With smart city experiments already underway, Peter Madden questions whether the authorities will have the foresight to introduce supporting policies.
In the future, most of us will be living in ‘smart cities’. Some of these will be brand new settlements, built from scratch in rapidly growing economies. Most, however, will be the outcome of re-engineering our existing cities, overlaying the physical infrastructure with digital information to help them function more efficiently.
Our urban streetscapes may look the same to the naked eye, but they will be dense with data. Millions of embedded sensors will share information with software, which will transform intricate patterns into tools. Expect to see vehicles that drive themselves and select their own routes to avoid congestion, cut pollution and reduce fuel use. The very fabric of the city – its roofs, waterways and roads – will be used to generate energy, distributed through a finely calibrated smart grid. Cities will develop a collective consciousness, built from real-time mood mapping, collaborative online platforms, and an advanced understanding of millions of people’s everyday actions.
There are trends taking us in this direction. The world is becoming steadily more urban. Cities demand ever more fuel and food, and are spitting out more pollution and waste. The pressure this places on the environment demands complex management – and this is where the explosive growth of information technology comes in. Our big cities already have a sophisticated digital infrastructure, with fixed-line broadband, mobile phone coverage and GPS pretty much everywhere. We can expect this capacity to multiply with the arrival of the so-called ‘internet of things’, with sensors embedded in everything, overlaying reality and producing massive amounts of data.
Multiple smart city experiments are already underway. Billions of pounds are being poured into smart grid development. Existing information on how our cities function is being shared and analysed through initiatives like America Online and London Datastore, while low-impact communities are being built from Fujisawa in Japan to Abu Dhabi’s Masdar.
Of course, optimising resource use and cutting waste will go a long way towards making our cities more sustainable. But there is no guarantee that their total environmental impact will be reduced in line with planetary limits.
The danger is that managing individual problems more efficiently may, in some cases, lead to rebound or displacement effects – where new impacts are generated elsewhere. For example, smarter management of road space can just lead to more people driving on more parts of the road network for more hours of the day. And we know that when people save time and money in one area of their lives, they sometimes spend those savings on other stuff.
And so city leaders can’t just put their feet up and expect new technology to solve our problems. They’ll have to set strict environmental limits and implement robust supporting policies if these technologies are to be developed and deployed in ways that are truly smart.
Peter Madden is Chief Executive, Forum for the Future.