Data-Driven Cities

How intelligent infrastructure is reshaping the urban landscape
 Data cities

By Jon Walton...

By 2050, nearly 70 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities – meaning that much of the world’s resources will be consumed in urban environments. With the density and interconnectedness of modern cities combined with the latent power of information/technology, unprecedented efficiencies in energy and resource management are now possible, and companies are scurrying to develop integrated systems to help maximize sustainability.

The looming infrastructure crisis in the United States and major cities across North America and Europe is providing a unique opportunity to revamp existing utilities and transportation systems with 21st century technology, and create intelligent, responsive software that can watch over the millions of interactions in waste, energy, transport, water, and more with an unflinching digital eye.

In pursuit of that vision, several city-scale experiments are taking place in cities across the globe, including PlanIT Valley in Portugal and the CITE project in New Mexico. Integrated, holistic systems like these require a new leap in technologically-equipped infrastructure – machine-to-machine communication. Full automation of complex and dynamic systems like energy distribution or sewage control is a difficult task, but efficiencies orders of magnitude higher than existing conditions are possible when control is shifted from relatively slow, error-prone human agents to intelligent, electronically-conversing digital programs. Self-regulating systems like smart grids, emergency services, and others will allow cities to do more with less, reducing environmental footprints while improving functionality.

What would a data-driven city look like? Imagine millions of sensors embedded in buildings, streets, and infrastructural elements working together to alert and dispatch firefighters to the scene of a burning building, coordinating traffic to provide them the safest and quickest routes. Or self-driving cars roaming accident-free through efficient, coordinated streets like a vehicular orchestra, feeding off of city-wide wi-fi signals. Or a menagerie of alternative energy sources, including solar, geothermal, anaerobic digesters, and micro-wind synchronized to provide precise power distribution – all without the need for human direction.

This top-down approach to resource management is an emerging field, and as such is easy prey for a wide range of criticism from skepticism of efficacy to concerns of security – but the fundamental idea of allowing intelligent components to self-monitor and adapt to the dynamic needs of an urban population is increasingly attractive as information-overload is fast becoming a pervasive and omnipresent problem.  

Out-sourcing some of this coordination effort to intelligent operating systems will allow us to better design, manage, and maintain infrastructure in cities of the future – but many of these advances require significant restructuring of existing utilities. Projections suggest there will be more than 136 new cities with populations over 1 million by 2025, with many of these arising in China and and the Middle-East. Since much of these areas are undeveloped, engineers and urban planners are offered a blank slate of sorts to try to integrate a full spectrum of smart infrastructure from the ground up.

In other major cities, like New York or London, the process will have to be gradual. But if climate models and pollution rates are any indicator, we may need to begin implementing these technologies sooner rather than later, as our cities will need to become much more efficient if our planet is going to support billions of resource-consumers and waste-generators. In this liminal stage between the time when our advances will help us improve the diversity and health of the planet, and the current moment when our technologies threaten everything, we must continue to innovate and implement the foundations of a sustainable future in good faith – and a sense of urgency.

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