In this second blogpost on the future of cities, we look at the impacts of new technology. The application of technology to city development often goes by the name of “smart cities”. But it’s important to look at the unintended effects that changing technology may have as well – it’s not necessarily all a digital utopia.
The EU describes a smart city as “a place where traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital and telecommunication technologies for the benefit of its inhabitants and business.”
This covers better resource use and less emissions; smarter urban transport networks, upgraded water supply and waste disposal facilities; more efficient ways to light and heat buildings; safer public spaces and services meeting the needs of an ageing population.
Smart cities use Internet of Things (IoT) devices such as connected sensors, lights, and meters to collect and analyze data. Examples include smart parking systems (notifying drivers of availability), connected vehicles that avoid traffic jams and smart lighting systems.
Inherent in the concept is a more interactive and responsive city administration. That is, a political will. In practice, most technological innovation in cities is led by the private sector.
Another characterisation describes features of smart cities as:
- Top-down: systems to support planners to manage public services more effectively –eg water monitoring sensors in Barcelona
- Connective: citizens using open data, and providing data to authorities – eg reporting potholes
- Bottom-up: citizens acting collectively and communally eg sharing or renting possessions or services
A European Urban Innovation project “SmartCity” initiates an innovative way of supporting local development:
- To invent new means for consultation and conception of the city
- To enhance local resources, identities and memory of a territory
- To experiment new products and services on digital city
- To study new urban uses
The Transport systems of cities could be radically re-shaped by new technologies. Electric vehicles will become the norm, so the necessary infrastructure needs to be installed. Hydrogen buses are already on our streets. Much has been written about the way Uber and other sharing economy concepts could change patterns of transport demand (“Mobility as a Service”), and innovative business models could emerge in the space between public (shared) and private transport. “Active” transport – walking and cycling – is making its way up the scale as a response to Zero-Carbon targets, and e-scooters and e-bikes gaining in popularity (and legality!).
Further out – and not yet fully realised – are autonomous vehicles. They could change travel patterns, as you could get the car to drop you at your destination and then send it off to park somewhere, calling it back when you need it. Many think that AVs would go hand-in-hand with MaaS; however, many people personalise their cars already and it’s quite possible that you would want to personalise an AV even more – as your mobile office or lounge.
The sci-fi dream of flying cars may be getting closer. Air taxis are to be trialled in Barcelona and Santiago de Compostela in 2022. In some congested cities like Sao Paulo, helicopters are already the preferred means of travel for the rich. The whole transport system would be radically re-shaped.
The future of work is fundamental. We can reasonably assume that online collaborative tools will continue to be popular; working from home is not going away. Massive office blocks no longer represent le dernier cri of city architecture. AI and automation are now encroaching on white collar jobs too. So the whole character of city centres stands to change.
Add to that radical changes to shopping. Even before the pandemic, city centre stores were under pressure from online marketing. Major companies have collapsed, and there is an emphasis on making shopping more experiential. Technology offers many ways of improving the efficiency of retail through AI-based demand forecasting tools, improved logistics, and IoT-based stock control. Arguably lower cost of entry creates opportunities for smaller, independent stores, undermining the economies of scale of the major brands. Whether that is sufficient for the sector to retain its central place in city design remains to be seen.
Entertainment may be an increasingly important driver of city centres. Theatre, music, cinema, even sport depend on sufficiently large audiences for a central location, accessible by many, to be necessary for success. Online substitutes during the pandemic have not proved to be hugely attractive, so although some online activity may continue, there will be a drive to return to the physical reality of communal experience. Online galleries may be an acceptable substitute for some exhibitions. Conversely, the appeal of local, community venues and ventures might increase.
Cities can also be magnets for tourism. AirBnB is already transforming the tourist market in many cities, to the extent that some authorities are looking into ways of restricting it. Augmented reality glasses can be a cheaper alternative to a personal city guide – a development of the audio guides one gets in galleries today. But Virtual Reality could remove the need to travel altogether.
The next in our short series on the future of cities will look at economic forces – including the effects of the pandemic, recession and recovery.
Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.
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