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Thursday, June 2, 2016

Smart Cities of the 21st Century

By Amy Erixon, Toronto

We are presently two-thirds of the way through “the urban century”; a period where the number of people living in cities worldwide will increase nearly 10-fold.   North America is the most urbanized region with 82% of its population currently living in cities, followed by Europe.  Most of the remaining urbanization will occur in Asia and Africa, the world’s most drought afflicted regions, and in the Middle East, the most geopolitically at-risk region.  These migrating populations pose significant challenges to be met by technology, social and economic policy.   If the problems are not solved regionally, then the existing cities of the world will need to be reshaped to accommodate this population surge. 

More than anything, it is the push and pull of technology that has triggered this demographic shift.  Electrification followed by Industrialization started the move off farms to cities.  The machine age triggered the growth of the services economy, and we have just entered the so-called 4th Industrial Revolution, moving beyond automation and global supply chains to additive manufacturing and artificial intelligence (AI), which, like previous disruptors will further realign the location, production, labor and service value chains and facilitate (or demand) that cities transform in response.    

It is from this point of view that technology will help us to address the most vexing of urban issues, including poverty, congestion, drought, and pollution; lack of access to recreation, education and affordable housing; and also address large scale climate risks, which while affecting us globally need to be implemented locally.  
Some countries, and communities are in a rush to get out in front of others on these issues.  China, for example, has for the last four years been the leader in developing and installing renewable energy.  India recently completed a global competition for teams to help meet their Smart Cities Challenge. 

 Rapidly urbanizing, the Government of India has approved US$15 billion of funding of “smart infrastructure” to improve quality of life – things including assured water and power supply, sanitation and solid waste management, efficient urban mobility and public transport, and robust IT connectivity.   E-governance and citizen participation along with safety of its citizens are some of the required attributes to secure funding for these smart cities.

Both white collar and blue collar workforces benefit greatly from the governmental implementation of IT tools to enhance quality of life; just as private sector employers have done to improve accuracy, speed and market reach of its workforce.   While some technology is being greeted with concerns - it frequently unfolds with disproportionate obsolescence and disruptive effects on certain job classifications (recently bank clerks and taxicab drivers) it also increases workforce in other areas (data analysis and programming).   But these shifts are inevitable when a technology offers more choice at lower cost.   Locations well positioned to make investments in new economy infrastructure (education and training, high speed universal broadband, cybersecurity and cyberphysical sensor networks) will be leaders in obtaining the coveted high value jobs of the future. 

Examples of current technologies causing disruption would include the sharing economy app based systems (like Uber and AirBNB); robo-finance and crowd sourcing/funding; driverless vehicles and AI smart systems.   When applied to cities - smart systems refer to cyber physical systems (CPS) - a network of sensors monitoring flows such as water, traffic, electric grid, and emergency rooms connected by wifi to a command center and communications hub where resources can be dispensed, controlled, ordered and optimized. 


May 4th, 2016 was the 100th birthday of Jayne Jacobs, the famed US and Canadian Urbanologist, and author of Death and Life of Great American Cities.  Her vision for creating livable cities that solve problems is getting a big shot in the arm toward becoming a reality, thanks in large part to advances in technology.    We should take heed and be challenging our leaders to provide constructive leadership during this transition period.  We need strategies to facilitate creation of purposeful places which facilitate positive social change and enhance economic competitiveness together with strategies to retool our workforce for the jobs of tomorrow.    

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