The seventh edition of the series Better cities. The contribution of digital technology is about forecasts, trends and signals regarding the role of technology in the development of cities, as seen by Cornell University's Future of Urban Tech-project. The Dutch versions of this and other already published posts are here.
A source of new insights
Technology has changed the planet for better and for worse. Will this change continue, and which direction will dominate? To answer this question, scientists at the Jacobs Institute at Cornell University in New York developed a horizon scan, named The Future of Urban Tech. At first, they made a content analysis of hundreds of recent scientific publications, from which they distilled 217 signals. These signals were grouped into 49 trends, full of contradictions. Each trend is tagged with an indication of time frame, probability, and societal impact. In the end, they modeled six forecasts. These describe dominant directions for change.
Readers can use the site in their own way. I started from the 17 sectors such as built environment, logistics, mobility, and energy and explored the related trends. It is also possible to start top-down with one of the six forecasts and examine its plausibility considering the related trends and signals. I will show below that each of the forecasts is challenging and invites further reading.
Content selection is supported by dynamic graphics, which connect all signals, trends and forecasts and enable the reader to see their interrelationships. Just start scrolling, unleash your curiosity and decide after some explorations how to proceed more systematically.
The website briefly describes each of the forecasts, trends, and signals. Each signal reflects the content of a handful of (popular) scientific publications, which are briefly summarized. Read the articles that intrigue you or limit yourself to the summary.
Take the time to explore this site as you will encounter many new insights and opinions. The link to the project is at the end of this article.
Below I will explain some aspects of the content of the project, followed by some caveats.
The forecasts reflect the multiplicity of views in contemporary scientific literature, stimulating readers to form a judgment. The wording of the forecasts is reproduced in abbreviated form below.
1. All buildings, houses, means of transport, infrastructure, but also trees and parks will be connected with sensors and cameras and form one web.
Many buildings, buses, trains, and roads are already equipped with digital detection, but they are not linked yet up at city scale. The next decade will change this, which will, for example, mean a breakthrough in the management of energy flows, but also raise questions regarding privacy.
2. Cities will use advanced biotechnology to take livability to new heights.
Growing understanding of human dependence on nature will lead to mapping the physical-biological world as well as its threats and its blessings to humans. City authorities will equip trees, parks, and waterways with sensors to measure and control the vitality of ecosystems.
3. Resilient corridors will mitigate the impact of climate change, but citizens will be prepared for the inevitable shocks to come.
Cities will reduce CO2 emissions but also prepare for the inevitable consequences of climate change. Political and financial centers of power will be concentrated in places where the impact of climate change can be controlled by technical means.
4. Artificial neural networks provide advanced forms of machine learning with unparalleled predictive capabilities that will bring order to the chaos of urban life.
Machine learning and artificial intelligence will become inscrutable black boxes that make decisions without giving explanations. The ultimate questions are whether the machines to which we outsource our decisions can still be controlled themselves and whether the impact of spontaneous encounters and human ideas disappears if computers produce the best solutions after all?
5. New Screen Deal that redistributes the risks and benefits of urban technology.
“Everything remote” – learning, healthcare, work, and entertainment – is becoming the new normal. The predictive power of AI will lead to conflicts over the concentration of wealth and power that digital platforms cause. But on the other hand, new stakeholders will focus on equity.
6. A global supply chain for city-building technologies will 'crack the code of the city'.
In the smart cities-movement there is a tension between top-down and bottom-up, between proprietary versus open and between Big Tech and Makers. A new urban innovation industry will take dominance but will be more attuned to societal concerns. Governments, in turn, will have a clearer picture of the problems that the industry needs to solve. A public-private structure for investments and governance is indispensable to counter the power of Big Tech.
A few notes
As mentioned, each of the six forecasts is based on trends. Nine trends, in the case of the latest forecast mentioned above. Each trend is illustrated by a handful of signals, documented by various publications. One of the nine trends supporting the latter forecast is “Regional clustering from enterprises to ecosystems”, for example New York, London, Berlin, and Amsterdam. This refers to the growing power of local technology hubs, supported by regional capital and involving governments, start-ups, knowledge institutions and citizens. This concentration could even lead to a new “space race” between cities instead of countries. However, the underlying signals show that this "trend" is more open-ended and uncertain than its description warrants.
I went through many publications documenting the signals and concluded that "trends" essentially map the bandwidth within developments within a domain will occur. To me, this does not detract from the value of the exercise, because the more doubts there are about the future and the more insights we have into the forces that shape it, the more opportunities we have to influence the future.
As the six forecasts must match the open nature of the trends, I have reformulated each of these forecasts as pairs of conflicting directions for development.
1. The commercial or political interests behind urban technology versus the well-being and privacy of citizens.
2. The struggle between 'Big Tech' versus (supra)national political over leadership over technological development.
3. The infusion of technology into all domains of society versus acceptance of unpredictable outcomes of human interactions resulting from creativity, inner motives, and intuitive decisions.
4. Controlling nature through biotechnology versus restoring a balance between humans and natural ecosystems.
5. The concentration of power, political influence, and wealth through control over technology versus open licensing that allows technology to be used for the benefit of the entire world population.
6. Autonomous decision-making through machine learning and artificial intelligence versus the primacy of democratic and decentralized decision-making over the application of technology.
Studying the Future of Urban Tech-project has been a rich and thought-provoking learning experience and has helped fueling the insights underlying this series.
You can find the Future of Urban Tech project behind the link below: