The Future of Smart Cities

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The Future of Smart Cities

Published: Tue 21 October 2014 | by Martin Wiesner

It served us well for a very long time. Then, at some point, a great innovation happened: phones could store frequently used numbers - and even dial them for you. Later you could make notes on phones, which by now were mobile, about the same time that the first crude games made their appearance. The list of phone numbers became an address book and spell checkers appeared. Black and white screens were replaced with full colour just in time for the built-in camera which, to be honest, nobody asked for and few people knew what to do with at the time. This was followed by internet access and basic browsers. Before long we all had "smart phones" that could not only store our friends' phone numbers but also our music collections, all our photos and do contactless payment. We use them to plan trips and manage our social lives. Smart phones became involved in every aspect of our lives and we can barely function without it.

For a very long time cities consisted of brick and mortar with water and electricity running through their veins. They housed people and businesses - nothing more, nothing less. At some point traffic lights became synchronised and we saw CCTV cameras appearing on street corners. Optic fibre and broadband made its way into our homes. We started hearing and reading about "Smart Cities" and what used to be a futuristic concept is now becoming one of the most talked about topics in the business and technology world. Governments, too, have taken notice and are rolling out initiatives to share in the action. But what will smart cities look like and how will they will affect or improve our lives? Ask this question to ten people and you'll get ten different answers. Maybe, instead of predicting the future, we should take a step back and learn something from the past. If you asked someone in the seventies what the future of telephony would look like they'd probably describe what we today refer to as video calling. Which is really not a big thing because modern phones can do more useful and interesting things than the very basic task of supplementing voice with video. They have become extensions of ourselves, both for business and pleasure, and put us in contact with people, things, products and events in a way that make them indispensable to most people.

Smart cities, like smart phones, are unlikely to develop the way we want or expect them to. They will evolve naturally as technologies appear and merge, creating new applications and industries. Despite huge incentives from governments and interest groups, most of this development will be commercially driven. The best that governments can do is to create the environment for smart cities to develop unhindered. We've seen with smart phones, especially the App Store and iTunes, how commerce finds a way to drive development if there's business to be had, snowballing into new and previously unforeseen industries. This often happens at an astounding rate with nice-to-have novelties becoming indispensable overnight.

Smart cities will probably regulate traffic and monitor air quality, to use some frequently used examples, but a decade or two from now we'll look back and probably see much more far-reaching innovations. Smart cities will put us in touch with services, products and events like never before. The components to make this a reality are already there: connectivity, on-line shopping, services on demand, cars that are getting smarter - the list goes on. The overlaps are also getting bigger and at some point technology-driven services will merge, like the digital camera and the cellular phone. How or when this will happen is hard to say but it is widely anticipated that the smart car will act as catalyst, bringing a number of existing disciplines together to launch the smart city concept to the next level. Imagine a world where smart cities don't only bring things to you but can actually take you there.

If the future of the smart city is as hard to predict as that of the smart phone, is there anything concrete that we can learn from history and apply to the future? Experts believe there is. The one common denominator that has characterised every aspect of smart phone development is an increasing appetite for (and dependence on) connectivity. Not only to make calls, which incidentally is one of the lesser used features of smart phones, but to manage and regulate the way we interact with people and things. This applies to computers, office and home automation, a myriad of machines and devices that we use and interact with daily, and soon also smart cars. When setting up house or shop in the city of tomorrow the three most important factors may very well be connectivity, connectivity, connectivity.

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