It’s 2017. Maybe you thought, by now, you’d be hover-boarding into work or flying your kids to school. We might not be living in Tron City yet but scratch below the surface or rather around in your pocket and you’ll find the future of our cities right there. Our smartphones are fast becoming the gateway to an efficient, healthier, even more caring way of life.
The UN predicts 2.5 billion more people will move to cities by 2050, 700 million of those will come from India alone. The need to accommodate people and keep cities moving is critical, so ‘smart’ is the future of urban living. Smart cities use information and communications technology to make infrastructure and life better for people who live there. And with stats like that, you might think of top-down strategies and massive structural upheaval. But big data is driving change, and smart phones are the perfect data portal.
As technology has matured, big data has become open data and technology has become open source technology. It’s (relatively) easy to build an app. So entrepreneurs can identify problems thrown up by rapidly urbanising cities with open source data, solve them with open source technology and design experiences for citizens, who become customers. Customers ‘vote’ for apps simply by using their preferred ones.
This is how Citymapper became a huge success in London. Branded as the ‘ultimate transport app’, it uses London’s open transport data to seamlessly guide people through the city and feeds back people’s live alerts to transit authorities. Technology (and data) are not just mediums for change, they are the method too.
An article in the Guardian reveals how in a small town outside of Cape Town, a local innovation body teamed up with a local university to build ‘smart shacks’ to tackle poor slum housing. These shacks produce off-grid electricity through roof-mounted solar panels. In Tanzania, local students are being given access to tablets and OpenStreetMap, and trained to go out and map slums. For the first time, the Tanzanian government could clearly see the needs of people living there. These same students have gone on to start their own business, selling these services back to the government. Which is the great thing about cities – they attract and create entrepreneurs too.
When the automated check-out tells us we’ve unexpectedly put an item in the bagging area for the third time, we might imagine smart cities will be impersonal, lifeless places. But they are designed by people, for people. The CityAir app, helps people navigate the least polluted routes around London. Transfernation in New York believes ‘hunger is an outdated problem’. Through its website and app, it connects those with extra food to those who need it. And SIMON (The Support In My Own Neighbourhood) in Belfast, use an app to empower local people to connect those at risk of homelessness with support services.
Collectively, in the US, people check their phones 9 billion times a day. This explosion in the frequency and also in the way we use our phones means people are opening up to new types of businesses and new applications. 48% of consumers are now willing to pay for Internet of Things services and a third say smart energy, transportation and healthcare would make communities more liveable. Our smartphones already live with us, we don’t need to move too far to access our urban futures.