Do we need a new mindset for Smart City & Living?

The planning of our built world must evolve to be climate compliant. The climate will dictate the building plan of the future. Concepts of sustainability and the circular economy will become decisive planning factors. The use of resources and energy will guide the building of the future. Technology development can only emerge successfully and sustainably with people

The change in the climate is undisputed, and so is man as the polluter. However, it is by no means a matter of apportioning blame, but rather of reacting to it in a way that is as climate-friendly as possible. We have the greatest leverage in building, i.e. we can plan, build and operate our buildings sustainably. We can easily achieve political goals such as “net zero” if we manage to replace short-term cost thinking with long-term quality thinking.

The easiest way to predict the future is to invent it.[1]

When high science is asked for the solution to life, the universe and all the rest and comes up with the number 42 by means of quantum computing, that may well be correct, but what exactly was the question? (Excerpt from the novel: “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”.

The global 17 sustainability goals[2] must be implemented in direct relation to our buildings. Sustainability and the circular economy, but equally energy efficiency and resource efficiency, must be measurable, calculable and controllable. Sustainability and the circular economy must be the guiding themes from the planning stage through the construction and operation of a building to revitalisation or recycling. Regardless of the measurement method used, whether SNBS, sustainability compass, greenhouse gas emission or CO2 management the digital twin can contain and manage the right data. New technologies such as blockchain, AR/VR and RFID can support this development. Digital building forms the methodological basis for a more sustainable future.

A new energy management concept needs to be developed. Away from fossil fuels towards renewable and climate-friendly energies. SFOE concepts such as “District Heating[3]” are changing the supply networks of buildings and complementing energy autonomy. However, today we are able to build high-rise buildings without heating, so the discussion about heating energy is fundamentally changing.

Resource efficiency is taking on a leading role in Switzerland. In terms of materials, the term “urban mining” is gaining ground, which means that our buildings (houses and infrastructure) form a storehouse of raw materials. Historically, people have always transformed disused buildings into new ones, and this is still the case today. Movements such as “material as service”, which are run by platforms such as Salza or Madaster, to name just two, start precisely there. The few renewable raw materials, first and foremost wood, are increasingly finding their way into buildings and bridges. This achieves two goals: the use of renewable raw materials and the storage ofCO2. The latter effect is disputed by certain circles, since the storage only applies over the life cycle, but there are enough examples of wooden buildings that are in use for several centuries.

“building as software”

If we think and plan buildings, or generally speaking structures, like software, then we make it possible to integrate changing circumstances practically in real time.

Experience has taught us many things. Corona and the invasion of Ukraine changed the world significantly from one moment to the next. Suddenly there are hundreds of thousands of square metres of empty office space in cities and suddenly we have a need for housing for hundreds of thousands of people. Everything we build must be able to meet this flexibility of use, i.e. accommodate changing forms of living and working. But this can only be achieved if our buildings are designed like software. Based on a platform, modularity in furnishings and spatial design, parametrics in the supporting structure and programming in the functions, separation of “core and shell”[4]. Imagine if the use of a building could be changed by doing a software update and nothing had to be physically changed. Mind you, this is somewhat visionary, but the way forward is undoubtedly correct.

The building as a profitable investment or as a supporting infrastructure?

Today, there is often a mismatch between speculators and renters, i.e. a profit-oriented investment and the costs that are passed on to the tenants. A building must support the requirements of the users, i.e. a hospital must promote the healing process, a flat must support the recovery phase, a school building must promote learning and make it accessible to all, a building must offer facilities that make it possible to reconcile work and family life, and so on. These overarching requirements must be taken into account by building authorities.

“Veg and the City”

The young Zurich company is re-establishing lost connections to food. It is about urban gardens and food concepts for future generations. The production and use of our food has a direct impact on our lives in cities and on our health. The way we produce and consume food is a reflection of our times. The resources of soil and water are finite and their growth is not limitless. For the building industry, it is a must to integrate “urban gardening” and “urban farming” in neighbourhood and urban development. It is time for a change of perspective – towards a cycle-oriented lifestyle!

Biodiversity is part of a liveable city

As climate change progresses, urban housing faces new challenges. Smog, particulate matter, overheating in summer, energy costs, noise pollution and little recreational space lead to a decline in the quality of living and life. One solution to this are green facades (see BFH-AHB-TI research CfP2021, towards green cities). They open up four potential effects:

  1. Economy: Ex: Heat insulation, cooling, moisture balance, shading, value enhancement
  2. Ecology: e.g. city temperature, microclimate, reduction of particulate matter, biodiversity
  3. Aesthetics: Ex: cityscape, city colours, urban structure, identification
  4. Psychology: e.g. increase in quality of life, environmental-psychological significance

In order to inspire a broad audience for the topic, Prof. Thomas Rohner developed an augmented reality app that makes it possible to simulate a building with a greened façade.

“Call to action” for planning and the building industry:

The most difficult thing is to achieve measures to improve a situation by restricting people’s individuality. It is necessary to find solutions that change the consciousness but minimally restrict the citizens. This sounds like an insurmountable task, but it is not that difficult, because the effectiveness of a measure should be the decisive factor.


“It is significantly easier to build sustainable houses than to restrict people in their mobility.”

“It is significantly easier to use ecological and renewable building materials than to restrict meat consumption.”

“It’s significantly easier to green facades than to use energy-powered technologies for cooling, air purification and noise insulation.”

Back to simplicity or towards high-performance buildings

Opinions differ on this question. Some want a high-tech controlled house, others want as little technology as possible in their rooms. Smart home controls show that the building would not function without them, some say, swearing by concepts such as “building with the sun”, using adiabatic cooling and improving the quality of life through green facades. Others enjoy the comfort of being able to control their building and all its functions via their mobile phone. Whoever is right, building should be sustainable and people must be at the centre of developments.

What does SMART CITY & LIVING mean?

Does this mean that the smart city and our smart life is “dexterous, shrewd, enterprising but also of fashionable and strikingly exquisite elegance”? Or do the 5 letters of SMART form the abbreviation for: “specific, measurable, accepted, realistic and scheduled”?

In principle, everyone agrees: Smart City is a collective term for holistic development concepts that aim to make cities more efficient, technologically advanced, greener and socially inclusive. These concepts include technical, economic and social innovations. And: Smart cities have the potential to make a significant contribution to urban sustainability by using information and communication technology (ICT) to collect urban data and improve services and management


[1] Quote: Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

[2] Global Sustainability Goals SDG= sustainable development goals

[3] District Heating

[4] Core and Shell or Basic Structure and User Needs

Creative Commons Licence

AUTHOR: Thomas Rohner

Thomas Rohner is professor for timber construction and BIM at BFH Architecture, Wood and Construction. He researches and teaches at the Institute for Digital Construction and Wood (IdBH). Under his leadership, the tools for digital construction were developed within the Initiative Wald & Holz 4.0 (

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