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Conditions are Ideal for Smart Cities to Flourish

October 15, 2014


“The interconnection of things and services is making big strides across the globe,” writes Didier Manning, Global Program Manager – Smart City, Bosch Software Innovations GmbH. “In their personal lives, many people are already enjoying the benefits of connected devices such as smartphones and computers. This trend is also leaving its mark on public services, stepping up calls for an interconnected city.” [“Smart Cities: A Vision No More,” Businessworld, 16 September 2014] The convergence of technology, culture, and urbanization has created the ideal moment in history for the smart city movement to flourish. This historic turning point arrived just in time. “Globally, more people live in urban areas than in rural areas, with 54 per cent of the world’s population residing in urban areas in 2014. In 1950, 30 per cent of the world’s population was urban, and by 2050, 66 per cent of the world’s population is projected to be urban.” [“World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision,” United Nations, 2014] To put it another way, the future of the world is going to be determined by the future of cities — that’s why making cities smarter is so critical.


There are a number of reasons that cities are attractive to people. The first attraction, of course, is the potential for work. People leave rural, agricultural areas looking for a better life and/or for work that provides them with enough funds to send back to those left behind. The UN report notes:

“The process of urbanization historically has been associated with other important economic and social transformations, which have brought greater geographic mobility, lower fertility, longer life expectancy and population ageing. Cities are important drivers of development and poverty reduction in both urban and rural areas, as they concentrate much of the national economic activity, government, commerce and transportation, and provide crucial links with rural areas, between cities, and across international borders. Urban living is often associated with higher levels of literacy and education, better health, greater access to social services, and enhanced opportunities for cultural and political participation.”

Cities also use resources more efficiently than rural areas, which is increasingly important as the world’s population continues to grow. The global population was predicted to peak and stabilize around 9 billion by the middle of this century. A new study concludes, “Contrary to previous literature, world population is unlikely to stop growing this century. There is an 80% probability that world population, now 7.2 billion, will increase to between 9.6 and 12.3 billion in 2100.” [“World population stabilization unlikely this century,” by Patrick Gerland, Adrian E. Raftery, Hana Ševčíková, Nan Li, Danan Gu, Thomas Spoorenberg, Leontine Alkema, Bailey K. Fosdick, Jennifer Chunn, Nevena Lalic, Guiomar Bay, Thomas Buettner, Gerhard K. Heilig,and John Wilmoth, Science, 18 September 2014] Efficient use of resources will be critical for meeting the needs of this burgeoning population as well as for reducing the environmental impact that a larger population will inevitably have. The UN report states:

“Rapid and unplanned urban growth threatens sustainable development when the necessary infrastructure is not developed or when policies are not implemented to ensure that the benefits of city life are equitably shared. Today, despite the comparative advantage of cities, urban areas are more unequal than rural areas and hundreds of millions of the world’s urban poor live in sub-standard conditions. In some cities, unplanned or inadequately managed urban expansion leads to rapid sprawl, pollution, and environmental degradation, together with unsustainable production and consumption patterns. Urbanization is integrally connected to the three pillars of sustainable development: economic development, social development and environmental protection.”

Connectivity and Big Data can play significant roles in helping to mitigate some of the challenges listed above. A decade ago it was fair to say that residents living in slums were disconnected from society. Thanks to the remarkable penetration of smartphone technology, many of these areas are no longer disconnected. “Around 1.4 billion people owned and used smartphone monthly worldwide in 2013,” according to the eMarketer. The company also predicts, “The number of people using smartphones around the globe will continue to accelerate in 2014, growing to 1.76 billion people — up more than 25 percent over 2013.” [“Report: Global smartphone penetration to jump 25% in 2014, led by Asia-Pacific,” by Phil Goldstein (@philgoldstein), Fierce Wireless, 11 June 2014] Although many lower-income residents may not own smartphones, enterprising businesses have profited by making smartphones available, as needed, to individuals who cannot afford one of their own. Access to such smartphone technology created new methods for money transfers and connected urban populations as never before. At the same time, more and more devices are manufactured with embedded chips that generate data and are capable of interacting with other devices — creating the growing Internet of Things (IoT). Peter C. Evans and Marco Annunziata (@marcoannunziata) believe that the Internet of Things (which they call the Industrial Internet) will usher in a new revolution that will build upon the advancements of two previous revolutions: the Industrial Revolution and the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Revolution. [“Industrial Internet: Pushing the Boundaries of Minds and Machines,” General Electric, 26 November 2012] One of the benefactors of this new revolution will be the smart city. Concerning the industrial revolution, Evans and Annunziata write:

“For much of human history, productivity growth was barely perceptible, and living standards improved extremely slowly. Then approximately 200 years ago, a step change in innovation occurred: the Industrial Revolution, in which muscle power, from both humans and animals, was replaced by mechanical power. The Industrial Revolution unfolded in waves, bringing us the steam engine, the internal combustion engine, and then the telegraph, telephone and electricity. Productivity and economic growth accelerated sharply. Per capita income levels in western economies had taken eight hundred years to double by the early 1800’s; in the following 150 years they rose thirteen-fold.”

Beginning in the 1980s, the Information and Communications Technology Revolution picked up where the industrial revolution left off. Evans and Annunziata noted, “Its impact on productivity was even stronger, but seemed to lose momentum after just ten years, around 2005.” They continue:

“The fruits of the Industrial Revolution and the machines, fleets and physical networks that it brought forth are now converging with the more recent fruits of the Internet Revolution: intelligent devices, intelligent networks and intelligent decisioning. We call this convergence the Industrial Internet. … Much like the Industrial Revolution, the Internet Revolution is unfolding in dynamic ways — and we are now at a turning point. A number of forces are at work to explain why the Industrial Internet is happening today. The capabilities of machines are not being fully realized. The inefficiencies that persist are now much greater at the system level, rather than at the individual physical machine level. Complexity has outstripped the ability of human operators to identify and reduce these inefficiencies. While these factors are making it harder to achieve improvements through traditional means, they are creating incentives to apply new solutions arising from Internet-based innovations. … Remote data storage, big data sets and more advanced analytic tools that can process massive amounts of information are maturing and becoming more widely available. Together these changes are creating exciting new opportunities when applied to machines, fleets and networks.”

Many of the most important services provided by cities involve networks, systems, and/or grids. All of these services can benefit from the Internet of Things. As I’ve repeatedly noted in past articles about smart cities, technology is not the be all and end all of what makes a smart city. On the other hand, technology must play a critical role in making cities smarter. There is always a historical moment when the time is right for a new idea. That time is now for ideas advancing the smart cities’ movement.

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