A Thought Probe Series on Tomorrow’s Population, Big Data, and Personalized Predictive Analytics: Part 4, What Lies Ahead?

Stephen DeAngelis

May 17, 2013

To get a glimpse of what lies ahead for smart cities, one need only to look to Singapore. As Mark Fischetti reported last year, “LIVE Singapore uses real-time data recorded by myriad communications devices, microcontrollers and sensors to analyze the pulse of the city, telling residents how they can reach their homes fastest, reduce their neighborhood’s energy consumption and find a taxi when a rainstorm hits.” [“The Smartest Cities Will Use People as Their Sensors,” Scientific American, 17 April 2011] The following short video, created by MIT’s SENSEable City lab, gives you a glimpse of the future.

Looking to the future, Jemima Kiss, writes, “From transport to entertainment, work to education, our lives are already being transformed by high-speed internet that will help create the fully wired city. Within 10 years, faster, comprehensive, wired and wireless networks will not only become the norm, they will become free, says Gerd Leonhard, chief executive of the business thinktank The Futures Agency. The reason? The enormous benefits to government and education.” [“City design: A digital revolution,” The Guardian, 2012] While I agree that networks will continue to grow in importance, especially in urban environments, I’m not as sanguine as Kiss that ubiquitous connectivity will be free a decade from now. As connectivity increases, concerns over privacy issues will also rise, but Leonhard told Kiss, “While the debate about appropriate use of our personal data will continue, consensual services could be to our benefit.” Among the benefits referred to by Leonhard is targeted marketing. “You’ll walk past a department store and the window will show a personalised display with your size and preferences,” says Leonhard.

Most smart city initiatives are not primarily focused on shopping experiences. Carlo Ratti and Anthony Townsend report that a number of countries are trying to create utopian urban environments. The furthest along is “Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, a walled community intended for 50,000 residents in the desert outside of Abu Dhabi, in which every building, streetlight and personal electric ‘pod’ vehicle has been preplanned and preloaded with high-tech gear, largely to maximize energy efficiency.” [“Harnessing Residents’ Electronic Devices Will Yield Truly Smart Cities,” Scientific American, 17 April 2011] To learn a bit more about Masdar, read my posts entitled Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Plan and Update on Masdar City. Ratti and Townsend continue:

“At Masdar, as well as New Songdo City in South Korea and PlanIT Valley in Portugal, real estate developers, global information-technology companies and governments are attempting to build urban centers from scratch that are filled with technologically enhanced infrastructure and services. The designers say their grand conceptions will determine how future cities will be built.
But as models, these top-down projects pale in comparison to the emergent form of intelligence that is bubbling up from millions of newly cyber-connected residents. Truly smart—and real—cities are not like an army regiment marching in lockstep to the commander’s orders; they are more like a shifting flock of birds or school of fish, in which individuals respond to subtle social and behavioral cues from their neighbors about which way to move forward.”

Ratti and Townsend claim that this bottom-up view of smart city evolution represents “an immensely powerful, democratic and organic alternative vision of the smart city.” They explain:

“Rather than focusing on the installation and control of network hardware, city governments, technology companies and their urban-planning advisers can exploit a more ground-up approach to creating even smarter cities in which people become the agents of change. With proper technical-support structures, the populace can tackle problems such as energy use, traffic congestion, health care and education more effectively than centralized dictates. And residents of wired cities can use their distributed intelligence to fashion new community activities, as well as a new kind of citizen activism.”

Ratti and Townsend call this effort “going beyond urban efficiency.” They note that “over the past decade digital technologies have begun to blanket our cities, forming the backbone of a large, intelligent infrastructure.” They believe that this backbone holds the key to the future for all cities, not just planned developments like Masdar. They explain:

“Broadband fiber-optic and wireless telecommunications grids are supporting mobile phones, smartphones and tablets that are increasingly affordable. At the same time, open databases—especially from the government—that people can read and add to are revealing all kinds of information, and public kiosks and displays are helping literate and illiterate people access it. Add to this foundation a relentlessly growing network of sensors and digital-control technologies, all tied together by cheap, powerful computers, and our cities are quickly becoming like ‘computers in open air.'”

Rather than embedding sensors in infrastructure, for many daily activities, Ratti and Townsend believe that mobile devices and cooperative owners will drive smart applications. They write:

“An ideal beginning is to leverage the growing array of smart personal devices we all wield and recruit people as the sensors of a city rather than relying only on formal systems embedded into infrastructure. The traffic function on Google Maps is a good example. Instead of building a costly network of dedicated vehicle sensors along roadways, Google constantly polls a large network of anonymous volunteers whose mobile devices report their up-to-the-minute status, which reveals where traffic is flowing, slowed or stopped. The information is delivered to drivers via mobile mapping applications in various ways—as colored overlays indicating traffic speeds, as estimated driving times that account for delays or as a factor in determining alternative routes. … Bottom-up approaches to sensing can also provide rapid, cheap deployment of new kinds of sensors that measure and record data about people’s activities, movements, surroundings and health.”

Michael Durham claims that “Smart cities have always existed in people’s heads.” [“City design innovation,” The Guardian, 2012] He asserts, that from the time that Plato wrote his Republic, “people have dreamed of the perfect community, where citizens live in harmony, life is good, technology is harnessed and everything works. Today, big ideas about improving city life continue to pour forth from futurologists, academics and thinktanks.” Terry Kirby provides his own view of a future smart city. He writes:

“Imagine life for the citizen of the smart city: you awake in your sustainably built home, and take your morning shower in recycled industrial waste water, cost-efficiently heated overnight. Eating breakfast, you scan the flat screen, fed by maximum bandwidth internet, where the special, easy click local neighbourhood menu allows you to compare your daily energy use with other houses in the area, confirm your webcam appointment with your doctor, top up the balance of your all-purpose travelcard, order your groceries and leave messages for your child’s teacher. You can even watch television on it. Outside, your electric car is waiting. On the edge of the central congestion zone, you park in a charging area and, paying with your travelcard, get into a three-wheeled utility vehicle which, via a network of special lanes and sensor-controlled pedestrianised areas, delivers you to another parking dock at your workplace.” [“City design: Transforming tomorrow,” The Guardian, 2012]

To me that sounds a bit like something out of The Jetsons cartoon show; but Kirby claims that “this is not some Dan Dare meets Minority Report fantasy of life in the future, where we all walk around in metallic jumpsuits. Smart thinking is here already.” The problem, of course, is that cities aren’t going to start over. London, for example, has had the same basic street layout (and some of the same buildings) for hundreds of years. We need to make sure that smart city initiatives help real people, living in existing dwellings, and carrying on with normal daily activities. Fortunately, Kirby is correct that smart thinking is already here and thinking about those challenges as well. He admits that smart city initiatives are “not simply about integrated transport or sustainable housing.” He writes:

“The accumulation of electronic data online, digitally accessible and searchable, creates other opportunities for the consumer to know more about their neighbourhoods and the wider world we live in, and to use that information on a daily basis. It also allows local government, architects, transport bodies and utility companies to work together in partnerships to make the most of these technologies.”

Simply accumulating and accessing data doesn’t provide the answers or insights needed to make smart city initiatives successful. Big data analytics and other cognitive reasoning technologies are required to make sense of mountains of data being generated every minute of every day. Michael Durham claims, “In 40 years’ time cities will not just be smart, they will be so brainy it hurts.” [“Forty years from now …,” The Guardian, 2012] Most of that brainpower will be supplied by artificial intelligence. Among the smart people contemplating how to create smart cities are scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT’s City Science website notes:

“The world is experiencing a period of extreme urbanization. In China alone, 300 million rural inhabitants will move to urban areas over the next 15 years. This will require building an infrastructure equivalent to the one housing the entire population of the United States in a matter of a few decades. In the future, cities will account for nearly 90% of global population growth, 80% of wealth creation, and 60% of total energy consumption. Developing better strategies for the creation of new cities, is therefore, a global imperative. Our need to improve our understanding of cities, however, is pressed not only by the social relevance of urban environments, but also by the availability of new strategies for city-scale interventions that are enabled by emerging technologies. Leveraging advances in data analysis, sensor technologies, and urban experiments, City Science will provide new insights into creating a data-driven approach to urban design and planning. To build the cities that the world needs, we need a scientific understanding of cities that considers our built environments and the people who inhabit them. Our future cities will desperately need such understanding.”

The following video discusses some of the interesting and exciting things that are being developed at MIT.

Achieving the objectives of smart city initiatives won’t be easy (and probably won’t be cheap). That is why public/private partnerships will be required. Smart city initiatives begin with people because their goal is to make cities more livable for people. If smart people fail to get the fundamentals right, technologies and processes that support smart city initiatives won’t be able to overcome that shortfall.