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Smart cities: Bringing life back to the neighbourhood

About the author

Rick Robinson is an executive architect at Smarter Cities IBM Software Group Europe.

  • Beckoned by the bright lights
    The population of the world’s cities is rising – and cities afford many of us the best opportunities. But can technology help make them even better places to live? (Thinkstock)
  • Fumes and frustration
    Our cities, however, are defined by roads and transport cities that don’t allow us to perform many tasks – such as shopping and working – on a local level. (Rick Robinson)
  • Touch-button shopping
    The growth of internet and mobile shopping means we no longer have to drive or take transport to high-street stores – the goods come to us. (Jason Howie/Flickr)
  • A cup of kindness
    One British group, called Casserole, gives people unable to cook freshly prepared meals made by their neighbours. (Nicole Abalade/Flickr)
  • From trash to treasure
    Local markets sell second-hand goods, extending their lives and saving resources; but in the future this idea could be vastly extended. (Matt Wunderle/Flickr)
  • Tinkering with transport
    In Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast, transport planners have tweaked routes based on research which showed where people were located in the city. (AFP/Getty Images)
  • In the loop
    The use of pneumatic tubes might be a way of moving goods – and even people – without resorting to fossil fuels; Elon Musk’s Hyperloop is one grand concept. (Tesla Motors/AP)
More and more of humanity is moving to cities. Improving technology could dramatically change the way we live and work in them – making the neighbourhood the centre of our lives once more.

More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities – because for most of us life is better there: it is easier to get a job, to get food, water and energy and to create a life. Cities are getting bigger; and the lives inside them are speeding up. Professors Geoffrey West and Louis Bettencourt of the Los Alamos National Laboratory have measured data from cities around the world and shown that as cities get bigger, the rate of social and economic transactions within them speeds up. And Professor Ian Robertson from Dublin’s Trinity College has found that people in big cities walk faster.

But our cities long ago became too big for us to traverse on foot, and that creates its own problems. First, horse-drawn transport created terrible noise and pollution in the cities of the Industrial Revolution, and many people died under the hooves and wheels. Today, Enrique Penalosa, who greatly restricted car transport as mayor of the Colombian capital Bogota, often refers to the tens of thousands of children killed by cars on the world’s roads every year.

Digital technologies that make it easier for us to communicate and share information don’t reduce our need for transport, they increase it: our interactions online create new opportunities to meet in person and to exchange goods and services – such as flashmobs and the Occupy movement planning and meeting via handheld phones.

Online marketplaces in second hand goods such as eBay and freecycle, for example, have extended the life of hundreds of billions of dollars of goods since they emerged from Craigslist in San Francisco in the late 1990s, by offering a dramatically easier way for buyers and sellers to meet. But those benefits are offset by the carbon impact of the need to transport those goods.

A factory in the home

So how will we buy, sell and exchange goods and services in the future, and how will that affect our city lives? How are smarter ways of communicating going to make our city lives safer and more enjoyable?

Rather than owning some goods such as kitchen utensils, hobby and craft items, simple toys and house and garden equipment, we will create them on-demand using small-scale and open-source manufacturing technology such as 3D printing. Shapeways in London is one example of a company already offering a 3D printing service for designs shared digitally.

There will still be demand for handmade artisan products including clothing, gifts, jewellery, home decorations, furniture, and food. And as the rise of sites such as Etsy shows, many more of us might make a living producing these goods in the home while selling and marketing them locally or through online channels.

Our neighbourhoods will change too. There is still tremendous potential for people and businesses within a physical community to find new ways to interact with and share resources with each other using social media and smartphones and the more and more sophisticated technologies will develop from them.

Casserole Club in London uses social media to connect people who can’t cook for themselves with people who are willing to share spare portions of home-cooked meals, for example. And LandShare matches people with gardens but no time to look after them with keen gardeners who don’t own their own land.

Whilst we work remotely from our colleagues, we may choose to do so in a collaborative workspace with near neighbours, with whom we can exchange ideas and start new enterprises. A “maker” economy is emerging from the development of sophisticated, small-scale manufacturing, and the resurgence in interest in handmade products. Community projects such as the Old Printworks in Balsall Heath, Birmingham are rising in low-cost ex-industrial space for people to share the tools and expertise required to make things and sell them.

Remapping routes

The high street is changing too. In the future it will not only be a street of clothes shops, bookshops and banks but a place for collaborative workers and for makers; for sharing and exchanging; for local food produce and handmade goods; for socialising; and for starting new businesses. We will use social media to share our time and our resources in the sharing economy; and will meet on the high street when those transactions require the exchange of physical goods and services. We will walk and cycle to local shops and transport centres to collect and deliver packages for ourselves, or for our neighbours.

The challenge for city-scale living will be how to support those complex and growing needs in a way that is efficient, and that keeps cities healthy and safe? In part this will involve reducing the impact of existing forms of transport by switching to electric or hydrogen power for smaller vehicles. We will see systems that can predict and prevent traffic congestion already in use in Singapore and Australia spread further around the globe. Improvements in the routes taken by public transport may also help; IBM have helped Abidjan in the Ivory Coast redraw their public transport routes based on where the demand actually is, by looking at where in the city mobile phone calls are made from. And there are other ideas to make freight deliveries more efficient, such as Arup’s Regent Street delivery hub in London.

Similar levels of efficiency and throughput could be achieved by extending the use of conveyor belt technology – already recognised as far more efficient than lorries for transporting resources and goods over distances of tens of miles in quarries and factories – to bring freight in and out of cities; or to use pneumatically powered underground tunnel networks, which are already being used in early schemes for transporting recyclable waste in densely populated areas. Elon Musk, the inventor of the Tesla, has suggested humans could be transported by similar systems, zooming across the Californian landscape at 1,200km/h (750mph) in a tube that has had most of the air pumped out of it.

This is where the “sharing economy”, enabled by technology, could also play a role in reducing the need for transport: the more that we are able to use technology to reveal hidden opportunities to share resources and transact with each other in local communities, supported by small-scale, human-powered transportation such as walking and cycling, the more simply we’ll develop cities that are safe, sustainable and vibrant.

The way we learn, shop and talk to each other has changed dramatically in the past decade, as the internet and mobile telephony have spread across the world. A 10-year-old girl can video-call her grandparents – a remarkable leap forward for them, but also something that could only be dreamed about by her parents before she was born.

Regardless of the amazing advances we’re making in online technology, life is physical. Across the world we are drawn to cities for opportunity; for life-support; to meet, work and live. The ways in which we interact and transport ourselves and the goods we exchange have changed out of all recognition throughout history, and will continue to do so. The technologies that develop from the smartphones and social media we know today will not just change the way we drive our cars in the future – they will make the need for car journeys less necessary. After all, much of what we need will only be a short walk away.

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