The future is coming!

These days, when you attend a conference or seminar that brings together professionals and prognosticators to discuss “the future” and how we are going to “build the future,” you hear a lot of similar refrains: that future urban infrastructure will be (or already is) intelligent, connected, and aware, and multiple factors are converging simultaneously (many of which have been in place for a while now), enabling rapid change to city infrastructure and services.

I attend as many of these conferences as I can: they’re exciting and optimistic perspectives that counteract so much of the malaise that permeates our current zeitgeist. When I go to one, I am often reminded of retro-futuristic, Jetson-style films that Disney made in the 1950s: between driverless cars and robot maids, they surprisingly got a lot right. But then I remember that we are living in that future right now, which means they missed a lot too, such as inactivity, obesity, and a growing socio-economic divide.

The Internet of Things tells us that everything is connected, but what is this extreme connectivity actually doing: bridging or expanding that divide? Is it transformative or just another layer? When I attend these Smart City summits I come away with as many questions as answers. Will a smart city improve the quality of life for all inhabitants, offering good education, healthcare, housing, transportation and sanitation, low crime rates and clean air? Can a city’s “smart” infrastructure support a thriving economic base offering employment and entrepreneurial opportunities?

Fundamentally, cities are at their core about organizing people, mainly for shared interest. But what happens when other people start organizing people, which is what we are seeing in new “disruptive technology” platforms that are always cause célèbre at these events, like Uber or Airbnb. As a result of technological shifts, are we seeing a shift in roles? Where governments used to be the ones organizing people, now we are seeing private enterprise organize people…

Think Airbnb: if it has become more profitable to rent out your property on a nightly basis instead of a monthly basis, and as a result you see a housing stock that gets used only three months a year instead of 12 months a year, which means a portion of a city’s housing stock effectively disappears, how does or should a city respond with policy in a time when housing affordability is such a thorny issue? Or think UberPool: basically carpooling but effectively “transit,” it starts as a six person minivan but why not a larger van and then a larger… eventually becoming in effect public transit. But isn’t that the role of government?

Our economy is being re-created by the digital age, and it’s only just begun. Every piece of our world will soon be online, transforming government, business and innovation. Intelligent buildings have been built for decades, but now their real advantages are when they are connected to smart infrastructure, utilizing analytics, sensors and big data. How will the Internet of Things shape how we build our cities, how we operate and govern them and the future of everyday city life? This is what we should constantly be questioning, not just what my new watch can do.

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