A Pocketful of Promises for Smarter Cities

Stroll through any neighborhood today and you set in motion machines of every kind.

By Anthony Townsend
Research Director, Institute for the Future

Approach a building and the front door slides open. Enter an empty room and a light flicks on. Jump up and down and a thermostat fires up the air conditioner to compensate for the warming air around you. Roam at will and motion-sensing surveillance cameras slowly turn to track you. Day after day, these automatic electromechanical laborers toil at mundane and dirty jobs once done by people. As they control the world on the fringe of our awareness, the machines at times even try to control us.

Lately, these contraptions are getting even smarter. Hints of a newly sentient world are everywhere. A traffic signal sprouts a stubby antenna and takes its cue from a remote command center. The dials of an electric meter morph into electronically rendered digits, with ancient gear works being supplanted by a powerful microprocessor. The lens of a surveillance camera hides a ghost in the machine — an algorithm in the cloud analyzing its field of view for suspicious faces. But what we are seeing is only the tip of an iceberg.

The old cities of concrete, glass, and steel now conceal a vast underworld of computers and software. Linked via the Internet, these devices are stitched into a nervous system that supports the daily lives of billions of people in a world of huge and growing cities. Invisibly, they react to us, rearranging the material world in a flurry of communiqués. They dispatch packages, elevators, and ambulances. Yet, as hectic as this world of automation has become, it has a Zen-like quality, too. There’s a strange new order to things in which everything from traffic to text messages seem to flow smoothly and friction free.

That machines now run the world on our behalf is not just a technological revolution — it is a historical shift in how we build and manage cities. Not since the laying of water mains, sewage pipes, subway tracks, telephone lines, and electrical cables over a century ago have we installed such a vast and versatile new infrastructure for controlling the physical world.

This digital upgrade to our built legacy is giving rise to a new kind of city — the ‘Smart City.’ Smart Cities are places where Information Technology (IT) is wielded to address problems, both old and new. In the past, buildings and infrastructure shunted the flow of people and goods in rigid, predetermined ways.

But Smart Cities adapt on the fly by pulling readings from vast arrays of sensors that feed data into software that sees the big picture and takes action. Sensors and software optimize heating and cooling in buildings, balance the flow of electricity through the power grid, and keep transportation networks moving. Working behind the scenes within the wires and walls of the city, many times these interventions go unnoticed by humans. But other times, they get right in our face to help us solve our shared problems by urging us to make choices for the greater good. Alerts ask us to pull off the expressway to avert a jam or turn down the air conditioner to avoid a blackout — all the while maintaining a vigilant watch over our health and safety, scanning for miscreants and microbes alike.

The killer App for Smart City technologies is the survival of our species. The coming century of urbanization is humanity’s last attempt to have our cake and eat it too — to double down on industrialization by redesigning the operating system of the last century to cope with the challenges of the coming one. That’s why mayors across the globe are teaming up with the giants of the technology industry. IBM, Cisco, Siemens, Huawei, and others have crafted a seductive pitch. The same technology that fueled the expansion of global business over the last quarter-century can compute away local problems, they say. If we only let them reprogram our cities, they can make traffic jams a thing of the past. Let them replumb our infrastructure and they will efficiently convey water and power to our fingertips. Resource shortages and climate change don’t have to mean cutting back. Smart Cities can simply use technology to do more with less, taming and greening the chaos of booming cities.

Time will be the judge of these audacious promises. This is the information revolution. You are no longer just a cog in the vast machinery of the industrial revolution. You are part of the mind of the Smart City itself. And that gives you power to shape the future.

Look in your pocket — you already own a Smart-City construction kit — your smartphone. The opening up of computing power that started with the Personal Computer (PC) in the 1970s and leaped onto the Internet in the 1990s is now everywhere you look. As of 2016, smartphones are now in the hands of over 2 billion people — or nearly one-third of the people on Earth. Stop for a second and behold the engineering miracle that these handheld, networked computers represent: the CPU in a typical modern smartphone is ten times more powerful than the Cray-1 supercomputer installed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1976. Today, more than 50 percent of American mobile users own a smartphone. Countries all around the world have either already passed, or are fast approaching, the same tipping point.

A Pocketful of Promises for Smarter Cities 02

We are witnessing the birth of a new civic movement as the smartphone becomes a platform for reinventing cities from the bottom up. Every day, all across the globe, people are solving local problems by using this increasingly inexpensive consumer technology. New Apps help us locate friends, find our way, get things done, or just have fun. And smartphones are just the beginning — open-government data, open-source hardware, and free networks are powering the designs for cities of the future that are far smarter than any industry mainframe. Therefore, just as corporate engineers fan out to redesign the insides of the world’s great cities, they are discovering a grassroots transformation already at work. People are building Smart Cities in much the same way that we built the Web — one site, one App, and one click at a time.

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