The Future of Cities

The Future of Cities: smart and automated

By Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells and Alexandra Whittington, Fast Future

In the coming decades, the planet’s most heavily concentrated populations will occupy city environments where a digital blanket of sensors, devices and cloud connected data will be brought together to enhance the city living experience for all. Smart concepts will encompass all of the key elements that enable city ecosystems to function effectively; traffic control, environmental protection, the management of energy, sanitation, healthcare, security, and buildings.

Some countries have already begun implementing smart city mechanisms and, as the concepts, experiences and success stories spread, the pursuit of smart will become a key driver in the evolving future of cities as communities and economic centers.

Purpose, Engagement and Vision

In a fast-changing world, it can be hard to develop a clear future vision and strategy - when every sector is being disrupted and all our assumptions are being challenged. However, that’s exactly what we have to do. City governments have to create inclusive processes that inform citizens about the forces shaping the future and the possibilities and challenges on the horizon and then engage the population in dialogue about the kind of future we want to create. We have to explore what a livable city means to its people and be clear on how we will attract and support a constant flow of industries of the future. Alongside this we need to articulate a clear vision and direction around education, environment, public services, access to justice, city administration, and civic engagement.

A Fine Line between Observation and Surveillance

Smart cities are designed to inform decisions by capturing massive amounts of data about the population and its patterns, such as water use and traffic flows. This information gathering results in what is called big data, and it is essentially gathered via surveillance. There can also be voluntary efforts to collect information, but the ease and affordability of sensors, AI and advanced analytics in the future will mean this function can be completely automated. The data can be collated from a constantly evolving and expanding IoT - encompassing traffic lights and cameras, pollution sensors, building control systems, and personal devices – all literally feeding giant data stores held in the cloud. The ability to crunch all this data is becoming easier due to rampant growth in the use of devices algorithms, AI, and predictive software.

Singapore is a leading example of a smart city, and is constantly evolving its “city brain,” a backbone of technologies used to help control pollution, monitor traffic, allocate parking, communicate with citizens, and even issue traffic fines. The behavioral aspect is not to be overlooked. Singapore’s “brain” is attempting to modify human behavior; for example, one system rewards drivers for using recommended mapped routes, and punishes those who do not. The city is planning for 100 million “smart objects” including smart traffic lights, lamp posts, sensors, and cameras on its roadways, which will be used to monitor and enforce laws.

Always Connected

Smart cities rest on advanced technology to make sense of massive collections of information. The amount of information on the internet is expected to grow exponentially as a result of the Internet of Things (IoT). Essentially IoT means that everything (“things”) - and potentially everyone - will become beacons and data collection devices, gathering data on ambient and behavioral patterns from its surroundings and from the information it is fed. Hence, after data, the IoT is the second driving force behind the rise of smart infrastructure.

For example, a case study from India suggests that light poles along the highways can offer both smart city and connectivity solutions. In addition to helping monitor road conditions, the light poles could be fitted as high-speed data connections. Data is a critical element of the smart city/smart road future.

However, because this option will further expand the relationship between internet service providers, surveillance, and private business including advertisers, there are several issues around privacy to be considered. Certainly, the information from smart cities and roads should be used to keep citizens safe, healthy, and protected. But should companies be allowed to target users with adverts based on information collected for other purposes?

Smart Roads

Within and between the smart cities of the future, smart roads in particular are where planners can put into effect the ultra-efficient mechanisms that will characterize the modern smart city. In general, the concepts around smart cities, smart roads, and smart infrastructure are becoming less visionary and more strategic and sustainable by the day. As cities grow in size and importance to the global economy, it will be increasingly important that they adopt the most innovative and forward-thinking design and sustainability ideas. As a smart infrastructure future unfolds, three important new technologies—big data, the IoT and renewable energy—are working in tandem to transform the day-to-day.

For example, South Korea is planning an entire network of smart roads by 2020, including battery-charging stations for electric vehicles (EVs) as well as infrastructure to handle autonomous vehicles.

Sustainability

All this data and awareness will enable decisions that make the best possible use of space, fuel, energy, water, electricity, and all resources, with an emphasis on sustainability. For example, a clear priority is being able to anticipate big traffic jams and provide alternate routes to save time, fuel, and reduce impact on the city infrastructure itself. Limiting waste is a very logical outcome and benefit of the merging of big data, AI and IoT which feeds into the rise of smart infrastructure.

The smart city movement now afoot has the potential to transform the organization of people and physical objects in a way that transcends urban development as we know it. The shift to smart infrastructure is not simply fashionable or aspirational; in many ways, it appears to be a critical enabler of the future sustainability of cities. It can be argued that the future of human life on the planet rests on a smooth transition to cities that are more efficient, less wasteful, and more conscious of the impacts of the individual upon the greater good. This may include a range of new negotiations along the boundaries of freedom and privacy; for example, allowing self-driving cars to replace human drivers in the hope of preventing death and injury in auto accidents, increasing traffic efficiency and removing environmental impacts. Similarly, we might have to agree to invasive monitoring of waste generation, energy and water use in the home to reach municipal conservation goals. These are the kinds of tensions that future planners will need to wrestle with on a continuous basis.

A well thought through vision, enabled by a robust and well-executed smart city model could provide a foundation stone for the next stage of our development, where science and technology are genuinely harnessed in service of creating a very human future.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells and Alexandra Whittington are from Fast Future which publishes books from future thinkers around the world exploring how developments such as AI, robotics and disruptive thinking  could impact individuals, society and business and create new trillion-dollar sectors. Fast Future has a particular focus on ensuring these advances are harnessed to unleash individual potential and ensure a very human future. See: www.fastfuture.com


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