City with a brain

Photo by Brxxto on Unsplash

How connected technologies are changing the cities of tomorrow

The fundamentals of what defines a city and how it works are being challenged to the core. Currently, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and by 2050, it is anticipated to increase to two thirds. This urbanization trend combined with a global population growth of 2% a year means that our cities will be stretched to a breaking point.

More people, demanding more services and amenities, are rushing into already densely-populated spaces. With increasing density comes a limited supply of clean drinking water and power, as well as more waste and road congestion. This means we will need to radically rethink the way we design and build our cities.

In many ways, the cities we live in today function in a similar manner to how they did years ago. They have evolved in an organic and ad-hoc manner, disconnected and mostly low-tech. They employ a rule-based system like a stop sign or traffic signals and scheduled-driven services that are barely keeping things civilized. Our human tendency is to continue to plan and build in the way we have in the past — i.e. taller buildings, roads with more lanes, more trash cans, etc. More and more and bigger and bigger is no longer a viable solution.

In parallel with rapid urbanization, we have the changing nature of people’s expectations, influenced in large part by major disruptions in the consumer market. Supported by the cloud, technology is ubiquitous and pervasive. We have witnessed a shift from “one-size-fits-all” mass produced products to what we now call “a market of one.” With services like Uber, Airbnb, Amazon Prime and WeWork, people’s expectations for products and services are personalized, customized and immediate. In this new connected paradigm, people no longer evolve around products. Today, it’s the other way around: products and services evolve around the fluid and changing expectations of their customers.

As this growth continues unabated, people are looking at data and connected technologies as the solution that will make the cities of the future not just tolerable and more efficient, but more enjoyable places to live. Already, here and there you can see an inkling of what’s to come, such as GE’s smart streetlights that turn off to save power when no one is around, or data-driven traffic lights in Seattle that can manage traffic flow in real time. Other emerging technologies like multitasking trash trucks only respond to waste bins that are being used and can also monitor air quality and traffic, or sensor-driven parking spots that can alert nearby drivers that a space is available. The surfaces of our buildings and streets offer bountiful opportunities for solar power. Tesla has produced elegant solar tiles that fit both modern and familiar vernaculars.

But right now, while we mostly talk about these technologies in the future tense, many of the tools that will run the city of the future exist today. While places like Singapore and Barcelona are in a race to implement them as quickly as possible, almost no one is running a variety of connected technologies in a well-planned, centralized system that allows them to feed off each other, sharing data and increasing efficiencies. This is in large part because we’re still figuring out how to retrofit these ideas into our logistically complex cities.

Truly, it’s a massive challenge, with city planners, transit, sanitation and other compartmentalized municipal agencies vying to implement their preferred systems amid the immense physical challenges existing cities offer, as well as the tedious bureaucracy of most local and state governments. All of this is further complicated by the scores of tech visionaries, designers and private businesses all working and competing to further their own products.

Our cities require their own innovation labs where the clients are the citizens and the municipalities take a leading role working in concert with technology corporations. It is paradoxical that San Francisco, the tech hub of the globe, barely meets the needs of its population. There is a lack of civic accountability in a region with the most potential for disruption and change. For example, we desperately need a rapid transit solution to connect the Silicon Valley to the city of San Francisco, or a municipal public transport system that can keep pace with pedestrians.

If there were such a municipal innovation lab, they would be wise to look toward a couple of unexpected sources for inspiration — Carnival Cruise Lines and Disney World.

Both these hospitality companies have fostered massive technological revolutions within their own properties in recent years. If Disney World were considered a city (which, by many measures, it is), it would be one of the smartest cities on earth, outfitted with sensors, apps and a wearable called a Magic Band that can track and manage traffic flow, schedule activities and manage payments for its “citizens.”

Similarly, Carnival’s new Ocean Medallion wearable interacts with an app and 7,000 onboard sensors to guide guests through the ship’s many activities, take food and drink orders, and eventually learn a guest’s individual preferences. This highly advanced technology is about to set the standard for other cruise lines, and can show burgeoning smart cities some truly smart ways to bring connected urban tech together.

In both cases, these multi-layered, data-rich systems work so well because they run through a centralized system with only one stakeholder — Carnival or Disney. This is a luxury almost no modern cities enjoy. But that doesn’t mean cities can’t work to cut through their own red tape and create systems and agencies that can bring it all together.

Just as a body’s many systems are kept running in harmony by our central nervous system, connected urban technologies cannot do their jobs in a vaccuum. They must be run by a dedicated agency with real decision-making power. At this agency, you’d find designers, city planners, community representatives, data scientists and IT experts working together to efficiently handle the day to day of implementation, repairs and maintenance of different systems. A Department of Connected Urban Technologies, if you will.

Without this, it will be impossible to overcome the already difficult design challenge of implementing large-scale tech projects (for instance, the installation of tens of thousands of sensors for driverless cars) in existing cities where aging infrastructure and sheer density make construction and installation very difficult to begin with.

Underneath it all, a centralized, expertly-run computing program that can act as a node to collect, analyze and exchange data and manage various systems is a critical investment for any city serious about getting connected.

Of course, it’s easier to overcome the physical limitations of a wholly-owned property such as Disney World, or a Carnival Cruise ship, where there are no lengthy permit processes to deal with or local residents to give feedback. But that alone should give cities a reason to look at their own processes, and think about ways to streamline what’s grown so bloated that it stands in the way of progress.

But by looking at the way Carnival and Disney have been able to create innovative, holistic systems out of smaller, more specific tools, cities can get an idea of what’s possible, and what’s at stake. If the will is there, and cities are willing to make a real investment in the technology, the cities of the future can indeed be some of the “happiest places on earth.”