I have always wondered what kind of cities my kids and grandkids would live in. I mean, for people like us who have lived and witnessed the world change across two millennia, it becomes very exciting and sometimes scary to speculate about the future could be very exciting and sometimes scary! However, before thinking about what the cities of the future would be like, we must understand what a city is!
Cities are nothing but physical artefacts that are inserted into a pre-existing natural world!
Cities are built to survive and prosper. They are established with consideration of the constraints around them. Over the years, we have learned to mould our surroundings according to our needs. We have cut through mountains to make more land and created artificial islands to make skyscrapers! City planning, as an organized profession, has existed for less than a century! However, a considerable amount of evidence (both archaeological and historical) proves the existence of fully planned cities in ancient times. These cities, which include the Indus Valley Civilizations, The Mayans, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, displayed both organic and planned types of urban form! Over the years, humans have made some mistakes in terms of using an excessive amount of resources for cities. This gives rise to the question of how sustainable the cities of the future would be.
Masdar City – A Glimpse into the Clean Cities of the Future
Video Credits: Masdar Videos Channel
As an arcology project in Abu Dhabi (UAE), Masdar is a definite glimpse into the future. Designed by the British Architectural Firm Foster and Partners, the city will rely only on solar energy and other renewable energy resources to sustain it! It will also be host to the headquarters of the International Renewable Agency (IRENA). The video will give you a glimpse of how clean the cities of the future would be. It also shows that we are increasingly realizing the repercussions of exhausting our natural resources and are looking toward alternate means for a better existence.
What else could we predict about cities of the future?
Cities would be more sustainable
We might be looking at smart cities in which streetlights would only switch on when you are close by and traffic light would be eliminated by smart driving. Yes! The cities of the future would try to save our resources rather than deplete them.
An example of an advanced city is Kansas. Plans are in place to make Kansas a smart futuristic city in the future. Planners are looking to introduce sensors to monitor the water mains. Warning would be issued to city officials when the infra requires repair or replacement. In this way, the city would never be at risk of having broken pipes! The bottom line here is that technology would be used to track what is happening and to analyze the acquired information to come up with ideas to improve the overall quality of life!
Kansas also plans to launch interactive kiosks in the form of computer interfaces along street lines (imagine giant iPads or tablets). These kiosks would be responsible for public service announcements and advertising local businesses. Moreover, they would collect traffic information, which will be used for further city planning! Sounds awesome, right?
While the idea sounds fantastic, a large amount of rational critique has called this plan an oversold dream. Amy Glasmier is an urban planning professor at MIT. She is a smart city skeptic who believes that all the research and talk is great but gravely oversold!
Barcelona has done well in terms of sharing the benefits of technological advancements. In this city, sensors monitor noise, humidity, pollution, and traffic congestion, and the data are made available to the public. This approach is a great way to inform people about the effects of their everyday actions so that they could become better aware of what they ought to do to sustain themselves and their city better!
This type of involvement could surely be expected in the cities of the future!
What parameters would define the cities of the future?
Parameters always exist to define the order of things. Cities have always been defined by certain attributes, such as religion, demography, and architecture. One point to think about is what attributes would define the cities of the future.
I believe that a city could only be considered truly smart when investments in human and social capital, as well as traditional and modern infrastructure, result in sustainable economic growth! Such a city could support a high quality of life with the appropriate management of natural resources. In this scenario, the government is deeply involved in public affairs, and corruption and bureaucracy will be at the minimum or even completely nullified.
Hong Kong is a perfect example of a city that is moving toward becoming a perfect smart and futuristic one. In January 2013, Hong Kong was named the number one smart city in the Asia Pacific region. Ten cities were judged based on various parameters, such as smart mobility and smart people, and Hong Kong ranked the highest. An observation was that Hong Kong has a well-developed information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure. Its broadband network is and covers nearly all commercial and residential buildings!
Don’t even ask me about the number of Wi-Fi hotspots. There are 28,000 of them offered by the government and private sector combined. This is the kind of government–private sector partnership and public spending that the cities of the future should aspire to. Mobile penetration in Hong Kong is a staggering 237%. Hong Kong provides us with a great insight that in the cities of the future, the government, the private sector, and the public would be intertwined in a symbiotic, profitable, and sustainable relationship!
A key takeaway from this observation is that certain key attributes will define futuristic cities. These attributes include:
- Smart economy
- Smart environment
- Smart governance
- Smart mobility
- Smart people
- Smart living
Cities of the future would be more shareable
Sharing of information is a basic activity that has brought humans this far. Over the extent of our existence, we have shared food, grains, weapons, knowledge, technology, money, and every other possible aspect of human existence. We have shared grief in the event of wars and rejoiced together when man first landed on the moon!
Sharing would also be a major driving force of smart cities. Today, an increasing number of people are sharing their rooms with strangers in college dorms and hotels. Parents are even carpooling their kids to school, and households are moving toward a sharable neighborhood.
A brilliant example that has become the model of a sharable futuristic city for experts is Nijmegen.
Cat Johnson of Shareable says that this 2000-year-old city has become one the first sharable cities in the world! Nijmegen has a large network of people who share knowledge, time, and even their workspace. Anything in excess is shared. This practice has been made possible by peer-to-peer organizing and local sharing, as well as by personal initiatives by the public and the authorities.
The concept of No Money Sharing Projects is also popular in Nijmegen. People contribute to a project, but the one thing they cannot give is money. The exciting aspect of this activity is that people are participating. Big businesses, such as banks and supermarkets, help in the marketing strategies, among other things.
Another project that also gained popularity was the 7 Days of Inspiration Initiative. The goal was to upgrade the Netherlands in seven days in the following key areas:
The initiative saw the involvement of 2000 people in 137 projects.
Video Credits: Double Healix
Nijmegen should be an inspiration for the cities of the future.
We have to realize that futuristic cities would have to capitalize on the good aspects of capitalism and socialism. They must churn out activities and policies that promote sustainable development. If any one of the attributes exhibits bias, even by the smallest integer, then we should be wary of what Winston Churchill stated: "The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries".
What would be the extent of automation in future cities?
We earlier found that smart cities would be full of sensors and advanced machinery, coupled with IT, to provide a network so formidable that the state of perfect knowledge in which people know what they want, when they want it, and how they want it could be achieved! I believe that automation is inevitable as technology steps into the future. The one thing we should consider is profitability to realize automation in every possible aspect!
The cities of the future would see a large number of intelligent homes that could interact with their owners. In fact, even as we speak, things that were earlier considered science fiction are already coming to life in cities such as Masdar, where an automated underground transport network fully fuelled by solar power is already running circuits!
With smart technology, the possibility of having huge savings on electricity and power is within our reach. Sensors are being developed so that streetlights of the future would switch on only when you are close by. The smart technology in self-driven cars would enable you to save on gas and other non-renewable energy sources. In fact, smart cities would aim to neutralize the use of fossil fuels completely!
Council Lead Partner ABB’s KNK line of products is helping in realizing the dream of smart homes and buildings. Research is being conducted in key fields such as energy optimization, shutter control systems, security frameworks, heating and ventilation, air conditioning, water management, and general energy management. The aim is to create an environment where wastage is driven to a minimum! One of ABB’s products that enhanced the living standard in homes is the KNK system installed in the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (Italy). This system has reduced annual power consumption by 28%.
One thing is clear: the cities of the future would have to adapt quickly to rapid technological advancements in IT and engineering. The gap between technological leaps is going to decrease over time. The future will involve unlimited ICT resources for the public, who would be encouraged to participate actively in city planning. Technology would help bridge the current gap between the government and public in the cities of the future, given that IT and digitization could make these cities more open and social.
A cost estimate
One thing that we can all agree on is that the cost of building these smart cities is going to considerable, and by considerable, I mean trillions of dollars! An estimate can be derived based on the latest smart city developments in India. With the booming population, dynamic Prime Minister Narendra Modi is pushing to attract investments to fuel rapid development projects in the country!
One such development is the smart city project near the banks of river Saraswati in Western India. Only an underground infrastructure and two office blocks have been constructed thus far. However, the project has been documented thoroughly, and it boasts of a meticulously planned metropolis with skyscrapers, automated waste collection systems, a dedicated power supply based on a solar framework, and a lot more.
KPMG, one of the four pillars of finance and accounting, estimates a total cost of $ 1 trillion associated with the development of this futuristic city. A crucial plan is for Modi to provide an infrastructure for the vast Indian populace to acquire jobs and improve their overall quality of life. Imagine – $1 trillion! I do not need to explain how large an amount this is. I mean, the GDPs of some developing countries are lower than this amount!
Obviously, the cost associated with these smart cities is very high. This calls for combined efforts by leading financial institutions across the globe, as well as the governments of developed and developing countries. These bodies should join hands and pool their resources to ensure that the dream of a pollution-less, smart future could be achieved to realize healthy and improved living for all people at any cost!
India has built planned cities in the past. These planned cities include Chandigarh, which was designed by French architect Le Corbusier, as well as Bokaro Steel City and Gandhinagar, which is the capital city of Gujarat from which Modi hails. However, the scale of the new smart cities although is expansive compared with these previous achievements. I am sure that India, with its bullish economy and a current dynamic government, is all set to plunge in to the race of creating a smart and efficient city that is made sustainable for the people and by the people.
Video Credits: Jaijit Bhattacharya
Security will be of prime importance in the cities of the future
Another important question has to do with security. With increased digitization and networking, the boundaries between personal privacy and the invasion of the same are becoming more ambiguous with each passing day. Given that smart cities of the future are expected to rely heavily on digital neural networks and automation, one begs to ask the question of how authorities and people in charge could ensure the security of every citizen.
Jean Turgeon, Chief Technologist at Avaya Inc. (a US-based IT firm), has very interesting insights into this matter.
He suggested that we needed much more agility to add tens of thousands of devices to a network that will need to have a huge scale so as not to compromise monitoring and security. He pointed out that we cannot stick to the existing client–server architecture, because such framework enables IP hackers to gain access to an entire network instantly once they are through the firewall.
The good news is that solutions are emerging. Research is bearing fruitful results in terms of establishing a next-generation matrix architecture based on Ethernet transport and optimized IP services. This architecture could make networks literally invisible to hackers. Such systems as the Avaya SDN Fx could help deliver enhanced security and reliability, as well as provide an efficient and secure connection between smart cities and the Internet of things.
7. Is there a hidden agenda?
Everything about these smart cities of the future sounds highly positive. Savings in money, energy, time, and effort are on the cards. Rapid technological developments could be shared by the masses. A clean and green place would be available for all! If you look at it from a John Lennon angle, everything seems rosy. However, some doubts would emerge if you change your perspective to mimic that of J Edgar Hoover (a known skeptic). You would get a sense of a hidden agenda. What things do we know and what is being hidden from us?
Would it be the end of personal freedom?
In an earlier post, we had speculated on how big data and related analytics have led to increased privacy invasion and how data manipulation is being employed to sell out and rent information for marketing use by the global giants that control money flow! Imagine the extent of such possibilities in the cities of future, where everything and everyone will be connected?
Would these smart cities only be examples of corporate-designed urban environments?
These smart cities would be funded by large private enterprises. Who can confirm whether personal interests would be at play here? Although some could argue that similar conditions resulted in the rapid development of the United States in the late 1850s to the early 1900s, the ulterior consequences could also be the same in terms of increased monopoly or restriction of public choices. Would the markets in these futuristic cities be perfectly competitive, or would they rule out the element of choice? Only time could tell.
With all these things in mind, we are looking toward a future in which cities are smart, people are more open, and smart technologies make our life easier, cleaner, and more sustainable. We also realize that possibility of hidden agendas and their implications to our security and independence.
The believer in me is hopeful that there is more potential for good than bad. We live in an information age, and we should exercise our power of choice. Whatever be the case, we should make informed decisions about the steps we are going to take toward a smart future. The words of people such as Jean Turgeon must be heeded, and we should ensure a calculated leap into our future.