Most of the world’s cities were settled by happenstance. Way back when, a group arrived at a location and stayed because it had a number of distinct advantages – defensibility, transport routes (such as a waterway), or proximity to natural resources. For most of history, the development of infrastructure (shelter, canals, roads, etc.) also happened without a grand plan, with new layers being built on top of the old. Yet, as Jarmo Eskelinen of Future Cities Catapult said last Wednesday during a Global Entrepreneurship Research Network conference call, “cities are our most enduring human achievement.”
Today, cities around the world are growing faster and larger than ever before. In 1800, only 3 percent of the world's population lived in a city. A hundred years later, the number had grown to 14 percent, and by 2008, for the first time, the world's population was split evenly between urban and rural areas. In more developed nations, about 75 percent of people live in cities, and as development has expanded, so has urbanization. By 2050, 70 percent of the global population will be urban expects the Population Reference Bureau.
This explosive growth is occurring at the same time that new technologies – broadband connectivity, cloud computing, sensor networks, open data infrastructures – are unlocking massive streams of information about cities and their residents. While architects and urban planners are empowered to work smarter, new urban entrepreneurs are adapting these technologies in novel ways to meet local needs and turning every city into what the Institute for the Future calls a “unique civic laboratory” where “the forces of urbanization and digitalization are colliding in a global urban experiment.”
“The future is already here – it is just not very evenly distributed,” said William Gibson, an American-Canadian writer. At the forefront of the smart city evolution, which arguably began about a century ago when local officials began enacting zoning laws, is Songdo, Korea, not far from Daegu, the site of the recent GEC+. Built from the ground up and opened in 2009, the city is designed around open spaces. Sensors monitor everything from temperature to traffic patterns; garbage is sent automatically from houses and buildings via tubes to a central system that creates compost; virtual presence technology is built into schools and homes, and every building is designed to be sustainable and eco-friendly. Songdo is the best example of a city that communicates with its residents and within itself. It and other smart cities have had a dramatic impact on city leaders around the world, sparking a race to transform existing cities into such places.
Eskelinen highlighted three factors that the people who planned and built Songdo did not have to grapple with: legacy, speed, and readiness. Legacy: Songdo was built from scratch on reclaimed land from the sea – there was no legacy infrastructure or institutions. Speed: Songdo is a broadband, wireless city, able to quickly crowdsource data and run tests of potentially better ways of doing things. Readiness: Korea is one of the most developed countries in the world with a leading educational system – it has the competencies required to plan to and maintain a smart city.
But the world’s existing cities are not starting from scratch, can only go so fast, and may not be entirely ready. How do we transform an existing city into a future city? What impact would doing so have on the people who live there and the businesses that transact there? Future Cities Catapult is a collection of urbanists, data scientists, designers, and developers working to answer these questions. It’s Urban Innovation Centre in London brings businesses, universities and city leaders together with its world-class experts to analyze data, model and visualize city problems, and run on-the-ground demonstrators within its network of partner cities to test new approaches and working prototypes in real urban settings. After discovering which new ideas have the biggest impact, they seek to spread them far and wide to deliver better cities around the world.
A core Future Cities activity is advising city leaders on designing strategies for renewing infrastructure by integrating a wide array of technologies, such as systems for energy efficiency, renewable energy, connected vehicles, water and waste management, enhanced connectivity, and new ways of farming and manufacturing.
The effort to transform cities is generating demand for new products, new companies, and new skilled jobs. While governments have a leading role to play, private enterprises must ensure a robust pipeline of new technologies for urban applications. In the UK, for example, only 7 percent of national output comes from the digital sector, well behind Korea, the world’s leader, where the digital contribution to the economy is more than 11 percent. To propel digital development, Future Cities is working across a range of technologies in four broad areas:
- Connectivity: Internet of Things, distributed ledger technologies, decentralized web, 5G and low powered wide area networks
- Data: trust, privacy, identity and security, blockchain and cyber-security
- Intelligent: machine learning and artificial intelligence
- Immersive: virtual reality, augmented reality, haptics and new forms of human machine interface.
“Building open, agile, and smart cities,” Eskelinen said, “raises many, as yet unanswered questions about data (some will have it in droves, others will struggle to obtain enough); security, privacy, and consent; open platforms; and new digital ecosystems.”
In seeking to develop frameworks for studying such questions, GERN’s members are at the cutting edge of the future – which is already here for the people of Songdo and those other leading smart cities, but is arriving with accelerating speed across the globe.
Photo credit: Flickr