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Laying the foundation for building a sustainable and resilient city

Digital twinning and data mining aid Concordia University researchers in improving city planning and operation

A woman with glasses smiles while standing in front of a city scape in an office building. CITYSCAPE. Ursula Eicker, director of Concordia’s Next-Generation Cities Institute, researches strategies to erase a city’s carbon footprint, among other things. “I think people are generally more open to rethinking the way we live, work and travel now.”

Concordia’s Next-Generation Cities Institute is where blue-sky ideas about a green urban future come down to earth. The research being undertaken by the Montreal-based university’s newly minted institute is not just an academic endeavour, says its director, Ursula Eicker. “The goal is to create an impact and really help cities and industries transform to sustainability.”

Launched this past fall, the institute grew out of Prof. Eicker’s remit as Concordia’s Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Smart, Sustainable and Resilient Communities and Cities. It brings together 14 of the university’s research centres with more than 200 researchers representing a broad spectrum of disciplines in the sciences and the humanities.

“We wanted a larger structure where we could tackle various challenges in an integrated way,” Prof. Eicker says, “from the built environment and data mining to community building, design and art.” Now that the university’s researchers have combined forces, she adds, the next step is to reach out to external partners and start putting the institute’s innovations to practical use.

By the middle of this century, it’s predicted that as much as 75 per cent of the world’s population will dwell in cities, making sustainable and livable urban centres a priority. At the same time, climate change has underscored the crucial need to eliminate carbon emissions and embrace renewable energy.

Renewable energy

Prof. Eicker, who teaches in Concordia’s Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science, focuses her own research on strategies to erase a city’s carbon footprint. It ranges from integration of renewables in energy-efficient districts, developing sustainable transportation to waste conversion and creating more energy-efficient buildings.

Concordia has already been involved in designing a full-scale example of a net-zero-energy building (one that produces as much energy as it consumes) with the Varennes Library, which opened in the eponymous Montreal suburb in 2016. Currently, Prof. Eicker says, a solar-house test facility is being built on the university’s Loyola campus. At the same time, she and her colleagues are using computer modelling to expand beyond simply studying single buildings to charting the energy use of entire districts.

“We’re trying to create a digital twin for large groups of buildings that we can then optimize in terms of their energy behaviour,” Prof. Eicker explains. “If we know how many people are in a certain building in a certain district and we can quantify how much energy and water they need, how much waste they produce, then we can look at different scenarios to bring down the energy and resource consumption and supply them with renewable energy sources.”

The challenge, she says, is that there are currently no easy-to-use computer tools that can, say, map and then change the carbon emissions of a large urban area. “You need to bring together many different software methods and integrate them. We’ve been working at urban transformation strategies and then applying our software to district-scale case studies.”

A man stands in the middle of a street in a wintry suburban neighbourhood. BLUE SKIES. Professor Nizar Bouguila of the Institute for Information Systems Engineering executes blue-sky ideas on how to ‘green’ urban areas. He is currently working on smart building applications that use sensors to collect data on the people who live in them and modify the heating, lighting and environmental factors to accommodate them.

Smart homes

A lot of research is also going into smart homes that manage energy using the branch of artificial intelligence known as machine learning. That’s where Nizar Bouguila comes in. The award-winning, Tunisian-born professor, who works at the Concordia Institute for Information Systems Engineering, has recently turned his expertise in data science and machine-learning techniques to help devise more energy-efficient buildings.

Prof. Bouguila, in collaboration with Prof. Eicker and Dr. Manar Amayri from France’s Grenoble Institute of Technology, has been working on building applications that use sensors to collect data on inhabitants and modify the heating, lighting and environmental factors to accommodate them. “Now we are also trying to recognize the activities of a person in a building by using non-obtrusive sensors,” Prof. Bouguila says. That would allow the building’s system to tailor its energy use to the activity. “If, say, they are doing some kind of sport, it could improve the ventilation for their comfort.”

Prof. Bouguila’s work in data mining – extracting patterns from large amounts of data – is also coming into play with another energy-saving application. It involves load forecasting or predicting the electricity load needed for a specific building, as well as detecting and interpreting anomalies. “If we see a deviation in the forecast, we want to be able to detect whether this means there is a problem,” he says, “such as the malfunction of one of the appliances in that particular house.”

A project around waste management – the development of a smart bin – is also gaining traction as a result of data mining, machine learning and sensor technology. The bin will have a mobile app to provide waste-sorting instructions to users and optimization of placement using sensors to detect the traffic in the area as well as its fill-level. The plan is to install the bins on the Concordia campus and public spaces around the city to conduct on-the-ground research.

The developers raise the questions, such as, ‘What do we do about construction material waste? Can we reuse it?’ They’re looking for our help with these real-life problems.’

Professor Ursula Eicker, Canada Excellence Research Chair, Smart, Sustainable and Resilient Communities and Cities, Concordia University

Green neighbourhood

Prof. Eicker, who was previously the scientific director of the Research Centre for Sustainable Energy Technology at the Stuttgart University of Applied Sciences in her native Germany, took up her chair at Concordia in the summer of 2019. Since then, she’s been getting up to speed on the Montreal community and has already found a business-sector ally for the Next-Generation Cities Institute. GI Quo Vadis, a local real-estate developer that specializes in restoring and repurposing historic properties, has a sustainable mandate that fits perfectly with the institute.

“I wanted to be part of it,” says company president and founder Natalie Voland. “I think what they’re doing is ground-breaking.” In fact, GI Quo Vadis has worked with Concordia in the past – “They like to use our buildings as testing grounds for their research,” Voland says – so she tapped the institute to contribute to a civic master plan for redeveloping a large industrial section in the Montreal borough of Lachine.

The borough wants to turn the section into an éco-quartier, or green neighbourhood, that will meet Montreal’s stringent new climate goals. “We took the whole institute and [studied] the area to figure out what we could do,” Voland says. Prof. Eicker led the initiative, which saw groups tackle issues around building and construction, renewable energy, waste management, transportation and green spaces. Their input will help shape the final project.

The institute would like to establish more such partnerships and Prof. Eicker thinks industry does too. “In fact, it’s the developers who often raise the questions, such as, ‘What do we do about construction material waste? Can we reuse it?’ They’re looking for our help with these real-life problems.”

Pandemic disruptor

Urban planning was thrown a curveball last year with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, but if there’s a silver lining, it’s that it has forced a serious reconsideration of the way we live in cities.

“It’s been such a disruption for everybody’s lives, that I think people are generally more open to rethinking the way we live, work and travel now,” Prof. Eicker says. She notes how the pandemic has raised awareness of the need for more urban green space and fast-tracked developments like the extensive bike lanes added to Montreal, Toronto and other cities this summer. “It’s brought a bit more urgency to the research we’re doing,” she says. “Hopefully, it will lead to a faster route to sustainability in the long run.”

This article was produced in conjunction with Globe Content Studio.

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