27 Mar 2011
Scenarios for connected urban life
In the years ahead, smart devices will extend information and democratize municipal decision making. On the other hand, there will be an intense centralization of data, most likely consolidated by a private company depleting cloud services and the devices to access it. Several scenarios emerge.
Smart cities are wired with IT infrastructure that can report, filter analyse and share urban information. Information can be of a municipal quality (like information on energy consumption or transportation routes) that greatly improve efficiency and sustainability issues. Corporations pioneering smart infrastructures are IBM’s Smarter Planet and Cisco’s Connected Urban Development. Smart cities also integrate real-time social media functionality that will increasingly be used by local government to crowd source civic projects. The UK’s G-Cloud estimates it will save three billion pounds between 2014 and 2020 with it’s cloud infrastructure, and over 100 municipalities in the USA have open data sharing structures for solving civic issues. And finally, from a business perspective, smart cities will enhance what business networks do best: deepening trusted relationships, expanding business opportunities and reducing costs with collective buying.
An important driving force shaping smart cities is the access to infrastructure, both in terms of laying down the connections and launching satellites as well as how the end user experiences and pays for the data. Globally, video communications will drive an exponential growth in bandwidth consumption. A new round of investment in long-haul fibre optic networks will bring the needed capacity to cities in the Global North. The linking of coastal cities in the Global South into undersea fibre grids will reinforce their integration into the global economy.
When there is an open social agenda, communities will leverage urban information to improve service delivery, transparency, and citizen engagement. This sounds optimistic, but in reality the realization of government cloud services is a reaction to rising national debts, shifting costs to the citizen in the name of community engagement. What will emerge is that micro enterprises and activities will be super local: day care, rooftop gardens and car pooling today; rapid prototyping, green energy and device manipulation tomorrow. In turn the city block or neighbourhood might fall into the hands of a local strong man and be characterized by patronage and extortionary practices. Let’s not forget that policing will also be increasingly a Do It Yourself (DIY) civic responsibility.
Building the smartest cities of tomorrow will be financed by partnerships between municipal and corporate stakeholders. In many cases the corporate stake will outweigh the municipality, therefore having ultimate decision making power. When the commercial agenda takes the foreground there will be price exclusion for poorer groups, but for those who are able to pay, wow. Greener, efficient and instant access to data from anywhere. In fact, geopolitical borders will become less import than network connections. Within cities themselves, smart networks will resemble castles, with defences, exclusive trading partners and a unique culture.
The smartest of the smart cities will be able to make sense of all these new data. Already, the Watson supercomputer by IBM is able to answer any question asked to it in normal language within a few seconds. What’s so amazing about this is that the entire human wealth of knowledge can be articulated and given to you in no time in conversational English. More powerful than Google’s algorithms, Watson like supercomputers that sit on top of centralized data can revolutionize industries flooded by information such as medical, finance and surveillance; further polarizing those who are not connected.
Local social, economic, and political forces will shape the urban information explosion in every city over the next decade. Five technologies that matter — broadband connectivity, smart personal devices, open data infrastructures, public interfaces, and cloud computing — will lay the foundation for urban development and inclusion in the years ahead.
The scenarios illustrate the challenges and opportunities for global cities in both Northern and Southern regions when urban information becomes accessible to city dwellers. Try to imagine which direction your city will go and consider how emerging cities will handle things differently. According to leading world economic reports, all of the major cities in the next decade will be in the Southern hemisphere, let’s ask Watson what to do about that.
Carl William Kerchmar, www.portaltoyourdreamsblog.blogspot.com
If you want to know more about IT integration in urban development in Amsterdam and across Europe visit New Urban Media at www.studionum.com