Tag Archives: UN

How to Build ‘Cities of the Future’

Our cities are built brick by brick, often using construction practices that have evolved little in the last century and giving little regard to proper planning and sustainable development.

Yet innovations and new technologies have produced progressive means of constructing the built environment to ensure that urban infrastructure, once in place, can make a valuable contribution to the workings of a city for centuries to come, withstanding many changes in use and function. Good urban infrastructure needs to anticipate change, be built to adapt and to be resilient.

The Global Agenda Council on the Future of Cities has detailed 10 of the most important urban innovations that will shape the future of our cities. At the heart of these innovations is an understanding that the cities of the future need to be flexible and adaptive on a day-to-day level – doing more with less space and resources – and, in the long term, be able to adapt to the powerful mega-trends placing heavy pressures on the urban environment. The three key trends that will shape the agenda of cities for years to come are: demographic shifts, a changing environment and resource scarcity and technology and business model disruption.

Demographic shifts

The UN reports that the global population will rise to 9.6 billion by 2050. Nearly all of this population growth will occur in cities – it estimated that 66% of the global population will live in urban areas by 2050. Most of these cities are located in the global South and, at present, lack the capacity and resources to ensure that growth is sustainable.

Unchecked urban population growth can lead to vast unsustainable urban sprawl, or the creation of dense slums. Cities will need to accommodate more people without increasing their urban footprint; increasing density, without decreasing quality of life. This can be achieved with reprogrammable living space such as MIT’s reprogrammable apartments or by building structures with multiple uses in mind, ensuring that they can be used for different purposes at different times of the day or week, such as reusing office space or schools for social or leisure activities during the evenings or at the weekend.

In the developed world, years of declining birth rates and longer life expectancy are leading to a rapidly aging population, with its own set of challenges. The effects of this demographic shift are already being felt in countries including Japan, Italy, Germany and Norway, with pressure being put on cities to rethink the provision of urban infrastructure, embrace universal design and reuse and repurpose buildings and infrastructure that is becoming obsolete.

See also: Moving Closer to the ‘Smart City’  

This trend is also increasing the demand for health and social services and the provision of housing that will meet the needs of people during their 100-year life. Tokyo is at the forefront of this trend; an estimated 200 schools per year are closing, and the city is repurposing them as adult education centers, senior homes and places of leisure and exercise for the elderly. Cities in other advanced economies need to prepare for this eventuality.

Changing environment and resource scarcity

The world’s climate over the next century is likely to shift dramatically. Increased occurrences of extreme weather events, desertification and rising sea levels all threaten the world’s cities. Fifteen of the world’s 20 largest cities are located in coastal zones threatened by sea-level rise and storm surges. To prepare for these challenges, cities need to be resilient, building coping mechanisms into their urban fabric. If well-designed, infrastructure that protects against high-impact climate events can also be flexible, serving a valuable purpose for the entirety of its life. Projects such as New York’s Dry Line, or Roskilde’s flood defense skatepark combine resilient infrastructure with a space for community leisure activities.

The urban planner Patrick Abercrombie, who created London’s post-World War II master plan, reserved its hinterland as a “green belt” aimed to preserve the countryside, while also providing nourishment to the city. Today, the city’s greenbelt is global, and water and resource scarcity in any region can easily disrupt the delicate balance between a city and its worldwide network of production.

The advent of urban farming will help to alleviate this risk. Urban farms are largely hydroponic – feeding water and nutrients directly to the roots – and closed-loop, meaning they use as much as 90% less water. They can be placed anywhere and stacked vertically, making them as much as 100 times more productive per hectare. By 2050, the world’s population will demand 70% more food than is consumed today; urban farms will help cities to feed their growing populations, creating a vertical green belt, adding flexibility into the food system with guaranteed yields and low-risk supply chains.

Cities consume vast amounts of all resources, from the materials of which they are constructed, to the demands of their citizens for products and packaging. Cities cannot continue to follow a take/make/waste pattern, filling landfills and depleting finite resources, and need to move toward a more circular economy. Systems of reuse and recycling need to be in place to smartly deal with waste, and building materials themselves need to be designed for reuse. The European Union program Buildings as Material Banks creates reusable buildings that store and record the value of their composite materials over their lifetime. Others use up-cycled materials such as shipping containers to provide low-cost, flexible housing to students and young professionals.

Technology and business model disruption

Cities are economic engines. According to McKinsey, 600 cities are responsible for 60% of global GDP. The healthy economy of a city sustains its population through salaries and entrepreneurial activity. However, all economic activity is subject to disruption; shifts in business models can create opportunities, but cites from Detroit to Liverpool have seen the possible negative effects of industrial change.

In the fourth industrial revolution, we are likely to see the biggest industrial shifts in a generation, changing the way we work and live in the urban environment. Innovations such as 3D printing, artificial intelligence and next-generation robotics will shift models of work and production in ways that are impossible to predict. Cities and businesses need to be adaptive. Google, a company at the forefront of this change, anticipates that its business model could shift dramatically. The company’s new Mountain View, CA, headquarters is adapted for this, a series of giant domes under which any number of structures, fit for any purpose, can be quickly assembled; making it completely reprogrammable for any eventual use. Cities need to take a similar approach to construction.

See also: Can Insurance Become Utility, Like Electricity?  

The sharing economy can be defined as the distribution and sharing of excess goods and services between individuals, largely enabled by modern technology. This new model is having a deep impact on the urban environment. Many consumers are moving away from ownership and toward access, renting access to mobility, entertainment or space.

Companies of the sharing economy naturally add a layer of flexibility into the city. Airbnb, for example, allows people to rent out their apartments when they are out of town, easily increasing a city’s capacity to accommodate influxes of visitors as demand increases. As the sharing economy develops, similar companies will enable cities to turbocharge their efficiency, ensuring that no excess capacity is wasted.

Humanity faces the mammoth task of adding more than two billion people to the urban population before 2050, the equivalent of creating a city the size of London every month for the next two decades. To house, feed and employ these people, cities will have to do more with less. They have to be smarter, greener and more efficient. They will have to innovate.

An Opportunity in Resilience Analytics?

In my post last month, I discussed why the insurtech revolution should be focusing more on addressing the protection gap, thereby growing the pool of insurable risks, rather than figuring out how best to eat the insurance incumbents’ lunch.

At a conference in February, Tom Bolt of Lloyd’s noted that an increase of 1% in insurance penetration can lead to a 13% drop in uninsured losses and a 22% drop in taxpayers’ share of the loss. The key to increasing penetration is lowering distribution costs to make products more affordable. That is where insurtech can come in. Many recent startups have business models looking to tackle the excessive intermediation costs that exist in the current insurance value chain.

Sadly, when a catastrophe strikes areas of low insurance penetration, those communities not only suffer from the difficulties of having to seek aid—which can take three-plus months to reach affected zones—but also face the prospect of a significant drag to economic growth. It is unsurprising, therefore, that governments in vulnerable countries are keen to improve their “resilience” and seek solutions to better prepare themselves for catastrophes by working with the likes of the World Bank, the UN and the recently established Insurance Development Forum (IDF). Interestingly, AIR Worldwide announced recently the Global Resilience Practice, which will be led by former U.S. presidential adviser Dr. Daniel Kaniewski.

See also: InsurTech Need Not Be a Zero-Sum Game  

As well as providing low-cost distribution models in new markets, a related opportunity I see for insurtech is working together with the insurance industry in the growing field of resilience analytics. As Robert Muir-Wood recently pointed out on RMS’ blog, the claims data gathered by insurers — which historically has been used for the pricing and managing of risk — have the potential to also be used to reduce the potential for damage before the event. Insurtech companies could work with government authorities to pool this claims data, leveraging it with other key data from external sources and then using the results to influence urban resilience strategies. There are inevitable doubts over the willingness of insurers to share their data, but agile and thoughtful startups are likely better placed to be able to find insights in a world of abundant unstructured data than the more technologically challenged incumbents.

The current size of the protection gap is a failure of the insurance industry, and any companies that can help address it will not only be first movers in new markets but will also be adding social value and much-needed resilience to vulnerable communities all over the world.

Why to Worry About the Law of The Sea

The seizure on March 26, 2015, of the Marshall Islands-flagged Maersk Tigris cargo ship by Iranian forces off its coast at the Strait of Hormuz on a years-old dispute over containers is something that should get everyone’s attention. What is even more troubling than the seizure of a commercial vessel is that Maersk had agreed to settle the dispute. Iran is appealing for more money in the courts, but, rather than let the courts proceed, took the matter into its own hands.

Understand that one fifth of the world’s oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz in a given year.

We know that piracy, especially off the east coast of Africa and in the vast Asian Pacific, has become a major concern to shippers. So much so that Rolls Royce has announced that one of the benefits of its proposed crewless ship is that it would be much easier to take down pirates, because there will not be the crew hostages to deal with, as there are today. However, if nations begin to seize ships outside the law and with as flimsy an excuse as Iran has in the Maersk case, this is cause for alarm.

While the U.S. will be escorting U.S.-flagged vessels in the area of the seizure, our military fleet is simply inadequate to serve all potential hot spots. Even with escort protection, the risks of confrontation accelerate. Confrontation can include blockades, using vessels to buzz or interfere with navigation or otherwise harass shipping and their escorts, firing shots across the bow, ramming and even firing on vessels and their escorts. Recall that the U.S. entered World War I and World War II and increased our presence in Vietnam as the result of the Germans’ sinking of the Lusitania, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the very questionable U.S.-North Vietnamese Gulf of Tonkin incident—all military events involving the sea.

Not all military maneuvers on the seas are necessarily problematic. The U.S. Coast Guard has become adept in hunting down drug traffickers and human smugglers in U.S. waters and cooperates with Central and South American countries to interdict traffickers in the greater Gulf of Mexico. However, these small ships, submarines and speedboats are not like the huge container vessels that large shipping conglomerates operate worldwide.

Even so, there are times when even larger ships pose challenges to countries and militaries, generally for contraband, drugs or illegal shipments of weapons. In 2013, Panamanian officials detained the North Korean-flagged Chong Chon Gang en route from Cuba to North Korea on suspicion of drug trafficking. The investigation uncovered cargo that looked like weapon systems subject to international sanctions against delivery to North Korea. The Panamanian Government consulted with the UN, and the dispute was resolved. In this incident, international law was followed. In the Iranian incident, it is much less clear that its military had the authority to seize the Maersk ship over a payment dispute already in the court system under appeal.

The Shipping Juggernaut

The World Shipping Council reported that world container shipping alone in 2009 produced an annual economic contribution of:

  • Direct gross output or GDP Contribution — $ 183.3 Billion
  • Direct capital expenditure — $ 29.4 Billion
  • Direct jobs — 4.2 million
  • Compensation to those employees $ 27.2 Billion

The global supply matrix relies heavily on container and bulk shipping to move raw materials, parts and components and complete product between producers, suppliers and customers to virtually every large-vessel navigable port in the world. Some of the biggest container vessels can carry 11,000 containers, and the loss of even one could strain world marine insurance resources. The increase in traffic and size of vessels has led to major efforts to widen the Panama and Suez canals. The Port of Long Beach 20-mile Alameda Corridor went online in 2002 to speed rail traffic under the streets of Los Angeles to remove a major bottleneck to the U.S.’s busiest container port. We can only speculate that one reason why Warren Buffett purchased the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad in 2009 was because he saw the spectacular increase in container rail traffic from ports on all U.S. coasts to all parts of the interior.

The modern insurance industry has its roots and owes even much of its policy language to marine insurance beginning with Lloyds during the first tranche of globalization when Britain and other European powers needed to cover commercial trade to and from their vast worldwide colonies. The ocean is big business.

Law of the Seas Doctrine

Who owns the sea? We all do. However, after World War II, many countries led by the U.S. increased the size of their territorial waters for security, fishing and other purposes. In 1967, the UN decided it was time to convene a group to develop an international law of the sea. Unlike trade agreements, the international law of the sea is a framework not for tariffs, taxes and other international economic activities, but for how we may use the sea as our collective heritage. We might compare the international law of the sea to the rules promulgated by the National Parks Service for what people can and cannot do while visiting, working in or otherwise using the natural resources of Yellowstone Park.

The convention can be summarized as follows: The seas are open and free to all states, coastal or landlocked. Passage shall be free and unhindered. The sea is the heritage of all humanity, which includes conservation and protection of these resources from pollution or overfishing or other adverse activities. The seas shall be used for peaceful purposes. Ships and states have a duty to render assistance to vessels and persons in trouble. Cooperation is expected to repress piracy.

These are some of the key provisions relevant to the discussion of the Iranian seizure:

  • 12-nautical-mile limit on territorial waters.
  • “Ships and aircraft of all countries are allowed ‘transit passage’ through straits used for international navigation; States bordering the straits can regulate navigational and other aspects of passage”
  • “All other states have freedom of navigation and overflight in the EEZ [Exclusive Economic Zone], as well as freedom to lay submarine cables and pipelines”
  • “Land-locked and geographically disadvantaged states have the right to participate on an equitable basis in exploitation of an appropriate part of the surplus of the living resources of the EEZ’s of coastal states of the same region or sub-region; highly migratory species of fish and marine mammals are accorded special protection”
  • “All states enjoy the traditional freedoms of navigation, overflight, scientific research and fishing on the high seas; they are obliged to adopt, or cooperate with other states in adopting measures to manage and conserve living resources”
  • “Land-locked states have the right of access to and from the sea and enjoy freedom of transit through the territory of transit states”
  • “State parties are obliged to settle by peaceful means their disputes concerning the interpretation or application of the convention”
  • “Disputes can be submitted to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea established under the convention, to the International Court of Justice, or to arbitration. Conciliation is also available, and, in certain circumstances, submission to it would be compulsory. The tribunal has exclusive jurisdiction over deep seabed mining disputes.” (United-Nations 2012)

Iran is a 1982 signatory of the International Law of the Sea and included this statement:

In accordance with article 310 of the Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran seizes the opportunity at this solemn moment of signing the Convention, to place on the records its “understanding” in relation to certain provisions of the Convention…that only states parties to the Law of the Sea Convention shall be entitled to benefit from the contractual rights created therein. [including] The right of Transit passage through straits used for international navigation…The notion of “Exclusive Economic Zone” (Part V). – All matters regarding the International Seabed Area and the Concept of “Common Heritage of mankind” (Part XI)…In the light of customary international law, the provisions of article 21, read in association with article 19 (on the Meaning of Innocent Passage) and article 25 (on the Rights of Protection of the Coastal States), recognize (though implicitly) the rights of the Coastal States to take measures to safeguard their security interests including the adoption of laws and regulations regarding, inter alia the requirements of prior authorization for warships willing to exercise the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea…The right referred to in article 125 regarding access to and from the sea and freedom of transit of Land-locked States is one which is derived from mutual agreement of States concerned based on the principle of reciprocity.

However, Iran included this provision which may have led to its thinking it could lawfully detain the Maersk vessel.

Furthermore, with regard to “Compulsory Procedures Entailing Binding Decisions” the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, while fully endorsing the Concept of settlement of all international disputes by peaceful means, and recognizing the necessity and desirability of settling, in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and cooperation, issues relating to the interpretation and application of the Convention on the Law of the Sea, at this time will not pronounce on the choice of procedures pursuant to articles 287 and 298 and reserves its positions to be declared in due time.”

We can expect that there will be incidents that involve questionable cargo subject to international restrictions and conventions, such as drugs, piracy, and prohibited weapons. We can expect that some of these interdictions will involve questions of fact that will be disputed or will later be found to be the result of false or misleading information or observation. However, disputes over cargo payments or other commercial activities whether between commercial ventures or states and commercial ventures deserve to be heard in arbitration procedures, courts of law or other internationally sanctioned dispute resolution venues.

Global trade has become too important for individual states to begin regulating the high seas on their own. There are many places of narrow passage like the Strait of Hormuz that border on many countries. We need to be especially vigilant in these areas and all agree to this specific International Law of the Sea provision: “Ships and aircraft of all countries are allowed ‘transit passage’ through straits used for international navigation; States bordering the straits can regulate navigational and other aspects of passage.”

We need also to prevent harassment or other restrictive activities so that border states in these narrow straits only introduce navigation and rights of passage regulations that are consistent with legitimate safety and security concerns. Slowages, frequent boardings, detentions and other activities that unnecessarily and intentionally restrain trade should be vigorously protested and prosecuted by international bodies and global industry.