The Future is Urban and Smart
With the world population estimated to reach an astronomical 9.8 billion by 2050, cities as we now know them are going to transform. While current population statistics show that over 54% of the total global population resides in urban areas, the World Health Organization predicts that these numbers will continue to rise steadily, with a forecasted 80% of the total global population residing in cities and surrounding areas by 2030.
The internet of everything will impact highly urbanized areas around the world in unprecedented ways. High-speed internet access is becoming more widely available, the cost of connecting is decreasing, more internet abled equipment, sensors, and devices are being created at lower cost, and smartphone ownership is skyrocketing. All these are creating a “perfect storm” for the connected city of the future.
As always, pop culture is a step ahead, having already imagined the cities of the future. Some in more dystopian ways than others.
The futuristic cities in films such as The Matrix and Blade Runner often appear to be abysmal and filled with smog and decay brought on by a widening socioeconomic gap and extreme population density. But the future city doesn’t have to be depressing. With the recent increase in attention to eco-friendly city planning, for example, city planners are moving towards healthier buildings in order to benefit the environment and the employees who work inside them. At the recent Green Cities conference in Sydney, eco-friendly practices such as promoting energy efficiency, increasing investment in renewable energy infrastructure, increasing markets for net zero carbon products, and promoting offsets for remaining emissions were laid out as the first steps to reducing carbon emissions created by buildings. Similarly, the Green Cities conference has also recently created the WELL Standard, which rewards buildings that promote employee wellbeing by choosing the right lighting, discouraging sedentary behavior, and reducing indoor air pollution—all of which are being implemented across Sydney.
On a general scale, urban experts have begun advocating for an increase in urban resident participation for groups who are normally marginalized, such as those in poor city areas, women and elderly, in order to address issues of poverty, gender violence, and accessibility. By fixing issues with poorly lit neighborhoods and increasing the number of ramps and widening walkways, for example, city planners can increase safety in neighborhoods as well as accessibility across the city. While there are many other issues with city planning brought on by overpopulation, advances in technology—especially transportation—could be used to expand city limits and decrease congestion.
One of the most concerning challenges that movies like The Matrix and Blade Runner raise about future cities is that of the relationship between cities and machines. In Blade Runner, for example, the cities of the future are often conveyed through industrialist imagery, such as the existence of replicants, the metal exteriors of city buildings, and the presence of smog and pollution—all of which convey an image of the city as a machine. Similarly, in The Matrix, the central Mega City is created by machines, housing humans in a state of virtual reality with machines using human bodies as a power source.
Despite the supposedly science fiction nature of machine-run cities that these movies propose, not-so-dastardly machine cities may actually be one of the most plausible forms of city building infrastructure in the near future. With the relatively recent conception of the Internet of Things, the concept of Smart Cities is becoming more and more probable. At its core, the idea of a Smart City is based on the interconnection between all infrastructures that make up a city, from traffic control to broadcasting stations to security systems and even energy plants. By connecting physical devices—such as a stop light or a security camera—to a software system that is connected to other software systems and artificial intelligence on a citywide scale, every form of infrastructure can act and react in a more fluid and intelligent way. Through the Internet of Things, intelligent machines will literally run cities, just as The Matrix and Blade Runner envisioned—though not necessarily in a nefarious manner.
In a theoretical Smart City, for example, cameras and wireless systems could be used to monitor the health and status of the overall city while satellites and other orbital platforms could be used to monitor pollution levels, weather, and potential natural disaster threats. Similarly, energy systems could be optimized and work together with the Internet of Things, and integrated transportation systems could reduce traffic congestion and increase environmental friendly practices. On a smaller scale, these smart systems are already in use in homes—such as Amazon’s Echo and Roomba vacuum cleaners—and are poised to continue transforming houses into smart homes, potentially providing a model for future Smart Cities.
However, much like the dystopian landscape that The Matrix and Blade Runner interplay between machines and cities, there are many potential dangers that will accompany our transition into Smart Cities. First, the challenge of transforming city infrastructure into an integrated software system will take massive amounts of raw data, power, and money—a task that is formidable even for the most prepared cities. Second, maintaining this smart infrastructure will require the creation of multiple redundant systems in order to isolate potential system failures on a citywide scale, should one portion of the infrastructure begin failing. Lastly—and perhaps most importantly—once a Smart City is established, the danger of natural disasters, terrorism, and cyber attacks makes city infrastructure especially vulnerable, and the consequences become increasingly disastrous as the city’s networks become more reliant upon each other.
There is no question that the future is urban and smart. But while it is inevitable that technology will shape city infrastructure in new and exciting ways, it is perhaps more important that we prepare for the weaknesses that will accompany this unprecedented connectivity of people, things, and cities.