The Future of Cities and the Promise of IoT
Our planet is in trouble. Most people acknowledge that, and a consensus is growing that shifting global populations into high-density, sustainable urban areas is a potential solution. We will find out soon enough: By 2050, two-thirds of humankind will be living in cities - many in megacities of 10 million or more.
The issue, of course, is not just how to make those cities sustainable, but also how to make them liveable. That is not going to be easy when we are all squeezed together onto what amounts to just 2 percent of the planet’s land surface.
Happily, as Havas Group explores in our most recent Prosumer study - 'New Cities, New Lives' - current and emerging technologies have the capacity to lessen the pain points of the modern-day city, including congestion, inadequate parking and public transportation, and other common aggravations. In recent years, we have seen apps such as Pango and Pavemint make it easier for people to locate places to park. We’ve seen private companies take on projects that once were the province of municipalities. In the UK, Pavegen is supercharging walking spaces to collect energy that in turn powers streetlights. In Germany, ubitricity is turning street lamps into charging stations for electric cars. New York’s CityBridge consortium is turning the entire metropolis into an uninterrupted Wi-Fi zone.
Beyond these concentrated fixes, we are also seeing the early stages of genuinely smart cities. All eyes are on Canada to see how Sidewalk Labs (an offshoot of Google’s parent company Alphabet) does with its revitalisation of Toronto’s Lake Ontario waterfront - which the planners like to call 'the first neighbourhood to be built from the internet up'. Much has been promised, including modular designs, self-driving shuttles, digital kiosks, and LEED-certified homes and buildings.
To many of us, the notion of a fully realised Internet of Things (IoT) - including truly connected cities - is the stuff of dreams. What Marvel fan hasn’t considered how handy it would be to have Tony Stark’s AI assistant, J.A.R.V.I.S., taking care of things in the background as one goes about one’s day? That latte from your favourite coffee shop? Already ordered and paid for. That train you’re racing to catch? Slow down. It’s eight minutes behind schedule. Being fully connected by the IoT would make it easier for us to work wherever we wished, to take care of multiple tasks simultaneously, and to keep track of the most important people and responsibilities in our lives. IoT will give us the agility and resilience we need to not be bogged down by legacy systems and outmoded infrastructures.
Smart cities will only truly work, though, if our homes keep up. And that will require brands in the space to divine consumers’ most essential pleasure and pain points - especially those they may not yet have expressed or even recognised. (Hence, our Prosumer research.) For now, people are happy to dabble in the newest (and not so new) home gadgets, relying on Amazon Echo or Google Home for an ever-expanding list of functions (“Alexa, tell Furbo to give Baron von Slobbersalot a treat”), on CubeSensors to monitor in-home air quality, and maybe using the WeMo app to adjust the temperature on a smart crockpot while stuck in traffic. These are a great start, but we need our homes to move every bit as fast as the pace of change that has taken hold of our businesses. Our homes should be not just our castles, but also carefully calibrated and highly personalised ecosystems built for one or a few. I’ll admit that as excited as I am about the prospect of living in a super-intelligent city, I may be even more jazzed about the day when my Roomba doesn’t just gobble up dust bunnies but also sees to the laundry, dishes, and perhaps even my tax return. (Hey, a man can dream…)
One smart home, one smart block, one smart city at a time, we can redefine the way we live. And we can do it in a way that cuts the planet some slack.
Greg James is the global chief strategy officer of Havas Media