Picture the cities in your favorite futuristic movie. They probably include hover boards, flying driverless transport capsules, self-diagnosing machines, life changing personal medicine and many more time-saving transformative, energy-efficient amazing inventions. However, these movies always include an arch villain, draconian controls on personal freedom, and at the very least, depressing weather. Are we now at the point where we can decide which of those things we want to become reality and steer ourselves away from the less desirable issues?
We believe so. There may even be something we can do about the depressing weather. We are already well on the way to driverless transport and self-diagnosing machines—although we may have to wait some time for the hover board. The Internet of Things (IoT), edge and cloud computing, as well as artificial intelligence, will deliver municipalities with the opportunity to provide citizens with improved services, such as smart traffic, transport, lighting, medical data sharing, entertainment and personal security. Indeed, using sensors, data and connected devices, traffic will flow more smoothly and emergency services will be able to respond more quickly. With less cars on the streets and public transport becoming more personal, as point-to-point driverless options become available, we will be able to achieve not only a less stressful journey to work, but also higher air quality. Electric cars will also lower noise pollution and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And finally, with fast medium-distance transport solutions such as hyperloop-style partial vacuum train systems, we will be able to rethink daily commutes and inter-city transport strategies. This should lead to more lifestyle options as well as our ability to remodel public spaces as exchange and interaction spaces, and as a new outlet for urban art, visuals, sound and music.
Managing the need for corporate investment
Yet, as with any technological leap, there will be winners and losers unless we are ready to protect citizens’ rights, avoid marginalization, and enforce freedom of information. This last point is key, since the investment to deliver such a high level of innovation will be colossal and although taxpayers are ready to enjoy the benefits, they are less willing to foot the bill. The efficiency and investment capabilities of the private sector will probably be required, involving the promotion of co-funding models such as public/private partnerships.
However, improving services via connected devices, IoT and advanced analytics involves collecting vast amounts of data. We have already seen that data is becoming a valuable currency. It can be of great economic value to large businesses, and this is where citizens start to get jittery. Corporations will be tempted to retain ownership of data produced by the smart city in order to create new business opportunities, and no-one wants to see their personal information sold off for marketing or other purposes without consent.
Laws such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which has the intention of strengthening and unifying data protection for all individuals within the European Union, are welcome but are nevertheless very complex and opaque to most citizens. One challenge for governments is to produce legislation which is digestible by the average citizen, and thereby engages them, yet still covers all loopholes.
A more daunting challenge is to bridge the digital divide by ensuring technology benefits rich and poor alike. Corporations are less interested in developing solutions for people with little or no budget, as we see already in fields such as pharmaceuticals.
A voice for the people
In contrast, the smart city also has the potential to promote direct engagement between the city’s authorities, political elite and its citizens. By promoting open data and clear governance policies, citizens and civil society will be able to leverage precious data in order to inform themselves and engage with the city and its various stakeholders. In an era plagued with fake news and dubious practices taking hold of social media, we could argue that access to truth is becoming a citizen’s fundamental right. Your digital identity should be your property, not that of a faceless technocrat.
It has to be made easier for smaller players to compete and succeed in this field, creating a healthier balance for companies. Watchdogs and not-for-profit organizations must also have access to funding which will allow them to monitor and report objectively on the use and misuse of data. Only in this way will we build trust and feel confident that our privacy is being respected.
How do you want it to end?
Although we all have our own idea of Utopia, we have to accept that cities will play a huge role in our future. With the current rate of population growth, mass urbanization is inevitable. We can continue to head for the mega city with sprawling housing and crowded spaces. Or we can grab the opportunity innovative technologies are now offering us and build a web of interlinked communities, connected by fast and affordable transport, which facilitate access to services, recreation and employment, as well as a wonderful range of diverse cultures, technologies, arts and ideas.
“Then man made the machine in his own likeness. Thus, did man become the architect of his own demise.” Let’s make sure The Instructor from The Animatrix was wrong and build the cities that this planet deserves. And maybe by doing so we’ll deserve it too.
About the authors: Marc-Elian Bégin is CEO and co-founder of SixSq, an SME based in Geneva, Switzerland. He has worked with the Canadian and European Space Agencies, as well as CERN, on distributed software systems, grid and cloud computing development projects. His current focus is edge computing technologies and is passionate about building smart city solutions and open data access which will deliver real and tangible benefits to society. Louise Merifield is Operations Manager and co-founder of SixSq. She has worked for the UK public service and the European Central Bank and now focuses on communications, hoping to improve everyone’s understanding of technology.