Smart Cities – Creating Intelligent Urban Environments

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Ayesha and Parag Khanna Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.

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The 21st century will be dominated by the city. More than half the world’s population lives in cities, and the percentage is growing rapidly. According to the consulting firm McKinsey, in China alone, 350m people – more than the current population of the United States – will move to cities by 2030. To accommodate the millions migrating to cities in search of the coveted middle-class urban life, Brazil, China, and India are raising new cities from dust. Meanwhile, countries like Sweden, UAE, Russia, South Korea and Portugal are also building new cities as magnets for talent and innovation, and the economic growth that they bring. Cities, not nations, now compete for people, ideas and capital, and increasingly, a city’s “smartness” is becoming a major selling point.
Today’s cities can barely handle the burden of their current populations: core services like energy, water, communications, transportation, and public safety are wasteful, inefficient and decrepit. Even though cities only occupy 2% of the landmass of the Earth, they consume over 75% of the Earth’s resources. The only way to prevent rapid urbanization from being an environmental disaster is to operate cities in a brand new way: faster, smarter, cleaner.
A city becomes “smart” when all parts of its infrastructure and government services are digitally connected and optimized. The city’s intelligent infrastructure is powered by three key technologies that share environment and citizen data constantly: sensors, the cloud and smart interfaces.  Sensors, tiny devices that can measure variables such as motion, sound, and bacteria, collect information and send it back to a central database  – the cloud. The city’s computing cloud then analyzes the information and changes the city in response to the input it has received, whether from sensors. Residents can also change the city experience, tailoring it to themselves by entering their preferences in touch screen smart applications.  For example, if you’re feeling unwell, you could take your blood pressure at home, and the results will automatically be added to your health record, which is stored in digital format in the city’s cloud. If the blood pressure is at a dangerous level, your doctor is automatically paged, and soon, he appears on the Telepresence monitor in your apartment where he gives you a quick consultation.
Adding such layers of intelligence to the bloated legacy systems of cities like New York, San Francisco and London will be slow and painful. However, new cities have no such constraints. In South Korea, 40 miles west of Seoul, for example, a new city is being built that promises to epitomize the smart city. Built on 1500 acres of reclaimed land from the Yellow Sea, the International Business District of Songdo offers residents green living in LEED certified buildings, smart homes with Telepresence monitors, a state of the art school outfitted with the latest technologies, a park fashioned after Central Park in Manhattan that offers cultural centers, and a 15 minute ride to Incheon airport, and from there, less than a 3 hour flight to all major cities in Asia. Songdo’s smarts don’t come cheap: apartments are priced in the millions and yet are sold-out within days of going on sale. 
Songdo is the first of a string of smart cities that are either in planning or development stage. In Paredes outside Porto, Portugal, PlanIT Valley is an intelligent city that aims to serve as the living lab of how to build smart cities: CEO Steve Lewis wants to build an urban operation system – a core set of digital city services – that any city can license from him to make itself “smart”. His business model is ambitious and revolutionary, and Lewis has won numerous IT partners and financial investors. PlanIT Valley is on schedule to open in 2015 when it will house 200,000 residents. Other efforts underway include Masdar in Abu Dhaba and Lavasa in India; cities in planning stages include Skolkovo in Russia, King Abdullah Economic City in Saudia Arabia and several cities in China including Meixi Lake and Wuxi.
Not to be left behind, existing cities in the US, Canada and Europe are all trying to quickly insert intelligence in pilot projects. In Sweden, for example, the Stockholm Royal Seaport project is testing implementing a smart grid in an urban environment. The market demand for intelligence services for retrofitting cities and building new ones is estimated at trillions of dollars. And the fight to capture it is on: Cisco, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Siemens, and Phillips, are just the big technology firms racing to get a piece of the action; others include startups, architects, urban planners and interface designers.
Yet in this gold rush to build smart cities, are we hastily creating urban environments that infringe upon the rights and sensibilities of residents? The biggest fear in a city where every movement of citizens is recorded is invasion of privacy. Unlike traditional cities, which are governed by elected politicians and civil servants, smart cities are often managed by a public-private hybrid organization that consists of the mayor’s office, the private developer and the technology firm. Who owns citizens’ private data and what will they do with it? It is imperative for city residents to demand to be included as a fourth party in city management, and to ensure that they are not unknowingly signing a new social contract where they are giving up privacy for convenience and security.
One of the foremost ways that city residents can remain informed about a city’s intelligence infrastructure is to have access to it. Ideally, this means that the smart “plumbing” of the city will be open source so that citizens can add tailor-made city applications for themselves, and at worst, there must be complete transparency in how the infrastructure collects, uses, shares and stores data. Most likely, for cities that have proactive residents who insist upon this right, we’ll see process transparency and the option to innovate and create interesting city applications built upon a closed system like Cisco’s Smart+Communities platform.
There is no doubt that the world needs smart cities. However, in the age of smart cities, city residents need to have a geostrategy, i.e. they need to choose where they live and then they need to proactively influence and manage the environment in that city. This is the only way to be smart in smart cities.