What cities will look like in five years

IBM Corp. recently released a list of five predictions for how cities around the globe will change over the next five years. The predictions, explained Don Campbell, CTO of business analytics for IBM in Ottawa, focus on technologies coming into play that help cities deal with rising populations.

“It’s our observation that there is a massive trend towards urbanization. For the first time in our history, we’ve now reached the point where more people live in cities than not and so we are seeing the stresses,” he said.

Campbell is already seeing some of the technologies in play in Canada and other parts of the world. “In all of these cases, IBM has a significant amount of research activity going on and some early stage involvement in making cities smarter and better,” he said.

IBM’s first prediction calls for cities with healthier immune systems. “Given their population density, cities will remain hotbeds of communicable disease. But in the future, public health officials will know precisely when, where and how diseases are spreading – even which neighborhoods will be affected next.”

The prediction is based on the expectation that more health information will be shared among health officials, which will allow greater opportunities for tracking diseases and knowing where to put health care, explained Campbell.

“We believe very strongly that cities will become healthier as a result of the analytics that come into play, allowing us to map and analyze and predict the spread of infectious diseases and understand more about them,” he said.

The second prediction anticipates buildings with sense-and-response systems. “In the future, the technology that manages facilities will operate in like a living organism that can sense and respond quickly in order to protect citizens, save resources and reduce carbon emissions,” IBM states.

Buildings can become a type of live infrastructure and smarter about how it leverages its own systems by co-ordinating information from heating, water, sewage, electricity and security systems, explained Campbell. “As we go forward, now that these systems are online, we can actually have [them] share information and track information regarding the usage patterns of its occupants,” he said.

A third prediction sees vehicles that “run on new battery technology that won’t need to be recharged for days or months at a time, depending on how often you drive. Smart grids in cities could enable cars to be charged in public places and use renewable energy, such as wind power, for charging.”

In general, battery life improves at a rate of eight per cent per year, but IBM is anticipating a big change in battery storage capacities, noted Campbell. IBM is also looking at ways of using wind and solar power to charge batteries so vehicles operate cleanly in the environment, he said.  

Another prediction involves cities installing smarter water systems to reduce water waste by up to 50 per cent and smart sewer systems that not only prevent run-off pollution in rivers and lakes, but purify water to make it drinkable.

Over last 100 years, the world’s population has grown significantly and water usage has grown at twice that rate, said Campbell. “We are rapidly consuming and running out of water, and part of that is through leaky infrastructure,” he said.

IBM’s fifth prediction calls for cities that will be able to predict emergencies in order to reduce and prevent them. Campbell envisions the time frame for responding to emergency activities to be reduced to the point “where we can respond before there is a call to 911.”

Technologies that allow cities to sense gunshots in downtown streets through microphones on telephone poles that triangulate where that that gunshot was fired and relay that information to the police is one example, Campbell explained.

Rapid response systems can become even more effective in preventing crime by using analytics to understand patterns and trends that would allow police departments, for example, to clean up areas of a city before the crimes occur, he added.

The Edmonton Police department is already working to collect as many as 10 million pieces of disparate data that come together on any particular crime and analyze this to spot trends, solve crimes and understand where they are likely to occur in the future, said Campbell.

But cities across Canada will certainly not become utopia in five years, according to Robert Wright, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, who specializes in urban design and planning.

“We have much more technology now and we don’t apply a lot of that technology to start with because we don’t have the resources or we don’t have the expertise to apply all this technology. It’s very expensive and it’s constantly changing,” he said.

Canadian culture is another obstacle to this utopian vision, according to Wright.

“We create a lot of really interesting technology, but we are not necessarily early adopters on that technology … Canadians are not risk-takers. We like to see technologies really well-established before committing ourselves to them. We are just very conservative that way,” he said.

Other countries may also have greater incentives to invest these technologies, according to Wright, because many of the technologies are so new that they “almost assume” to work inside of a new system.

China adopted cell phone technology much faster than Canada did, primarily because they didn’t have the infrastructure that we have vested under the ground with all of our telephone lines, he explained. Transportation technologies in South America and other parts of the world are also being adopted very quickly because they don’t have older systems already in place, he said.

Cities will definitely become hotbeds of communicable disease, but it is a chaotic phenomenon, according to Wright. Knowing which neighbourhoods will be affected next is like trying to predict climate, he said. “You can know patterns, but it’s really hard to predict a specific event,” he said.

But Wright does expect buildings will become more intelligent, react to existing conditions and use ambient technologies that are user-aware. “That’s definitely beginning to happen, and there are examples in the City of Toronto that have these systems build into them,” he said.

Transportation will also become more efficient, but “it depends on how you calculate how energy consumption takes place,” he said. It takes a lot of energy to make a bus, he pointed out. While he anticipates more electric cars and bikes in the future, batteries remain “a sticking point.”

But if smart car technologies increase and costs are reduced, we are going to have a lot of cars all over the country and that’s not necessarily a good thing, he noted. Referring to the Jevons Paradox, Wright pointed out that increases in efficiency do not necessarily lower consumption. “In many cases, increasing efficiency actually increases consumption,” he said.

Wright does anticipate more water-saving technologies to come, such as rainwater harvesting from roofs and green roofs used for irrigation. But one of the problems with water systems in Canada is that we are not re-investing enough in our cities to actually replace the amount of infrastructure we need, he said.  

Response times for emergency systems like 911 are pretty good, but “the fact that the technology is always going to resolve this problem is one of the great illusions,” said Wright. “A lot of the time, the technologies actually create the problems.”

Looking ahead five years, Wright predicts increased public participation in Canadian cities.

Technology will allow cities to provide more information (such as by-laws) online and citizens to react to city proposals faster, he explained. “You are going to see a lot more people trying to be involved in the process, so they are really going to confront the bureaucracy of existing cities,” he said.

He also expects some commitment from cities to repair their older and existing infrastructure. Roughly 70 per cent of building stock in Toronto consists of buildings that are 20 to 30 years old and totally energy inefficient, according to Wright. Toronto also has the second highest amount of energy inefficient tower structures and buildings in North America next to New York, he said.

Follow me on Twitter @jenniferkavur.

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