Name a sci-movie or book that accurately predicted that one day cities would be full of people with their heads glued to their phones. Give up? There you have the main problem of futurologists. They rarely see the change coming. However, our question today is answerable because we can already see the innovations and shifts that are making cities work better.

The question of how the city of the future will function is really a question of how society will function. With half of us living in cities today, that figure is expected to be two thirds by 2050. The city is already the nerve center of the national economy and society itself, and will continue to be so as far as anyone can see. Technology is fundamentally changing the way cities work, and looking at the most significant innovations and shifts indicates how the city of the future will live and breathe in its truest sense yet.

Connectivity

What many futurologists and CIO’s (Chief Information Officers) talk about is data-driven cities. This means government making data public. For example, traffic numbers, pollution levels, footfall, energy usage, crime and incidents statistics, as well as other data could be made available, free-of-charge through open source platforms.

The benefits of this would include collaboration, more scope for private sector initiatives, as well as more transparent government and city that delivers solutions to the citizen immediately. To take a really simple example, traffic jams could be avoided by notifying motorists whenever an accident has occurred, or when traffic is starting to pick up on a certain road and its best avoided. Right now this is generally done by radio stations, which works okay, but real-time updates would be far more efficient.

Or, apps could link in to city infrastructure, which in a very simple way could solve the problem of parking. Apologies for overusing motorists as an example, but congestion in cities is a huge problem. Some city officials estimate that around 40% of moving cars in central parts of the city are looking for parking. Phone apps could notify where there is a free parking spot, and you could pay via the app. Just imagine how much better it would be to have an app guide you to a spot. It would also eradicate that age-old problem of having to find change for the meter.

And it doesn’t have to be just motorists either. Imagine if you could get real-time data on a place you were going. You wan’t to go to the park today, but what if its overly crowded? That restaurant seems like a nice idea, but how long is the queue? Nowait is an app that already does this. And Google is already using its own data, presumably from check-ins, to tell you when some businesses are busiest, be they restaurants, bars, swimming pools or anything else. Real-time data makes cities work much better for the people navigating them.

Apps also have a tremendous social impact. While some of the most commercially successful have been those geared around transport, dating and delivery, there is significant potential for community and local co-operation to become a focus of app developers. Apps geared towards finding volunteers for community projects or small tasks, craigslist-style marketplace apps with a local focus, or simply as a way to raise local issues that affect everyone.

Wifi and smart cities

Soon cities will have wifi everywhere. In some places it already feels like you do, but the real challenge is to make public, free wifi a given. Innovations like Strawberry Energy‘s solar-panel tree provides a self-powering phone charging unit as well as wifi point. Google-backed Sidewalk Labs is in the process of turning New York’s now defunct pay-phones into wifi spots that emit a wifi signal to a radius of up to 150 feet.

Strawberry Energy’s Strawberry Tree, Belgrade, Serbia

Then, there is the Internet of Things. If you are unfamiliar with this, it is essentially the infrastructure of the expanding internet. Real world objects will now be connected via the web to work better. Your front door could be connected to your phone, your window to your TV. It is extending the power of the internet to physical objects to make everything work better.

And in the city? Well, the opportunities are endless. Smart traffic lights could be linked to a control grid that is scanning the streets to determine how best to use them. An example could be if you were the only car in an area at night, the system would ensure you would always have a green light. This would save time for the consumer, and help the environment as stopped traffic emits more CO2. These exist in a few places but it is their expansion that will be effective.

The video below, created by Keiichi Matsuda, show’s apps and an interacting city taken to its most extreme possibility. Quite nauseating and in some ways harrowing, it nonetheless shows the possibilities. Matsuda made it to show the dark side that technological advances could take. It would be up to society to ensure the outcome is a little more healthy than this one. See what you think.

HYPER-REALITY from Keiichi Matsuda on Vimeo.

Public Transport

We’ve already gone through a little of how smart cities and technology could make private transport more efficient. But what about the public domain? Well, there are already some examples in operation of what could become the norm for cities in 100 or 200 years.

For example, the Maglev train, a shortening of Magnetic Levitation, is an eco-friendly (has no engine), low-maintenance (track and train don’t touch) and more comfortable (levitation means a smooth and quiet ride) passenger experience. They are in operation in Shanghai, China, and Linimo, Japan.

Maglev Train, Shanghai

Another possible public transportation system of the future is personal pods. Several have been tried out, but the longest-lasting and most successful is undoubtedly the Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit system at West Virginia University. It does not look particularly futuristic (shown below), but that is because it was built in the 1970s. Eight fit in each pod, and users can choose destination and skip unnecessary stops (though during busy times this the pod does stop at each stop).

Seoul’s public transport system is regularly touted as the world’s greatest. With lightning fast wifi at stations and on trains, TV’s providing entertainment, very few delays and a schedule worked out by mathematicians and scientists to ensure efficiency, it is a model for the future. Oh, and the seats are heated in winter.

While the city in the U.S most associated with innovation is San Francisco, it is Austin that is leading the way forward my integrating public transport and phone apps. CapMetro app lets you buy tickets, plan your journey and check schedules on-the-go. Toronto also has its own version of this.

Other cities showing innovation in public transport systems include Helsinki and Curitiba. In Helsinki, you can use an app to designate your desired pick-up and drop off points. The system calculates the most optimal route for all users of the service and delivers it promptly, providing a shared, efficient system to satisfy everyone. Kind of similar to Uber which now has a pooling option, where users on the same route pool together to save money.

Boarding a bus in Curitiba, Brazil

In Curitiba, buses have their own designated lanes ensuring they are never caught in traffic. This on its own might not be special, but what is is the fact that the buses are linked in to traffic lights, which stay green a little longer if a bus is approaching. Meanwhile Medellin in Colombia has a metrocable system, where cable cars connect different parts of town. However, extending this to a whole city would create logistical and aesthetic issues, so expect it only for exceptional routes.

Public Services

Most of our interactions with the state involve long waiting times, stifling bureaucracy and unnecessary forms. Government is still in the mindset of ‘there’s a form for that’ and needs to join the tech world in saying ‘there’s an app for that’. HMRC in the UK and IRS in the USA often still refuse to use email in favour of written letters. It’s 2016!

An IRS worker, or at least how I imagine them to be

The sooner they adapt the better. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to pay fines, bills and obtain licences through apps or your computer rather than going down to city hall or your local administration office? The amount of time saved would reap huge economic benefits. It would also mean less footfall in the center of cities, with less need to leave the house to do those annoying tasks.

Hospitals and doctors appointments could become less of a necessity. One thing talked about in healthcare circles is the future of tele-health. Instead of waiting to see a doctor, web calls could be made with home testing devices, for those simple check ups. Obviously, if its something serious nothing will replace going to see a specialist. But for small things and regular checkups the future lies in not needing to leave your house. Again, this would mean less congestion in cities.

And what about security? Imagine if instead of flashing a passport you simple had your eye or thumb scanned. The technology exists, it just needs to be implemented. Police could even avoid the whole problem with reaching for your licence by scanning you instead. Sounds a little scary actually, but who knows what the future may hold.

Signs could become screens instead of static metal sheets. They could change to adapt to the time of day or circumstances, notify people of news and events in the nearby area, or give public service announcements. Then there is the commercial side. With smart cities and data available to companies, personalised advertising is a hot topic right now in start up circles.

Drones

While they might look like something out of the Terminator series, drones will undoubtedly play a bigger role in cities of the future.

Including security and policing, public-service delivery, weather observation, logistics planning, news, real-time data collection as well as commercial uses already being tried out by Amazon, they are sure to change the world. They will be to the 21st Century what planes were to the 20th.

The security and policing aspect is fairly obvious. Drones are a low-cost alternative to helicopters, and whether they are an eye in the sky while chasing criminals or for general surveillance during busy public events, the possibilities are numerous. They could also help deliver public services. For example, they could be a more rapid way to deliver emergency medicine to inaccessible areas or heavily-congested parts of town, in the same way helicopters do now. Thanks to their low cost compared to helicopters they could be dispatched on a patrolling basis: yep, starting to sound a little dystopian now but with the right nuance it could work very well.

Energy

Perhaps the most important change that will need to be made to cities is their energy consumption. In another article I wrote about the moves towards sustainable and even regenerative urban planning. Whether its making urban spaces greener or using recycled materials to build homes, the move to greener urban planning and architecture is a common one.

And it will soon become a necessity, as the harmful effects of inner city pollution on the health of its inhabitants becomes clearer. New research highlighted in the Guardian found that pollution may be contributing to almost 10,000 deaths a year in London. At the end of last year, ten cities in China were placed on red alert, the highest of four pollution categories: so bad they were advised not to engage in outdoor activities and schools were closed. This simply cannot continue, and cities of the future will have to be greener and use less energy, even if out of necessity.

And with more eco-friendly public transport on the way, smarter networks leading to less congestion and the electronic car industry growing daily, the city of the future will be greener and healthier than currently.

Final Word

So there it is. If we combine all the above into a single city, we have one that:

  • Is data-driven, with entrepreneurs and inventors providing solutions to real-world problems the city faces using open-source data
  • Has apps integrated into its infrastructure and networks: apps for taking public transport, apps for checking local news, apps for finding a parking spot, apps for keeping up to date with everything that’s going on, apps for generally interacting with the city infrastructure
  • Has regained its sense of community that has been lost over the last few decades thanks to apps that foster collaboration and cooperation
  • Gives you free, public wifi everywhere
  • Boasts a public transport system that is green, efficient, rapid, geared to the customer thanks to being linked in to apps on their phones, linked in to the city infrastructure in a way that speeds the service up, and has its own isolated routes in the case of buses
  • Has drones flying all over the place, delivering security solutions, public services such as healthcare in a more efficient way
  • Delivers public services in a way that is up-to-date, taking full advantage of all technological options on offer
  • Is sustainable and regenerative for the environment

Now that sounds like a city I want to live in. Of course these already exist in one form or another: nothing I have written about is hypothetical. They just haven’t been combined and consolidated into entire-city networks yet. But one day they will be.

Not to end on a pessimistic note, but I believe this sort of city is more likely to be seen in developing economies. The most innovative and interest cities are being built in the developing world and the Middle East, where rapid economic growth and more greenfield sites is allowing for more ground-up construction, with the benefit of hindsight and these aforementioned ideas.

The chance of New York or London ditching their subway systems for a transport system more like the ones mentioned here is very slim due to the huge costs involved. Much of the technological stuff could be implemented fairly easily, but the really revolutionary change that requires huge construction costs is more likely to be seen in countries where they have a fast-growing economy and can build from the ground up.