ities are rushing frantically to equip themselves better and smarter for the future through engagement in forums like the Urban 20, with collaborative brainstorming, and through individual efforts. Pollution, governing, and traffic congestion often bubble up to the top in terms of concerns. Yet, as most people intuitively agree, so much more goes into keeping a city vibrant and thriving.

On May 16, 2018, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs published a projection that 68% of the world’s population would live in urban areas by 2050—that’s seven billion humans living in cities in a little over three decades from now.

Billions of people moving in and out, connecting and transacting, generating and consuming a massive spider’s web of data and the technologies sprouting in, from, and around it. And, entrusting the cities with the job of making it all work, somehow, for the benefit of its inhabitants.

Visualize for a moment, what that’s going to be like. We did. And, saw that a) most cities are not equipped to survive and thrive in this kind of future yet, and b) there are non-dystopian, perhaps even utopian, alternatives for a happy urban future. We explore two such options here which resonate deeply with us.

If we can buy everything online and get it all delivered to our doorstep, why bother to go out? But, these digital consumption habits are leading to fragmentation and increasingly, loneliness. Is there another way?

If we can buy everything online and get it all delivered to our doorstep, why bother to go out? But, these digital consumption habits are leading to fragmentation and increasingly, loneliness. Is there another way?

Outside in

Do you have a smartphone/tablet/laptop? Then, you have the means to access, generate, consume, and share digital information, with minimum know-how. Massive amounts of data are literally “in the air” and surrounding everyone walking about in a city, most of us relying on luck to not get run over as we cross the street with our heads down on our smart device. Ironically enough, the very devices and tools of the digital age that are intended to connect humans have isolated us, including in collective public spaces. If we can buy everything online and get it all delivered to our doorstep, why bother to go out? But, these digital consumption habits are leading to fragmentation and increasingly, loneliness. Is there another way?  

Luckily for us, the technology and user interfaces that we need to break the spiral of disconnect exist and are going to play a vital role in reconnecting humans with the physical world—a connection which is paramount for a healthy body and mind. Using data wisely can create a more utopian path where technology enhances human interactions and facilitates meaningful and safe exchanges with friends and strangers alike. Vast stores of user data offer interesting opportunities for insights if pulled by the user and used for proximity-shopping and commerce in the “City x.0”, as we will illustrate with an example.

Because all conversations around the usage of data must converge on the question of who owns the data, the City x.0 and providers alike must give deep thought to questions around what information is kept, where, and for how long. Law-making bodies need to have the foresight to fuel innovation in ways that prevent data from becoming a commodity to be traded to the highest corporate bidder. On the contrary, mechanisms must be put in place to enhance the quality of service while addressing threats to the digital rights of citizens. Proximity retailers can use locally collected data to meaningfully engage with potential customers without invading their privacy. But, it requires a rethinking of the why’s and how’s of acquisition, collection, and processing of data. Further, we must collectively find paths for data usage that include and serve not just the young and technologically educated, but also children and the increasing numbers of elderly among us.

It’s not too far-fetched to imagine a time when Augmented Reality (AR) avatars will pop up in front of you, reading your mood and offering you suggestions on food and clothing as you walk through the streets of a city. We argue that the AR itself is a useful technology, however, the options to trigger it and opt out of it should be controlled by the human. The primary goal of the data-blanket surrounding us should be to truly connect us, enhance, and support our experience of city life.

Inside out

One of the beauties of city life is the sheer abundance of diverse communities and unique neighborhood fixtures; the quirky bar in the corner or the boutique which sells the most delightful shoes. Humans are social animals and in theory, a populated city should offer nourishment in the form of social contact.

The growing practice of conducting most of life online, however, is not only eliminating social connections but, starving and in many instances, killing unique businesses and city retail across the world. It also flies in the face of environmental and economic realities. Statistics around throw-away fashion are alarming; according to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, one garbage truck of textiles (about 12 to 14 tons) is wasted every second. Making cheap throwaway clothing and then burning or disposing of it in ultra-short usage cycles is damaging the planet, destroying retail stores, and is quite short-sighted for those parts of the world where most people might be living on universal basic income in the foreseeable future.

As automation replaces certain workers, causing their disposable income to dwindle, we ask ourselves, are there solutions for this degradation that’s menacing our cities on multiple fronts? How do we rescue ourselves from the unintended consequences of using the vast stores of human data to create technologies that are, simply put, awful for us? Surely, there must be a better use for the tools of the digital age, one that enhances our experience of life and living?  

In response, we conjured up a digital butler. Picture this. You are walking through the cobbled main street of your city. Your digital butler, whom you choose to turn on and who knows your preferences as well as the fact that your current running shoes are falling apart, suggests that you might want to check out the shoe store 10 meters further down because they have a new 3-D printing service for custom fit shoes. You decide to act upon it and enter the store to be greeted by a human. While your custom shoes are being printed, you enjoy a chat with the salesperson, gather insight on what the latest trends are for comfort running, learn about a new community for recreational runners in your neighborhood and sign up to join online. As you walk out in your perfect new shoes, you ask your digital butler to find you a good restaurant and check to see if any of your friends are in the vicinity. They’re not, but he suggests that someone who shares your enjoyment of Thai food and jazz music is just around the corner. Would you like to connect? You do! After enjoying a lovely meal matched with someone whose company you would very much invite again, you head back to your loft apartment, happy, and rating both your retail experiences highly. You turn off the digital butler and lounge in your favorite armchair on the balcony, savoring the evening sun while reading the rest of the hardback you picked up last weekend, and enjoying the music your new friend suggested.

With 7 billion residents by 2050, cities are the future lifeblood of humankind. It is imperative that we find ways for people living in cities to be nourished and cherished. To find places where they can come together to share a laugh or linger over a tasty meal. We believe there is an urgent call to action to policymakers and local cities alike to save our cities by creating enticing offerings that draw people, engage them, and create a positive interaction between the online and physical worlds. The universe of data surrounding every aspect of human life can enable this enrichment, if used wisely.

Bridging online and offline experiences to direct consumer purchasing power towards local retailers is one way to create benefit. Ensuring that the decision to engage with data-driven technologies is in the hands of the users is another, and technology which enhances human interaction is a third.

The online world is here to stay. Through our two examples, we hope to encourage dialogue and action around the Outside in and Inside out transformation of City x.0 into vibrant, joyful places where the human need for connection is acknowledged and served by technology. We, and our cities, stand to benefit when policy makers take the initiative to encourage a future that works for all inhabitants and the environment, and put the interests of citizens, young and old, at the heart of this transformation.

Shalini Trefzer
Shalini Trefzer is a Diplomatic Courier Contributing Editor and Executive Director of the World in 2050, an initiative of Diplomatic Courier. Her passion is to give a voice and platform to huge-potential innovations from regions that don’t normally receive the spotlight.
Marc-Elian Bégin
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.
Danny Laker
Danny Laker is a serial entrepreneur and seasoned future mobility business & experience creation architect. As Founder and CEO of fashionXact, Danny aims to make high-quality fashion available to everybody, adapting to changing city culture and society.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.