A crystal clear vision of the cities of the future

Dublin has a lot of work to do to make itself a green city, and the Crystal exhibition in London has a lot of ideas on how to build a sustainable future

Dublin's bid to become European Green Capital in 2015 looks a little threadbare in a multi-city comparison at the Crystal, a new showcase for urban sustainability in London's Docklands. Way down the list in 21st place, Dublin's effort comes last under the transport heading, behind Belgrade.

The Crystal, a useful and exciting initiative by Siemens, claims to be the world's largest exhibition looking at sustainable development in an urban context. This is increasingly important because more than half of humanity already lives in cities and that proportion is expected to rise to 70 per cent by 2050.

“Cities now consume about 75 per cent of the world’s energy and emit around 80 per cent of all greenhouse gases. The fight against climate change will therefore be won or lost in cities, so it’s crucial we make our urban habitats more efficient, cleaner and better to live in,” says Siemens.

The German engineering multinational, which employs 360,000 people worldwide, is "aligning its business with megatrends" such as the growth of cities. So it set up an urban-development division under Martin Powell, former environmental adviser to London mayor Boris Johnson. He is based at the Crystal.


Designed by Wilkinson Eyre Architects, it is located at the Royal Docks, right beside the cable-car line to North Greenwich and close to London City Airport. Johnson hailed it as “the heart of a brand new Green Enterprise District . . . a vibrant, international hub incubating dozens of low-carbon businesses”.

Its crystalline form represents “the many facets of sustainability and the complexity of urban life”, and draws inspiration from the Crystal Palace, centrepiece of London’s Great Exhibition in 1851, where visitors were dazzled by the latest technology from the Industrial Revolution.

The sharply-angled building, which cost ¤35 million, is at the forefront of green technology, with rainwater harvesting, grey-water recycling, solar thermal panels and charging points for electric vehicles. Using 50 per cent less energy than an office block of the same size, its performance is shown on a real-time digital display.

Much of the exhibition, in 10 zones, is interactive. After watching a dramatic film on cities and climate change, you can check the carbon footprint of your own journey to the site.

Ours was relatively high as we had travelled by taxi, plane and taxi to get there, racking up 96kg of CO2 emissions per person en route.

The most captivating exhibit is a big-screen SimCity-type game (best played by a group) in which you are invited to make crucial decisions about the future of a notional city – such as investing in a metro or urban motorways – and then see the impacts in terms of air pollution, traffic congestion or quality of life.

The term “transport bolognaise” was coined by the Crystal’s exhibition designers to characterise the spaghetti-like nature of urban transport, which is the most crucial thing to get right because the shape of any city is determined by how people get around.

Case studies from cities around the world highlight innovative ideas. At the flick of a digital switch, you can select any continent and compare the environmental performances of cities: Alexandria, Lagos and Johannesburg or, closer to home, Copenhagen (the number one “green city”), Brussels and Dublin.

Home truths are graphically illustrated. For example, only 1 per cent of “wastewater” is waste. The rest is wasted water, all of which was expensively treated to make it potable. There’s also a league table on water use, with Shanghai using 411 litres per day compared to London’s 158 litres per day.

A final gallery, Future Life, invites visitors to imagine how cities might look in 2050. They're likely to be much more automated and interactive, with green roofs and wind turbines on tall buildings, sensors everywhere, and electric cars on the streets – like a 21st-century version of Fritz Lang 's Metropolis .

The auditorium, a red-painted blob rising through two floors, is in regular use. On the day we were there, it was hosting a large group of facilities managers talking about how to manage “greener” buildings. Recent visitors included a group of transition-year students from Ireland, organised by Comhairle na nÓg.

Above it is Siemens’ Centre of Competence for Cities, which aims to provide “thought leadership” in 63 countries. It is “delivering business” for the company, says Powell. “We’re not an NGO, we’re a business, but I think we give an honest and accurate view of the technology available for smart cities of the future.”

Frank McDonald

Frank McDonald

Frank McDonald, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former environment editor