In a similar way, over the past decade digital technologies have begun to blanket our cities, forming the backbone of a large, intelligent infrastructure. Broadband fiber-optic and wireless telecommunications grids are supporting mobile phones, smartphones and tablets that are increasingly affordable. At the same time, open databases—especially from the government—that people can read and add to are revealing all kinds of information, and public kiosks and displays are helping literate and illiterate people access it. Add to this foundation a relentlessly growing network of sensors and digital-control technologies, all tied together by cheap, powerful computers, and our cities are quickly becoming like “computers in open air.”
The vast amount of data that is emerging is the starting point for making efficient infrastructure programmable so that people can optimize a city’s daily processes. Extracting information about real-time road conditions, for example, can reduce traffic and improve air quality. In Stockholm’s road-pricing scheme, cameras automatically identify license plates of vehicles entering the city center and charge drivers’ accounts up to 60 kronor ($9.50) a day, depending on where the cars go. The system has reduced the waiting time for vehicles traversing the central district by up to 50 percent and has reduced pollutant emissions by up to 15 percent. Similar technologies can help lessen water use (one example is being used by the Sonoma County Water Agency in California) and provide better services to citizens.
Two recent projects devised by the Senseable City Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology illustrate the intelligence that is possible. Trash Track reveals how garbage flows through a city’s waste-management system, indicating how to create a more efficient “removal chain” (as opposed to the supply chain). Electronic tags that transmit information over cellular networks are attached to pieces of trash to see where the items go. In one Seattle test the lab tracked more than 2,000 items, including recyclable materials such as glass, metal and plastic; household hazardous waste such as rechargeable batteries; and electronics such as monitors. Some items traveled across the U.S. (one printer cartridge went 6,152 kilometers!). Some ended up in legally compliant destinations, and some did not. The results reveal ways to minimize carbon dioxide emissions by transporting waste more efficiently. And Seattle could use the information to promote behavioral changes among its citizens, encouraging them to recycle more or to properly dispose of hazardous materials.
The second project, LIVE Singapore, uses real-time data recorded by the myriad communications devices, microcontrollers and sensors found in our urban environment to analyze the pulse of the city, moment to moment. The results suggest new ways to understand and optimize the city, ultimately to help people experience it like never before. LIVE Singapore’s open-platform software allows people to develop different applications in a collaborative way. Work has begun on apps that tell commuters how they can reach their homes fastest, how residents can reduce their neighborhood’s energy consumption and how inhabitants can get hold of a taxi when a rainstorm is crossing the island and the vehicles all seem to have disappeared.
The potential for developing more of this kind of efficient infrastructure is vast—and a good fraction can be unleashed through smart systems. It is thus no surprise that many large corporations, such as IBM, Cisco Systems, Siemens, Accenture, Ferrovial and ABB, are setting their sights on the urban space.
Lessons from the Networked Past
It is fitting that Cairo has become a modern model of urban transformation because the ancient world holds the key to understanding what makes cities thrive. The invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago begot the first fixed settlements. As farming produced more food than was needed for survival, towns and villages developed specialized labor forces and institutions. Markets, temples and palaces created social networks organized for commerce, worship and government. Over time the interactions within these networks became more layered and complex. It turns out that sociability, not efficiency, is the true killer app for cities.