Promising Technologies Build Smart Cities That Go Beyond Imagination

Harald Wouters and Trevor Bischoff

Although most 80’s and 90’s sci-fi movies depict a future that is unlikely to occur, a few draw some pretty impressive predictions about our future cities. We are now actually experiencing in real life some elements of these cinematic visions. These movies help us realize that promising technologies are bringing an imaginary future of smart cities closer than we might have previously imagined.

Doubling of worldwide smart city expenditure by 2022

The impact of technology on our cities will increase exponentially in the coming decades. The International Data Corporation (IDC) forecasts the doubling of worldwide smart city expenditures to nearly $160 billion by 2022, primarily on smart traffic and security systems. Cities like London and Columbus, Ohio, are just two examples of cities that lead the way in Smart City investment, expanding their investment portfolio to building data platforms that can be used by anyone. And this investment is much needed.

Living a healthy, wealthy, and sustainable urban life

The year 2050 will be a milestone for the world’s population: It is predicted to reach 10 billion, of which 70% will live in cities. To place those numbers into perspective, today our world population is approximately 7.5 billion, of which only 55% live in cities.

While this population shift from rural to urban areas is welcome, especially since urban cores contribute less greenhouse-gas-emissions per person than other areas, it also raises questions on how cities will cope with a burgeoning urban population. Offering a 30 year-prediction on how our cities will accommodate the massive growth and how they will operate seems speculative at best — let alone on how maturing technologies can ensure those 7 billion citizens can live healthy, wealthy, and sustainable urban lives.

Making the unthinkable thinkable

In 1985, the 30-year forecast of “Back to The Future” has proven remarkably prescient about promising technologies for our cities. When Marty McFly put on his self-lacing basketball shoes to go skating on his hoverboard, we could only wait until both were actually realized by Nike and Lexus, respectively. Of course, a time-traveling, flying, nuclear fusion-powered car like the DeLorean still sounds very futuristic. But drone vehicles, autonomous cars, 5G and V2X (vehicle-to-everything) communication are making that fictional future more realistic than we might think. And while nuclear fusion is not something we are likely to see in our lifetime, major leaps in battery-power and reusable fuels research suggest that a previously unthinkable future is becoming, well, thinkable: electric vehicles for the masses and possible riddance of fossil fuels before ecological collapse.

Financially ruined and crime-ridden

When Paul Verhoeven directed “RoboCop” more than 30 years ago, he showed us how Detroit’s future at one point would be: financially ruined and crime-ridden (the two go hand in hand, some might say). Then a mega-corporation was allowed to turn a run-down district into its own future utopia. In return, it was required to fund local public services, such as law enforcement. Ultimately, the tech company deployed a cyborg policeman to successfully fight Detroit street crime. The humanoid robot proved to be highly efficient, but artificial intelligence lacked the emotional intelligence of the cop’s mortal counterparts. Enough elements for a decent night out to the cinema, but maybe “based on a true story” would be in place only retrospectively.

Decent (mis)fortune teller on various accounts

Human-like robots policing our streets is still very unlikely. But setting aside the starring role, the filmmaker did show to be a decent (mis)fortune teller on various Detroit accounts. The once flourishing Motor City filed bankruptcy in 2013, 26 years after the release of the movie, and has since been topping the charts of the most violent city in the U.S., only recently stepping down to second place in favor of St. Louis — coincidentally after major investment in the recruitment of personnel and in the latest technology.

Very first tech utopia

Data analytics helped Detroit cut emergency response time tremendously, and a prominent smart city solution, the Green Light Project, reduced the number of gas station robberies. Meanwhile, only 200 miles from Detroit, Google’s sister company, Sidewalk Labs, chose Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront to build the world’s very first tech utopia. If RoboCop’s story is any indication of the possibilities when private companies are allowed space to innovate in our cities, Sidewalk Lab’s project could very well outgrow the Waterfront.

Ongoing cat-and-mouse game

In 1995’s “Judge Dredd,” starring Sylvester Stallone, we get a glimpse of how the end of the 21st century might look. Mega City One is the sole conurbation containing the world’s population; the rest of the earth has become an apocalyptic wasteland. The movie underlines the increasing cleverness and adaptivity of technology by the unlawful, who are always steps ahead of the government and its law enforcement. In an ongoing cat-and-mouse game with the law’s offenders, it is clear that technology plays, and always will play, a critical role in continually safeguarding the public.

Big Brother: privacy questions

It’s important to note that as dimensions of our society grow increasingly digital and interconnected, risk of more severe and systematic malevolent events increases from those who intend to cause harm. This fact underscores the need for sufficient governance and monitoring of such systems. But this also raises Big Brother-like privacy questions of what the boundaries are of a government spying on its own people, especially surveillance in the public sphere of our digital, connected cities. And perhaps even more threatening, what happens if personal data leaks to a malicious party?

Political surveillance

These days we see countries implement new security technologies that begin as policing but that could well be political surveillance in disguise. For example, as part of its smart city initiative, China is deploying a vast security camera network across its cities. Facial recognition, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing help the government identify and distinguish its 1.3 billion people. According to the Financial Times, the Chinese state spent more money on monitoring its own people than on its military during the last decade. TechCrunch recently discovered that the Chinese government uses recognition technology to identify minorities, such as Uyghurs, in public places.

Surveillance capitalism

In contrast, the West’s concerns about data harvesting and privacy focus more on the private side. Google has found criticism on its tech utopia in Toronto, with experts even framing the initiative as “surveillance capitalism” – a business model where free products are used to capture and ultimately influence behavior. This has led Sidewalk to promise “the strongest data governance regime in the world” in its new Master Innovation and Development Plan.

Such situations make us realize that 1984 may have been more than 30 years ago, but the concept behind it remains relevant in our discussions today. These global conversations also remind us that sci-fi from the imaginations of those living in the present is not only entertaining, but it can offer tangible lessons about the future.

For more on the technology that powers smart cities, see Reimagining Smart City Procurement With Digital Technology.


Harald Wouters

About Harald Wouters

Harald Wouters is a Smart City consultant and the founder of WHY Consulting (www.whyconsulting.nl). His agency is dedicated to helping cities in their digital transformation to become #smart, #datadriven and #futureproof. Harald forges Smart City industry alliances and develops their joint programmes and propositions. Harald is an experienced advisor to mayors and CEOs on technology and innovation. Previously he advised the high-tech industry in the Netherlands and the Dutch government on international Smart City trade and investments. He co-wrote the NL Smart City Strategy and reported to the European Commission’s Digital Agenda on how to improve labour mobility of IT-workers.

Trevor Bischoff

About Trevor Bischoff

Trevor Bischoff is a Roy H. Park Leadership Fellow at Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management. He is passionate about driving sustainable and purposeful business and society through behavioral economics and pragmatic technology. Prior to accepting a Park Fellowship at Cornell, Trevor was a senior consultant at Deloitte, where he worked across the insurance, energy, banking, and healthcare industries to help leaders leverage data to make more thoughtful decisions and embed technology within everyday operations.