The battle for smart cities: Five technologies that matter in 2020

Five technologies will help usher in an "urban information explosion" that will change the nature of how we live and interact in cities, according to an Institute for the Future report.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

An "urban information explosion" is coming -- and five technologies will pave the way for it to occur.

That's according to The Institute for the Future, which on Thursday published a report entitled, "The Future of Cities, Information and Inclusion," which predicts "broad, global advances in technologies that will enable change" in the next decade, specifically in cities.

Those technologies are:

Broadband connectivity. People are moving away from costly fixed connections to the Internet, and toward mobility -- especially in the developing world. As connectivity increases -- via fiberoptic networks in the air and beneath the sea -- so will its quality.

Globally, video communications will drive an exponential growth in bandwidth consumption...falling costs and increased access to networks will spread to a greater share of urban populations worldwide.

By 2020, most cities in the Global North and many in the Global South will be blanketed by 4G wireless networks offering 100+ Mbps mobile broadband.

One caveat for the developing world: private investment may not have enough suppor to displace state-run telecom monopolies.

Smart personal devices. It's no secret that the smartphone will soon supplant the basic mobile phone as the personal gadget of choice; it's only a matter of time. With five billion mobile subscriptions in the world already -- most in cities -- Internet, video, geolocation and the cloud will be accessible by a majority of the world's population.

Manufacturing economies of scale will drive down costs, as hundreds of millions of devices are produced annually. Sophisticated personal devices will become important sources of sensory data about their owners and their urban surroundings.

Open data infrastructures. Not all governments desire transparency, by democratic ones will follow technology toward this goal. Citizens will gain better and more relevant access to public databases, and governments at all levels will slowly move toward networking their respective databases with one another, driven by the application program interface, or API.

These tools will empower pro-poor innovation by broadening access to government data. In cities in the Global South, where existing systems may be less robust, future data-sharing infrastructure will depend less on central sharing points and more on many-to-many networks of exchange between diverse sets of public agencies, NGOs and crowdsourced data repositories. The need to scale these micro-networks will drive innovation in distributed data-sharing standards and support systems.

Public interfaces. Soon, the digital "terminal" in an airport will be as dated a concept as white-jacketed waiters serving you a complimentary cocktail on your next flight. Thanks to falling prices on electronics, LED displays and sensors, computers are going to be embedded everywhere -- buildings, kiosks, even furniture -- ushering in the age of the digital public interface.

Some interfaces will deliver “supercharged” interactions that combine speech and gestural inputs with immersive, high-definition graphics. These highly visual, natural and aware interfaces will supplant text and typing, which will have profound impacts on the ability for traditionally excluded populations – the illiterate, the elderly, the disabled, and those of limited education – to access digital information and create media.

Perhaps most interesting is the use of simple, "ambient" interfaces -- small, "lo-fi" indicators that will become simply part of the landscape.

Cloud computing. The global computing landscape is undergoing a massive shift toward centralization. The key word: "Economies of scale," driven by the efficiencies made possible by globalization and the need to create platforms that work with one another.

Data mining and analysis and intensely realistic simulations, for instance, will have widespread applicability in health, education, and business.

For now, it's a Google and Amazon world; soon, it will become one driven by government IT efforts in megacities. Whichever the provider, small businesses will gradually move to the cloud.

It's not all rosy in the future, however, and such technologies face growing pains, according to the report. For example, the "battle for the smart city" is about control: between market forces and planning, between the public good and national security, between visibility and actionability.

At the center of the report: a massive map (.pdf) that shows the intersection of the people, the network and the urban environment as it relates to the commons, the markets, urban planning and governance. (You can see a preview of it, above.)

So what's it all mean? Greg Lindsay at Fast Company writes that it's in fact a referendum on corporations that offer what the report calls "smart city in a box" solutions:

[The report] is the highest-profile critique to date of the bright green rhetoric from companies like IBM, Siemens or Cisco, which have seized the chance to pad their top lines with government sales while corporate IT customers stockpile mountains of cash.

But it could just as easily be said that it's a critique of an inefficient public sector, which finally faces competition from the private sector and its own citizens.

Whatever the angle, the common thread running through the report is its acute focus on how this change will affect the world's poor and underserved -- specifically, how change can "lift billions out of poverty."

The map reflects the dynamic:

Realizing the opportunity from urban data will require combinatorial local innovation: continuous, rapid, dirt-cheap cycles of prototyping and testing...the future won’t just be a flow of advanced technologies from North to South, but a complex web of nimble experiments and good ideas. These experiments will create new templates for commons creation, design and planning, markets and governance at the scale of individual citizens, networks of citizens and institutions, and entire cityscapes.

But the lessons remain the same for people at all levels: the city as a digital civic laboratory that promises a wealth of information and connectivity can lead to many wondrous things -- but it can also result in new, unforeseen challenges.

The report was authored by Anthony Townsend, Rachel Maguire, Mike Liebhold and Mathias Crawford.

It was based on input from a panel of experts that includes MIT Senseable City Lab director Carlo RattiEveryware author Adam Greenfield, Santa Fe Institute fellow Nathan Eagle, Intel Labs director Genevieve Bell, Microsoft researcherJonathan Donner and City of San Francisco CIO Chris Vein.

It was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

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