Cities are the engines of economic growth but they face acute challenges. As the world’s population grows, urbanises and becomes wealthier and better educated, competition for finite resources is intensifying. Against this backdrop, cities in the UK are seeking to improve their economic performance and access to opportunity for residents. Some show a difference in life expectancy of more than 10 or even 20 years between their wealthiest and most deprived areas. That’s a grave difference in the life opportunity of children born in different places.
Technology can play a role in addressing these problems. A community that successfully applies technology in this way is what IBM calls a “smarter city.” One project in the West Midlands uses textual analytics to help its members win contracts worth billions of pounds in new markets each year. Smart meters and an information-sharing portal in Dubuque, Iowa, are helping citizens and businesses to use water and energy more efficiently. And real-time traffic monitoring schemes in Singapore, Stockholm and Brisbane are reducing congestion and improving the environment.
However technology is not a panacea. Smartphones and wearable computers are blurring the distinction between public and private behaviour and between information and privacy online and in the physical world. The recent emergence of guns that can be 3D-printed from digital designs shows how seriously we should take this convergence.
Technology can address the challenges of cities and create a successful future when it is used in well-designed products and services that offer value to people, communities and businesses. As a consequence, whilst some smarter city initiatives are large-scale investments in intelligent infrastructure on behalf of city authorities, many more are community initiatives or arise from entrepreneurial private enterprise.
Throughout history, technology has driven economic and social growth. The juxtaposition today is of the opportunity provided by digital technology’s ability to connect us immediately to anyone, anywhere in the world, and the huge challenge created by the fastest growing, most urbanised population the world has ever seen. Intelligent cities are what we need to balance those forces to create a healthy, successful future for everyone.