The world is getting smarter. It’s very likely that in the next 10-20 years, smart technology will transform urban living as we know it.
Beyond the fact that we spend half of our lives glued to our smartphones, urban life has already been dramatically changed due to smart technology leveraged by the public and private sector entities that serve us.
Most urban transit systems are already connected. Buses and trains communicate with each other and the agency’s GIS. Whether they’re looking at the digital sign at the station or an app on their phone, commuters know exactly when the next train is coming due to smart technology.
Other smart technologies have brought important improvements that many of us likely don’t notice. In Barcelona, city grounds keeping crews are alerted by sensors to flower beds or playing fields that need to be watered. In Amsterdam, smart streetlights dim based on weather conditions and traffic, allowing the city to reduce its energy use. All over the world, utilities are installing smart meters that help them identify and respond to power outages more quickly.
The greatest innovation, however, may be the “open data” initiatives that an increasing number of cities are launching. Last year, Forbes identified at least 85 cities that have created data portals that allow citizens, with a click of the mouse, to dig into the billions of pages of information that used to only be accessible to city employees or reporters who took the time to go to City Hall and file open records requests.
In Austin, Texas, for instance, citizens can peruse maps that show where crimes have taken place, where traffic accidents have occurred and where major city projects are taking place. Software developers can use that data –– which is updated in real-time –– to design all kinds of helpful new tools to make people’s lives easier. One app in Chicago notifies users whenever the city discharges sewage into area lakes and rivers.
And yet, we’ve only just dipped our toe into the smart revolution.
Imagine a transportation system that is so smart and interconnected that drivers aren’t necessary. No, it’s not just about self-driving cars that can operate on a road without your foot on the gas pedal, but a system of self-driving vehicles that are communicating with each other and a myriad of objects around them.
Vehicles will constantly receive information about traffic conditions throughout the city, allowing them to choose the most efficient route. They will communicate with parking structures so that they know where the nearest available parking spot is at all times. They will also be communicating with smart traffic lights, which will change to green if there isn’t a car coming in the other direction. In fact, the cars may be so smart that traffic lights and stop signs won’t be needed. If it sounds strange to trust a self-driving car with your life, consider the fact that driving is probably the most dangerous thing you do precisely because of the mistakes made by you and other drivers. Automated technology has the potential to make traffic accidents –– the leading killer of people under age 45 in the U.S. –– a thing of the past.
Smart technology, of course, has major implications regarding preventing and solving crimes. Imagine a municipal surveillance system –– composed of cameras and sensors –– that not only gathers footage that police can use to investigate crimes, but can detect behavior that requires intervention. It may call an ambulance the moment a person faints on the sidewalk, or the police the second a fight breaks out in an alleyway.
Similarly, the smart revolution offers the potential to integrate public and private security more closely. Rather than rely on private security firms that respond to alarms that are triggered, homeowners in the future may have a system of cameras or sensors that can much more accurately assess behavior and determine whether it’s suspicious. That system will not only be able to alert the police to forced entry, for instance, but it will provide the crucial context that will determine how they address the situation. For instance, is the intruder carrying a weapon? Is the homeowner in the house?
All of these changes will have to be embraced with care, with an eye towards protecting the privacy of individuals. If we’re smart about smart technology, however, the future looks bright.