In ‘Smart Cities,’ A Sea Change for the Web

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640_smart-citiesFifteen years ago, the future was a different place. Consider the 1999 sci-fi thriller The Matrix. In the film, the Wachowski brothers envisioned a world in which the Internet had become an alternative reality — a virtual environment individuated from the physical world in which we live. The participants plugged-in, and, in entering this new world, left reality behind.

That dystopia was, in part, a projection of a era in which the Internet was anchored to fixed screens in our offices, homes, and libraries. We imagined a future in which connectivity would cause us to recede into our homes, accessing everything we need — from food and commerce to human social interation — through the
Web. It meant we could all live remotely and interact virtually.

But that vision hasn’t really panned out. Today, the world’s population is actually barreling in on itself. According to the United Nations, one half of the world’s population now lives in a city compared to only a quarter of the population 30 years ago. By 2030, the world bank projects that six of every ten people will live in an urban area. And the cities are getting larger: the UN predicts that the number of megacities — places with over 10 million inhabitants — will increase from 23 today, to over 38 in 2025.

What’s emerged over the past decade is a new vision of the future, in which mobility, and ubiquitous connectivity has actually drawn us back into the physical world, and the boundaries between our online and offline lives have blurred. We are at once, always connected, and yet more rarely “online.”

To accommodate that rapid urbanization, a growing sector of tech companies are working to create new ways to make our cities smarter. Anthony Townsend is a senior research scientist at New York University and the author of “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia.” Street Fight caught up with Townsend recently to talk about the Smart City movement; and the changing relationship the physical and digital worlds.

Two decades ago, cities — and the physical world as a whole — seemed to be on the outs. Today, cities are growing like weeds. Talk a bit about that sea change.
This is all very counter-intuitive to what a lot of the hype during the bubble was around the role of telecommunications and cities. Basically, that was all about disintermediation, and separating the need to be in a place from getting the service. There were people who were hypothesizing that we were basically looking at the end of cities.

What’s actually happened is that these technologies and services have made cities more exciting and more diverse because all of the obstacles of getting what you want out of the cities have been removed. They’ve brought down the cost of coordinating all of this human activity, and allowed us to flourish on top of it. These technologies are one of the forces that are driving global urbanization. They are the the glue that are allowing that growth to unfold.

Thanks in part to a marketing push by IBM, the term “smart city” has become a bit of a buzzword lately. Help us understand what the term means from an urban planning perspective, and how it has evolved in the past decade.
Folks in urban planning circles tend to use the term “smart” in a lot of different ways. More often than not, up until now at least, they were talking about progressive policies — so, smart growth and transportation policies like bike-friendly masterplans or transit-friendly systems. I, very specifically, use it to describe cities where people are using new digital technologies to solve timeless urban problems.

I don’t think the technology is a silver bullet. I do think that the age we live in, digital technology is going to be a driving force in every facet of urban life; in everything the government does; and in everything that businesses do to make our urban lives better.

I want to dig a bit deeper into the evolving relationship between the web and the physical world. What changed in the past decade? What turned the web from a city-killer to an enabler of mass urbanization?
I think the key has been mobile. What has happened is that we’ve sort of transitioned from a world where cyberspace is something that you travel into from a fixed location — this kind of abstract, non-geographic space that’s mostly about content and a lesser extent about commerce — to a world where we’re pulling parts of digital realm into the spaces that we inhabit through our mobile devices, augmented reality and everything that’s coming down the pipe, namely smart objects.

From a human point of view, that’s a much more natural way of interacting with information, digital services, and the world as a whole. But it’s something that for Americans has come as a bit out of left field because our way of living is very screen-focused — whether that’s via TV or desktop computing. We have much lower population densities and much more of a home-based kind of culture with the exception of a handful of cities which are actually the cities that are driving this revolution. American culture very easily adapted to the lifestyle of interaction that the desktop web provided. Mobile is a bit more difficult.

There’s a lot of initiatives — both in the private sector and at the municipal level— to use the web to create a better city experience. Talk a bit the areas in which you’re seeing the most innovation and how that could change the landscape of the city.
The area where I think technology is going to have a big impact on land use and on urban structure going forward is around mobility and transportation. There’s a huge wave of innovation that’s hitting the mobility sector to the point where, you have car companies like Audi and BMW launching major public initiatives, and investments in, ride-sharing. These companies are asking, what kinds of services they need to be looking at going forward because they may not always be a car company. At some point they may shift from being companies that sell people things that move them, to being service providers that move people.

At the end of the day, it’s the idea that by making cities more efficient, we’re allowing them to grow faster and on top of that, creating a better overall experience. Lyft and Zipcar, for instance are trying to take advantage of the fact that cars are parked 90 percent of the time. It’s a tremendous waste of an asset. So if you reduce that waste, then the high cost of doing business in the city starts to come down and it unlocks all this economic activity.

If mobility opens the door for physical intelligence, so to speak. What’s the next big challenge in the building of the smart city?
Up until now, what we’ve seen is more and more data providing a clearer and clearer, and more real time, picture of what’s happening throughout the city. But today, while a city might know traffic speeds throughout the city at a very fine resolution, they still have to rely on a system of manually timed traffic signals where they have to send a police car out to close or open a road.

What’s next, is to start to finally close the loop and see those systems becoming remotely controlled. You might have pieces of the infrastructure or services in a city that are completely automated and there may be a human caretaker who’s sort of watching over it; but for the most part, it’s operating on it’s own. We’re basically turning our cities into a stealth bomber — an airplane that no human could fly manually.

So what happens when the autopilot for a city fails?
I don’t think anybody really knows yet. There’s certainly a lot of concern that we don’t understand the risks that are embedded in what are essentially networks of networks all interacting with each other.

Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s Deputy Editor.