3 Big Ideas for the Smart City of 2050

By Gordon Feller

Gordon Feller founded Meeting of the Minds in order to harness the power of a global leadership network to build innovation-powered sustainable city futures. Gordon has worked for more than four decades at the intersection of global sustainability, government policy, and private investment focused on emerging technologies.

Oct 6, 2015 | Smart Cities | 0 comments


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Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.

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This blog post is a response to the Dear 2015 group blogging event prompt:

The year is 2050. Write a letter to the people of 2015 describing what your city is like, and give them advice on the next 35 years.

For more responses, see the Dear 2015 Event Page.

As much as the Internet had already changed the world by 2015, it was the next phase (beginning in 2016) which brought about the biggest and newest opportunities. Emerging technologies, as they fully commercialized in 2016, revolutionized the way we all lived, worked, played, and learned. That next phase of the web was the Internet of Everything — and it made possible the intelligent connection of people, processes, data, and things. In the five years from 2015 to 2020, this wave of the Internet had almost 10 times the implications of the first. The power of technology proved to be pervasive and it changed every industry, from cities to healthcare to education and more.

Beginning in earnest in 2016 — just a very short time from your year of 2015 — the pace of technological change quickened dramatically for all. This was caused by the rapid convergence of mobile, social, data and cloud — which in turn drove the digital disruption of the entire world economy. The digitization of almost everything, at almost every level, helped many in the world of 2016 through 2022 to leap-frog, which meant they could move ahead into the forefront of innovation. Intelligent networks finally enabled digitally empowered citizens to access useful government services, in real time, both online and on mobile platforms. Services of great value — such as healthcare, government permitting and regulation, retail, banking — were now being delivered through a superior, on-demand video collaboration experience. That changed the way citizens engaged with their governments which, in turn, changed their economies.

What really made this possible? The answer is a combination of powerful technology trends — such as the dramatic increase in processing power, storage, and bandwidth at very low costs; the rapid growth of cloud, social media and mobile computing; the ability to analyze Big Data and turn it into actionable information – which made it possible to realize more value from the Internet of Everything.

Over the last 35 years, three ideas became integral to the development of a smart city – and each one offered governments the opportunity to create new jobs, operate at lower cost, build new revenue sources and improve services for citizens.

1. We Got Smart About ‘Dumb’ Infrastructure

I really do wish you could join me here and look around the world of 2050. You would see that the smartest cities have done some very simple things that became the basis for some bigger things. One stands out: when replacing their conventional lamps with high-efficiency LEDs, the installation of both communications and sensors helped these cities to maximize work efficiency and deliver a new set of urban capabilities.

Over these years since 2015, connecting infrastructure such as outdoor lights provided the smartest cities with a communications fabric that now services a wide variety of urban needs – from parking to public safety to transportation. The resulting data stream has helped to improve investment decisions. And on top of that, it’s offered companies within those same smart cities with many opportunities for tech-commercialization.

Adding communication and sensor technology to ubiquitous (but ‘dumb’) infrastructure such as streetlights produced some amazing results. One of them was the creation of what came to be known around the world – in the year 2018 – as the ‘Smart Canopy’. This has allowed operators of lighting infrastructure to an array of sensors to help cities to monitor and manage all of the following:

  • Water quality and levels
  • Public lighting and safety
  • Parking, traffic and people flows
  • Air quality
  • Asset utilization and performance​ (including public spaces)

There have been many visible benefits for both government and the citizens who live in these urban communities.​ Apart from providing a the fabric that weaves together municipal infrastructure, the Smart Canopy has afforded operators of the lighting asset with the ability to reduce their spending on costly mobile plans. It’s enabled the delivery of brand new services. And some cities have been able, especially in the past 10 years, to monetize both the core wireless service and the resulting streams of data – all with the goal of creating new sources of revenue.

The communication fabric also provides citizens with real benefits: improved digital inclusion scores; sensors provide more efficient public services; ubiquitous WiFi coverage supports tourism; private business development has been leading to job creation.

2. We Got Real(time) About Public Transit

Two things happened about the year 2017: the majority of the world’s cities (helped by a lot of companies) were providing real-time data about public transit increases ridership. And, those same cities were connecting buses to the high-speed communications network. These networks were almost always equipped with other capabilities — to monitor road health, or deliver precision-targeted communications based on time and location.

Equipping transit (and buses, in particular) with real-time location reporting had the effect of supporting the development of real-time transit applications. Furthermore, on-board communications infrastructure opened up new opportunities to add other services: road-quality monitoring; parking infringement management; location-based advertising as a service.

The result was dramatic: citizens, operators and governments developed a more sophisticated understanding of the tools, and of the resulting data.​

Adding real-time location reporting to buses provided riders with surety about the timing of their next bus. It allowed riders to make definite plans, in case of delays. The availability of real-time transit information had the effect of increasing ridership. Greater adoption of public transit, of course, helped to improve system revenues; reduced traffic congestion (which made it possible to delay expensive new road construction); lowered atmospheric pollution—especially with the emergence of LNG buses and hybrid buses.​

Real-time transit data also provided software developers with an opportunity to incorporate route-planning capabilities into their applications. This had the effect of fostering the development of some advanced tools that governments were unable or unwilling to make alone.​

Finally, with communications infrastructure on buses, those vehicles were used to remove cost from other government services. This opened up new revenue opportunities including mobile public safety cameras, mobile WiFi hotspots, real-time, location-based advertising platforms.

3. We Got Engaged in Life-long Learning

Since 2016 to our time now in 2050, the pace of technological innovation has continued to accelerate. Our cities have learned that adapting to rapid change is the norm. Technical education institutions have played an important role in keeping skills current, reskilling displaced workers, and serving as a crucible for innovation via the ‘maker’ movement.

With mature industries embracing automation in 2017 through 2022, many experienced workers quickly found themselves needing to adopt new skills to remain relevant. White-collar professionals were not immune from this disruption. Everyone who was serious about working a meaningful job needed to learn new things in order to remain competitive on the global stage. Employing the capacity and capabilities of higher education institutions has certainly helped.​

Google and Facebook both began while the founders were students. Dell was started in a dorm room. In 2015 it was Uber that raided CMU’s university robotics labs to help it develop a driverless car. Of course, not everything starts on campus, but many ideas germinate from these crucibles of innovation. This same learning environment has provided smart cities with the ability to reduce unemployment through reskilling, and partner different generations of employees in co-learning and co- developing new ideas. These diverse teams, coupled with facilities equipped with the right tools—e.g, inside maker-spaces—spurred a flood of new inventors (many of them being over 50 years of age).

Integrating the Smart City and the Smart Campus had the effect of brining diverse perspectives together to tackle new problems, and amplifies the considerable investment in labs, classrooms and technology to spur innovation, catalyze new jobs and spark the next big start-up idea.

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