings and urban settings. He has been the managing director of Space Syntax since 1995 and has expanded the firm from its origins at University College London to a global practice.

From left to right: Sarah Mineko Ichioka, Jason Pomeroy and Tim Stonnor

What should cities avoid in their sustainable master planning efforts?

Cities need to avoid the “out with the old, in with the new” mentality, according to Ishioka.

Case in point: the overcrowded, polluted and sinking city of Jakarta is building a new capital called Nusantara, located in East Kalimantan in the island of Borneo. Critics noted that the new city may lead to the destruction of forests rich in biodiversity. Indigenous people native to the area are concerned that the new capital would endanger their cultures and way of life.

Such mentality pervades even the green movement. For instance, the mining of nickel for batteries used in electric vehicles may cause environmental devastation, as well as the use of low wage workers to extract the nickel, notes Ichiaka.

“It’s a metaphor for us humans right now, that we would just try to move on from the mess that we’ve made rather than dealing with it directly,” she says.

Making do with what we have instead

Perhaps governments could use data to “retrofit” their existing infrastructure and buildings to make them more carbon-efficient and sustainable, says Stonnor, instead of moving to a new city and repeating bad behaviours.

 “The built environment has a responsibility towards sustainability, as it produces 40 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, ” he continues. Planting trees to boost biodiversity and help to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, while introducing walkability in cities with shaded walkways, are other examples.

“Our grandparents walked a lot in their youth. Because the streets were shaded, the streets were narrow, the buildings were made of materials that absorbed heat and released it at night,” he says.

Pomeroy agrees. “Walkable cities become convenient hubs for social and cultural activity,” he says.

The Singapore Sports Hub, a 89-hectare mixed-used precinct, is an example of how walkability can enhance city spaces. Pomeroy designed the project with a loop that connects the various sports and recreation facilities. The development is filled with green spaces for visitors to exercise, eat and even indulge in some retail therapy, within a single destination.

Image courtesy of Pomeroy Studio

A duck talking to a chicken”

A silo-ed mentality often plagues the implementation of sustainable solutions. The transformation of cities requires multiple policy makers working together towards a common cause.

“People just don’t communicate enough,” says Pomeroy. “In order for us to really create truly sustainable built environments, we do need to bring the interdisciplinary approach back,” he says.

One way to cut through the noise is to present key data and statistics, such as kilogrammes of carbon dioxide or tonnage of carbon dioxide per square metre, as a way to rally stakeholders to address common issues, according to Pomeroy.

“The levelling of the playing field that could be the common language across so many communities, disciplines, sectors, countries, geographies, is the data. And that’s what I think hopefully, digitalisation will allow us to get to,” he adds.

Policy makers are already taking notice

Data-driven urban planning requires the right policies to work. For Stonnor, he believes that severe financial consequences as a result of climate change may be the turning point for governments.

“The capital markets in London are already speculating that climate change will cause the next global financial collapse”, says Stonnor. Climate change may bankrupt insurance companies, and the financial world is worried that this will snowball into a global financial catastrophe.

Stonnor believes there is a “real dawning of reality” in capital markets. “And some politicians are listening to the chatter of Wall Street. So for me, that’s very encouraging.” he says.

Climate change affects us all. The Greater Club sheds light on this urgent issue through talks and workshops led by leaders in the sustainability space. Contact us at  talktous@greater.com for more information about our membership.