Cities Find Rewards in Cheap Technologies

Nanette Byrnes at MIT Technology Review: “Cities around the globe, whether rich or poor, are in the midst of a technology experiment. Urban planners are pulling data from inexpensive sensors mounted on traffic lights and park benches, and from mobile apps on citizens’ smartphones, to analyze how their cities really operate. They hope the data will reveal how to run their cities better and improve urban life. City leaders and technology experts say that managing the growing challenges of cities well and affordably will be close to impossible without smart technology.
Fifty-four percent of humanity lives in urban centers, and almost all of the world’s projected population growth over the next three decades will take place in cities, including many very poor cities. Because of their density and often strained infrastructure, cities have an outsize impact on the environment, consuming two-thirds of the globe’s energy and contributing 70 percent of its greenhouse-gas emissions. Urban water systems are leaky. Pollution levels are often extreme.
But cities also contribute most of the world’s economic production. Thirty percent of the world’s economy and most of its innovation are concentrated in just 100 cities. Can technology help manage rapid population expansion while also nurturing cities’ all-important role as an economic driver? That’s the big question at the heart of this Business Report.
Selling answers to that question has become a big business. IBM, Cisco, Hitachi, Siemens, and others have taken aim at this market, publicizing successful examples of cities that have used their technology to tackle the challenges of parking, traffic, transportation, weather, energy use, water management, and policing. Cities already spend a billion dollars a year on these systems, and that’s expected to grow to $12 billion a year or more in the next 10 years.
To justify this kind of outlay, urban technologists will have to move past the test projects that dominate discussions today. Instead, they’ll have to solve some of the profound and growing problems of urban living. Cities leaning in that direction are using various technologies to ease parking, measure traffic, and save water (see “Sensing Santander”), reduce rates of violent crime (see “Data-Toting Cops”), and prepare for ever more severe weather patterns.
There are lessons to be learned, too, from cities whose grandiose technological ideas have fallen short, like the eco-city initiative of Tianjin, China (see “China’s Future City”), which has few residents despite great technology and deep government support.
The streets are similarly largely empty in the experimental high-tech cities of Songdo, South Korea; Masdar City, Abu Dhabi; and Paredes, Portugal, which are being designed to have minimal impact on the environment and offer high-tech conveniences such as solar-powered air-conditioning and pneumatic waste disposal systems instead of garbage trucks. Meanwhile, established cities are taking a much more incremental, less ambitious, and perhaps more workable approach, often benefiting from relatively inexpensive and flexible digital technologies….”