By 2030, more than 60% of the population will be living in cities, rising to 70% by 2050. These are huge figures, and it's hard to imagine the world's already bloated cities coping with this influx of people if things stand as they are. What's needed is a new kind of city.
Countries across the world are looking to the future, wondering what the metropolises of the future will look like, and many are trying to build them here today. Known as Smart, Tech or Ubiquitous Cities, the concept is to merge technology with everyday living to an even greater extent than we already do. The phrases are fairly open, and can be used for cities embracing tech through entrepreneurs and start-ups or ones building ultra-modern smart homes and services.
Smart cities depend on technology, whether it's transport, economy, energy or anything else you can imagine. A good example of what a Smart City can do is automating the smallest things. For example, in an office building equipped with such technologies, when an executive drives into the building's parking garage, the computerized parking system uses license plate recognition to identify the driver as a VIP, directs the car to a free parking spot and cues the elevator. Based on the executive's radio-frequency ID tag, the elevator already knows which floor to go to and the office door is open and waiting. Finally, data prompts the office's lighting, climate-control and workspace systems to configure themselves automatically.
There are two kinds of Smart City. There are those that are being built from scratch with all kinds of new technology in them; Most are currently empty but plan to be inhabited, or, like CITE in Mexico, are ghost towns used purely for research purposes. Then there's the revamping of current cities, where the inefficient services currently in place are replaced with new ones, such as smarter power grids.There are literally hundreds of towns and cities across the world embracing these smart concepts in some form or another, but which ones will become household names in the future?
Korea can be seen as something of a leader in this field. When construction is completed in 2014, Songdo will be the biggest of a planned 15 smart cities. Every Songdo apartment building is equipped with a video conference room and residents are provided with a green meter that measures the daily use of energy, While on top of the 68-floor Northeast Trade Tower a thermal imaging camera has been placed, in order to gather temperature, humidity, wind direction, and wind speed information all across Songdo. If there is a big fire or any pollutants being released, or significant changes to standard conditions, the system is able to sense this and alert the appropriate emergency vehicles like police cars, ambulances, fire trucks, etc.
Along with Singapore, the Malaysian city of Nusajaya is also looking towards becoming a Smart City. But it's not just Southeast Asia that's embracing the concept. According to a report by Lux Research that singles out the cities as having the best framework for developing themselves into Smart Cities, Singapore, Amsterdam , Stockholm, SmartGridCity, Masda and PlanIT Valley are the leaders of the future.
Getting Smart Across the World
But that list is far from exhaustive; there are Smart Cities, both old and new, popping up all over the world. Tech and innovation hubs springing up all over Africa, where the continent's rapid urbanization meets its growing desire for technology and innovation. In the outskirts of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Kigamboni New City is looking to Singapore as a model for its future, using the city's IT growth as a way to attract investors. Meanwhile, over on the East side, Kenya is looking to create its own technology paradise. Ahmed Salim, of the Society of International Development, explained "Konza City in Nairobi, Kenya is a multi-billion dollar ICT city park. The Kenyan Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication expects Konza City to be Africa's home of computerization, the equivalent of Silicon Valley in California, complete with skyscrapers, business centers, international schools and hospitals. It is no secret that Nairobi aspires to be the technology hub of East Africa."
Africa may have high hopes, but these kinds of projects require big money (running into the billions), large amounts of planning and forethought with patience to spend years building, not to mention a skilled workforce to make everything go. While I believe some of the purpose built ones, such as Konza, may have a chance at becoming a major hub, giving somewhere like Dar es Salaam the kind of makeover it needs to become a major technology hub may be close to impossible. Poverty might also be a restricting factor-if you can barely afford to live as you are, embracing technology will be a huge challenge.
In the Middle East, the UAE's Masdar will be a super-efficient green city that will rely entirely on green energy. Recently it became the first city in the region to install a rapid charge point for electric cars. Elsewhere in the region is the snappily-named Medina Knowledge Economic City, and Lisasil, which should have its first tenants by the end of the year. The Gulf's ambition and near-unlimited funds mean these super cities will no doubt be big boomers in the years to come.
Although there have been problems with its SmartGridCity in Colorado, the US is keen. Eight cities are taking part in IBM's Smarter Cities program, and Miami is also hoping to get in on the action. But with Mitt Romney against green technology and the idea that everything has to be produced out the US, how other US tech cities evolve may depend hugely on which face we see entering the White House at the end of the year.
India too is looking to get in on the action, with seven proposed Smart Cities, though it's early days and very little has been finalized. The Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT) is one that has been confirmed however, and should be completed by 2016. With IBM estimating that every minute during the next 20 years, 30 Indians will leave rural India for urban areas, it's important for India to be thinking on this kind of large scale.
A Successful Future?
These projects are great ideas and the kind of forward thinking the world needs as the pressure of trying to keep everything moving increases. But I'm not sure we'll be seeing a wholesale revolution of how we live our lives. For the near-future, I think these tech/U/Smart Cities will be the exception rather than the norm. Purpose built super cities in advanced markets such as South Korea will probably be the most successful if they can convince people to inhabit them, while other established mega-cities will be best positioned to profit from incremental changes. But I can't imagine a city like London ever becoming a hyper-modern metropolis when relatively simple tasks such as keeping signals on the Underground working seems to be a daily struggle.
I think for the concept of Smart Cities to work, they need to be approached from the ground up. With smartphones and tablets selling in ever-larger numbers; companies are starting to integrate them into ‘Smart Homes', and this retro-fitting might be easier than a wholesale rebuilding of entire cities.
With annual spend on Smart Cities estimated to reach $16 billion annually by 2020 (an investment of $108 billion between now and then) these new metropolises aren't going away. How successful they will actually be is yet to be seen.
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