Can Smart Cities Become a Reality?

November 30, 2017 - 11 minutes read

What sci-fi work hasn’t had that epic shot or mention of a futuristic smart city, usually adorned in radiant lights and covered with colossal skyscrapers and flying cars? As we edge closer to a future where hyperloops promise to take us from Los Angeles to New York City in minutes and the idea of going to Mars becomes more viable, tech companies are also turning their eyes towards taking smart cities from sci-fi to reality.

But are smart cities really viable? A number of famous cities believe that we’re ready for that time to come — the Consumer Technology Association expects the smart city market to be valued at $34.4 billion by 2020. Even now, a number of projects are already getting their smart cities off the ground. But they have a few challenges to face before their cities of the future actually see the future.

Techs and the City

Smart cities are a metro-level marriage of a number of disruptive technologies, with the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence being chief among them. Of course, there are many other technologies involved that drastically improve efficiency and sustainability, but these two allow smart cities to communicate intelligently. They’re the parts that actually give smart cities their “smarts.”

Alphabet is an organization that owns Google, Nest, Waymo, and numerous other companies developing AI and IoT to disrupt various fields. Sidewalk Labs, another Alphabet-owned company, recently made headlines when it announced its plan to turn an 800-acre area of Toronto into what is essentially a smart city neighborhood. Initially, Sidewalk Labs will invest $50 million just to perform testing of smart city tech. The company will also strive for the lakeside development in Toronto to have net zero emissions.

Besides being green, Sidewalk Labs already has a plethora of advanced AI and IoT tech that it could implement as well. Waymo’s self-driving cars and Google’s Maps data working in tandem could turn this smart city experiment into the role model for future city transportation.

Near Boston, a similar initiative spanning 1,200 acres is underway. This smart development, known as Union Point, is being planned by Boston-based architect Elkus Manfredi and Watertown, Massachusetts-based architect Sasaki. Just like in Toronto, there will be a huge emphasis on being eco-friendly. One unique aspect of this project is their focus on the information technology infrastructure. To the delight of all Boston developers, this smart city will have WiFi nearly everywhere and serve as a testing area for IoT.

On the other side of the U.S., another smart city project is to be built from scratch in Arizona. Reportedly backed by Bill Gates, this 24,800-acre development, known as Belmont, Arizona, will be as big as Tempe, an existing city in Arizona! Belmont would feature “new manufacturing and distribution paradigms” in addition to driverless cars, green energy, and high-speed digital networks.

In case it wasn’t obvious yet, most of these smart cities seem to be modeled around a techie’s personal version of paradise. And that’s no coincidence. After all, to keep a smart city running, you’ll need its inhabitants to be relatively tech-savvy. But before you can get a smart city up and running, first you need to overcome the hurdles that are stopping it from starting.

Major Challenges to Starting a Smart City

Technology is obviously an inherent part of what makes a smart city. That’s why it’s one of a smart city’s biggest weaknesses. The rate of technological progress is accelerating, and paradigms that were once new become obsolete faster than ever before. It’s not farfetched to assume that by the time a smart city is completely constructed, parts of it will already be out-of-date. This is exactly what happened with the now obsolete video-call screens that were installed in Korea’s smart city, Songdo.

Through careful, deliberate planning, this problem can be circumvented. Boston’s Union Point is doing this by only laying the foundation for its tenants to utilize and innovate with. The city planners behind this hope that it will leave Union Point capable of adapting to the future. Another way to avoid becoming obsolete is for smart cities to use a modularized construction approach so that transitions to newer technologies can easily replace older technologies.

Of course, any obstacle for technology is also poised to be trouble for smart cities. So it’s easy to see how regulatory hurdles could also throttle technological progress. Case in point is the adoption of 5G mobile networks. These networks will form the backbone for IoT adoption and smart city living. So why is it taking so long to be implemented? Brandt Hershman, an Indiana state senator, wonders the same thing: “If it were Honda or Toyota coming to the state, we write them a check. But when it comes to 5G wireless, why do we want to put up barriers?”

Indiana recently passed a measure to expedite the progress being made towards 5G, and Arizona has recently passed similar legislation. But with things proceeding so slowly just to get a faster mobile network, you can imagine how much “red tape” is surrounding newer, more foreign technologies. Besides these regulatory roadblocks, people may also be a substantial impedance to smart city living.

Getting everybody onboard to live in a smart city is easier said than done. Many people don’t understand how a smart city’s technology could improve their lives. And some believe that things are already as good it gets; no technological update is going to augment their lives much. Then there are also quite a few people who just don’t want to be surrounded by so many sensors and other gadgets.

If a city wants to become a smart city, it’s imperative for its local government and the tech companies involved to teach residents how this technology could benefit the community. Charlie Catlett, an urban data expert in Chicago, is spearheading this methodology with a pilot program known as “Array of Things.” This project is currently teaching 150 high school students skills that will enable them to interact with smart city technology. As Catlett puts it, “It’s about empowering students to see smart city technology not as something that some company does, [but] as an opportunity to make a difference.”

The Uncertain Future of Smart Cities

When smart cities will become a ubiquitous part of our present is still up in the air. The challenges we discussed are some of the biggest obstacles facing smart cities today, and they are also just a few of many. We’re probably still a while away from smart cities becoming the norm. For the near future, it’s probable that we’ll see scattered clusters of smart city zones in areas more accepting of the change than others.

How smart cities will become part of our everyday lives is also still being ironed out. Some smart cities, like the ones in Toronto and Boston, have opted for a piecemeal approach where they only occupy a portion of an established city. Other smart cities, like Belmont, Arizona, are being built from the ground up. Only the future will tell if one approach is better than the other. But the most likely outcome will probably be circumstantial. Cities like Toronto and Boston will embrace and integrate new smart city tech with ease, while some projects like Belmont will flourish and develop into real cities on their own.

Even though best practices and methodologies for making them a reality haven’t been figured out just yet, smart cities are an inevitable part of our future. Besides the ones mentioned in this article, countless other projects are currently in progress. China has over 200 smart cities in development. Dallas, Amsterdam, Saudi Arabia, and French Polynesia are all also currently planning their own smart cities. As the saying goes in technology, smart cities will probably happen “sooner than you think, but later than you hoped.” So keep your eyes peeled. A smart city could be coming to a neighborhood near you sooner than you think.

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