By Simon Moores. Adapted from an article first posted at JLA.
As the TV news reports nearly every day, we are in the middle of the largest migration period in history and yet one can’t help but notice the future of the millions of urban poor being conspicuously absent in the utopic vision offered by the digital prophets in many developed and developing nations
In 1900, it’s estimated 200 million people lived in cities, at the time, about one-eighth of the world’s population. A little over one hundred years later, over 3 billion people now occupy urban space and in 2015, London surpassed its 1939 peak of 8.5 million residents, placing unprecedented demands on both infrastructure and public services.
The security researcher Robert Muggah describes the phenomenon of ‘turbo-urbanization’, and this is one of the key drivers of risk in developing economies today. For example, China is adding a mega city the size of London every two years and India needs to build the equivalent of a new Manchester every year to keep up with inexhaustible demand for urban housing.
It was as true of the era of Thomas Edison as it is of the present, that the search for an answer to the challenges of growing urbanisation is believed to exist through the smarter application of new technologies. Where once, electricity and the arrival of the elevator gave us vertical cities, today, we have the promise of the Internet of Things (IoT) Artificial Intelligence (AI) Big Data, micro-controllers (MEMS) and new materials to help manage a very crowded future.
Perhaps we should simply admit that nobody has a clue what the world will look like in even five years’ time. Before we start prematurely celebrating the arrival ‘Smart Cities,’ we urgently need to solve the problems of ‘Sick Cities‘ and ‘Safe Cities’. More importantly, we might ask if we are so focused on an urban utopia, that we have lost touch with some of the very real technical, infrastructure and social problems that define the fastest growing urban environments. I noted on a recent BBC news a report that some Chinese cities have been erected without adequate drainage and sewer systems to deal with regular monsoon-driven flooding.
We are living in what has been described as ‘An Era of Possibilities,’ a special window in both time and technology is now driving the scaling of commercial and social activity beyond the familiar boundaries we are used to.
We are on the cusp of a technology-based societal transformation that will be at least as big as that of the Industrial Revolution.
In a conference presentation this summer in London (IFSEC Global) I was asked which ‘Smart Technologies’ will have the biggest impact on cities in the future and what emerging trends are keeping people and property safe? Can we can evolve the emerging concept of a smart city organically; one app, one Uber, one check-in, one API call, one Arduino, one hot spot at a time?
In hundreds of cities across the world, we see the arrival of a new civic consciousness as the smartphone becomes a platform for reinventing the urban landscape from the bottom up. We are moving from dull, monolithic and centralised, City Hall-controlled data into richer and more useful crowdsourced data from millions of smartphones. Cities are already the most complex structures mankind has ever created and for a new generation of civic leaders, in larger and developed ‘super-cities’ like New York, London and Singapore, smart technology represents an opportunity to rethink and even reinvent the tired-looking model of local government.
The potential for cities to improve performance and personal security using data and crowd-sourced analytics is dramatic and potentially unlimited. Technology appears to hold many answers but simultaneously presents us with bigger problems too. Why?
Well, for one reason, in the past, urban risk was widely distributed among structures rather than devices, but today technology companies and even politicians imagine anything capable of holding an electric current, from the city’s water supply valves, to your bathroom light-bulb connected to the Internet; confronted by a perfect storm of risk factors and potential vulnerabilities. There is the potential for the recent Ashley Madison hack to look like child’s play as each of these connection points is potentially a source for a security breach.
If I were to summarise the message of my presentation at IFSEC Global this last summer, it would be this – Much like the arrival of Uber and Airbnb, The Internet of Things will deliver exciting opportunities, many of which we have yet to imagine. However, there will be equally unimagined and unintended consequences, if only because, in highly complex systems with many connected and tightly-linked elements, accidents are inevitable.
The vision of a utopian urban future, rests heavily on the success of Open Data and a fast-evolving Cloud Computing paradigm. However, unless government and industry can collectively find a standardised model to secure a trillion or so smart devices, the surface area risk for tomorrow’s Smart Cities appears daunting. A wider communications break-down in the Cloud could lead to the kind of ‘Downtime’ paralysis described by the SF novelist, Cory Doctorow, in his short story, ‘Human Readable.’
That’s not to say I’m a pessimist. On a recent visit to give a talk in Hong Kong, my taxi from the airport had five smartphones fixed to a specially constructed Perspex dashboard positioned in front of the driver. At any one time he appeared to be using at least three.
Having grown-up with an earlier vision of the future by the Ridley Scott movie, ‘Blade Runner’ the oriental combination of a very old Toyota taxi and a small gallery of smartphones, pointed me in the direction of another urban landscape. Governments and big technology companies may have grand visions for the future of smart cities, but ultimately, the coming age of global urbanisation will be crowd-shaped by citizen interest groups, market forces, Open Data, smartphones and an even army of fast-talking, multi-tasking Chinese taxi drivers?
Simon Moores (@SimonMoores) is a strategic technologies and risk consultant. A Vice President of the Conservative Technology Forum and a former ‘Technology Ambassador’ for the British Government.