Will technology solve the challenge of rising global population?

The world’s population is predicted to climb by 40% and move beyond the 10bn mark in the next 35 years. It’s a scary thought not least given that 35 years ago the figure stood at just 4.5bn and 35 years before that, at the end of World War II, it was only 2.5bn. 

In just three generations we have witnessed staggering population growth on the planet - one of three “universal challenges” identified by Atkins chief executive Uwe Krueger as critical threats to mankind alongside resource shortages and climate change.

“The challenge isn’t just about the number of people – it’s also about where they’ll be and what they’ll be doing and expecting,” Krueger pointed out in his recent Energy Efficiency: Engineering Smart Cities of the Future lecture to the UAE-UK Business Council’s Energy Working Group.

“Urbanisation is the grand challenge because of the drive towards city living and what we need to do to accommodate means thinking about energy needs, water, waste, the environment,” he said highlighting United Nations’ figure suggesting that 86% of people in the GCC region of the Middle East would be living in cities by 2020. 

And the solutions, he added, must be holistic to be sustainable. 

“The challenge isn’t just about the number of people – it’s also about where they’ll be and what they’ll be doing and expecting”

Uwe Krueger, chief executive, Atkins

One of many critical problems to solve is of course how the energy demands of such a population will be met. Clearly, as Krueger pointed out, there is unlikely to be a single solution emerging as the panacea. 

The future is more likely to see a mixture of solutions ranging from continued use of existing and new fossil fuel reserves combined with the adoption of new low carbon and renewable sources. 

Yet whatever this mix, it will rely on investment in and adoption of new smart technologies. First to make the existing infrastructure more efficient and to extend the life of assets through enhanced management techniques. Second to drive the cleaner, sustainable infrastructure needed for the future.

Krueger points to the offshore oil and gas industry which has invested heavily to in this first scenario to extend the use of existing infrastructure and allow marginal fields to be developed economically. 

And second he highlighted the Masdar project in Abu Dhabi as “a shining example of clean tech ambition” where “technology rules” in the shape of electrical transport fleets, computer controlled buildings, smart infrastructure and clean energy.

“Investment is pooling behind these new technologies, energy in particular, with around $1.7 billion under investment in international renewable projects,” he explained pointing out that this embryonic smart technology is now being adopted, adapted and transferred around the globe.. 

But such smart technology will be most evident and critical when it comes to shaping the way the growing global – and urban – population uses and reduces energy. Here we are talking about smart metering, smart avoidance of peak demand and smart building management systems that actively monitor real time usage and cut energy use will be essential if we are to prevent brown or blackouts on the scale seen recently in India.

“In one scheme we have helped to invest £200M on 9000 energy efficiency projects in over 600 organisations to save 35,000 tonnes of CO2 a year and £750M in avoided energy costs,” he said. “The model is interesting because the capital costs get covered by the energy savings. The paybacks can be phenomenal and the technologies proven.”

Establishing and driving this new vision for the future still remains a crucial challenge as nations and cities wrestle with the realities of growing demand, falling finances and a status quo that so often disguises as the easy low risk low cost option. 

“It’s up to us to create the future we want,” said Krueger. “It is about creating holistic policies that deal with challenges in way that promotes growth but not at the expense of our long term success – whether that is measured in financial terms, people terms or the environment.”

And of course that means it is about persuading the politicians and the public to embrace the often ambitious, more difficult option for a longer term gain. 

“These arguments cannot be won by political rhetoric alone, it needs experts to interrogate the plans, providing people with objective evidence,” he added. “Winning the public argument is absolutely vital in order to give the political leaders the license to be ambitious!”

The text and slides from Dr Krueger's lecture to the UAE-UK Business Council’s Energy Working Group can be downloaded right

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