The world’s 100 largest cities account for a quarter of the global economy. Make them work better and you can have a significant impact. But it’s people and politics, not technology, that get in the way.
Technology can change the world’s cities radically in the next couple of decades – if people and politics will let it.
That was the impression left by a panel discussion entitled Planetary Intelligence and the Smart City, part of the World Congress on Information Technology taking place in Montreal earlier this week this week.
“Technology is not the issue,” said panelist Peter Williams, chief technology officer of IBM’s Big Green Innovations unit. “The issue is always the politics.”
Robin Chase, the founder and chief executive of Buzzcar and GoLoco, two companies in France that promote car-sharing and shared travel, cited a couple of examples. Governments are used to expecting cars to belong to one individual or business, she said. Licences are normally either residential or commercial. Buzzcar lets individuals rent their cars to other individuals, which blurs the line between residential and commercial vehicles.
Parking is another example, she said. As more people adopt car-sharing or switch to public transit, developers could save money and cities could save space by building fewer parking spaces. But today, most people still drive and assume they and others will keep driving, so there is strong resistance to new development without the traditional amount of parking because nearby residents fear it will lead to parking problems.
“The biggest impediment of course is the status quo,” Chase said.
Redesigning the way cities work will also change the way they need to be administered, Williams said, and the resistance to that sort of change is another impediment. Administrative departments will need to work together in different ways, but the people in them tend to resist such changes.
He hopes for bottom-up change as younger employees coming into the public sector adapt to new ways of working.
If talk of smarter cities makes you think of a Jetsons-style future with flying cars, think again. “I think cities in one to three decades will look pretty much like they do today,” Carlo Ratti, director of the SENSEable City Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) told the WCIT audience. But beneath the appearances will be radically changed ways of doing things.
Ratti sees electronic sensing as one of the key technologies bringing about that change. He expects tiny, inexpensive sensors spread throughout the urban environment to help cities plan many things – such as traffic flow and trash removal – better than they can today.
Smart-city technology can go a long way toward reducing waste, Williams said. He took the host city of the conference as an example – according to some statistics about 40 per cent of the water that is treated for use in Montreal is never paid for, either because of inaccurate metering or because of simple leakage from the city’s aging water lines.
Fixing problems like that can contribute noticeably to fixing environmental problems, Williams argued. Another example is the fact that about 30 per cent of the food available in the United States is wasted – and the figure is probably comparable in other developed countries, Williams said. Part of this is because of people buying more food than they need and allowing it to spoil, or throwing out edible but unwanted food, but part of it can also be blamed on distribution problems, which technology could alleviate.
“Let’s stop doing the stupid stuff,” suggested Williams.
He added that focusing on cities is an effective way to address problems like these because about a quarter of the world economy is concentrated in its 100 largest cities. “That’s 100 places you can go and affect 25 per cent of the world economy.”