Predicting what the British weather might have in store this afternoon can prove challenging to even the brightest of meteorologists, but this hasn’t deterred a host of planning, architecture and digital experts from musing upon what the coming decades have up their sleeves for our urban centres. And their forecast is surprisingly sunny, reports John Glenday.
How technology will change our towns and cities
Attempting to divine with any degree of certainty what our cities may look like may be considered a mug’s game, but by extrapolating pronounced trends, technologies and societal shifts already underway today, the veil can be lifted to give an inkling of what the world will be like in our dotage – a world defined by the ‘smart city’. Differentiating tomorrow’s digital cities from today’s analogue variety, Malcolm Poynton, SapientNitro's chief creative officer, told The Drum’s 4 Minute Warning conference that smart cities “aren't just a smart idea, they're an imperative”. Ask an ancient Roman to whip out their tablet, after all, and you would be presented with an inanimate lump of clay, sufficient at the time though useless today. But whilst our technology has progressed, our infrastructure has not, as Poynton observes: "The reality is our cities are built on Roman infrastructure and they're very disconnected." Unfortunately smart cities won’t just drop into our laps as a by-product of technological advancement. They will require shifts in policy and in the ways we do business to take full effect. Poynton explains that the creation of a smart city isn't like turning on the Christmas lights at Oxford Street – “there isn't a big switch waiting to be flipped”. And, he says, “the government and big business aren't going to create it for us”. Instead, smart cities are created “in small steps” with each one of us having to do our bit. “Active citizen participation will ultimately create the infrastructure and we should all feel responsible,” he vociferates. A key factor which is already beginning to mould our urban spaces is the impact of climate change, a factor which is increasingly placing sustainability to the fore of all we do. As Don McLean, founder and CEO of measurable sustainability thought leader IES, explains to The Drum, we need to “minimise energy usage effectively for cities to function as smart cities”. “All the dreams and aspirations that people have for smart cities will not be achievable if climate change severely impacts our cities and we have insufficient energy to allow future cities to function,” he says. This pursuit of energy efficiency will place greater emphasis on working in concert with, rather than counter to, the natural environment, with responsibilities increasingly being placed in the shoulders of the individual as McLean notes. He declares that “we as individuals will have to change and see ourselves as an active element of our cities and realise our role in achieving true and effective smart cities”. This, he comments, will help us“ minimise the science fiction doomsday scenarios for our future cities so that we can achieve cities that are not only good to live in but free of crime and other problems”. Those eagerly anticipating a fantastical Jetsons style environment of hover boards and space ships may be in for a disappointment however, as Dave Fitch, former manager of Edinburgh Napier University’s Smart Cities project, explains. “The city of the future will look a lot like the city of today,” he says, before quickly adding the caveat that they will work very differently. Echoing McLean’s words, Fitch says the future city will be “a lot more energy efficient, and produce much less carbon and waste,” and those changes will “reshape transportation, logistics and much of the underlying economic logic of urban spaces”. Fitch adds that far from retreating from physical spaces into virtual worlds, people will place even more emphasis on architecture, retail, streets and services as we counter-intuitively seek out even more “authentic” experiences, ie “to be in real, local environments even while they're simultaneously connected to a wider technological networked world”. If climate change is the single greatest negative force impacting upon the physical world, then it is data – and specifically the manipulation and use of data – which promises to be the greatest force for good. Fitch observes that “all the various aspects of smart/future cities, from smart grids to service customisation and personalisation and integration, all rely on the systematic acquisition, interpretation and use of data”. The common theme, he says, will be “integration”. Waking up 20 years hence, our cities will be much easier to navigate and fully customisable to the individual, with bus and train timetables tailored to those reading them and maps which morph in tandem with your appetite and social life, Fitch speculates. “When you write a shopping list your maps may automatically change to highlight relevant stores, for example – or show you more restaurants at lunchtime if you were a visitor, or automatically hide the cupcake store if you're on a diet.” The flip side of this, he says, is that we may not share the same collective urban experience any more. “We will get different marketing messages, participate in different networks.” Tom Adams, global head of strategy at FutureBrand, has adopted a somewhat different tack, identifying two basic principles for understanding the future city. The first states that clues to the city of the future lie in the city of today, while the second observes that human beings need help navigating the complex social systems that cities create, and use technology to address this. “In 50 years’ time,” Adams points out, we will “still need to eat, socialise, work, learn, cope with emergencies, prevent and punish crime, attend to our sick and manage our waste”. We will have to do so, however, with significantly greater population pressures. “When you bring people together in their millions, this requires cooperation and communication on a massive scale, enabled by the rule of law but powered by services of all kinds, from commercial to governmental. But whilst human beings have the capacity to do these things voluntarily, they also need help when they are brought together in large numbers, in confined spaces and competing for limited resources. City living creates resource management problems every day.” Outlining some of the connected technologies which are already shaping cities today, Adams cites improvements in our understanding of when and where to fix potholes, remove graffiti and concentrate policing. Connected technologies also identify nearby taxis, traffic jams and tube lines, thanks to a steady stream of real-time information. “This is big data at work,” Adams says. In parallel to this however is a shift from ownership to access, in everything from cars to gardens. Adams continues: “City living is, by definition, about limited space, and the world's resources are under increasing pressure with population growth and city expansion (particularly in the East), so we are finding ways to share things instead of buying them. “This means that our relationship with services and brands in cities will be as much about connecting with people we don't know, to make use of things we need temporarily, that nobody 'owns' in the true sense.” An egalitarian world of equal access and freedoms for all might sound suspiciously utopian, and a cursory glance at the architectural dreams behind Corbusier’s ‘City of Tomorrow’ and the societal dreaming of Karl Marx might give cause for thought that today’s technology and data driven dreamers might be setting course for a similarly dystopian nightmare. This revolution, however, has already begun, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. With the potential to swing both ways it should be comforting or concerning that our destiny still lies in human hands, for now.How smart cities will change your lifeRoads The majority of vehicles, including those with known destinations such as public buses, will be tracked by geolocation. This will result in a real-time map of the roads, from which traffic patterns can be analysed over time. Algorithms designed to prevent congestion and accidents will be used to control traffic flow. Health Information from sensors that detect environmental variables, such as noise levels and air pollution, will be correlated with differences in rates of health and illness. Access to healthcare professionals will be made more efficient through the real-time monitoring of drop-in service availability, and remote appointments will make clinic visits less necessary. Energy The smart grid will use information about the behaviours of suppliers and users to automatically manage the production and distribution of power, making it more efficient than the current grid system. Smart home meters will display real-time information of energy usage, and communicate this directly to your energy supplier – making home visits obsolete.
John Glenday is responsible for compiling The Drum's daily morning bulletin and ensuring that overnight breaking news is covered while you're still brushing your teeth. Can also make a mean cup of tea.