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Educating the City of the Future: A Lifewide Learning Experience

By Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells, April Koury, Alexandra Whittington, and Maria Romero
How might smart cities strategies impact the future of education for citizens?

Cities worldwide are competing to build highly interconnected “smart city” environments. The aim is for people, government, civil society, the education sector, and business to operate in symbiosis with powerful exponentially improving technologies. These include big data, the Internet of things (IoT), cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous vehicles, 3D/4D printing, and renewable energy.

Smart cities hold the promise of a high quality of life by design. At the same time, the smart city mindset emphasizes and relies on the potentially contentious pervasive surveillance and data capture of all residents. However, to make informed choices, citizens need sufficient digital literacy to understand what is being done and the implications of being under near-total surveillance. So, if the pursuit of “smart” becomes a key driver in the evolving future of cities as communities and economic centers, how might this affect education and adult learning? Here we explore the potential impact of smart city planning on education and human development.

Learn Anywhere, Anytime

One of the first priorities is to ensure that all of the key players truly understand the new technologies and what they enable. For example, a critical and constant infrastructure planning challenge is how big to build a school, hospital, or other public service building for the future? The lead time from design, planning, and construction through to occupancy can be significant.

So firstly, AI could help in the planning phase by analyzing demographics and local economic trends. The analysis could also factor in key infrastructure construction project data, outcomes for similar projects around the world, and the implications for service delivery. Secondly, emerging construction techniques such as modular construction, 3D printing, self-healing materials, embedded sensors, and new data storage technologies could help build flexibility into new buildings. In both cases, the planners, architects, engineers, and construction partners involved need to ensure they are abreast of the true capabilities of these new technology tools.

From an instructional delivery perspective, AI could augment reality around the smart city with educational experiences which inspire learning. Personal AI would be able to create tailored learning opportunities anytime, anyplace. However, to get the most from portable education technology, physical spaces need to be interactive and flexible. Smart cities could achieve this with a blanket of sensors embedded in the infrastructure that could provide accurate information about public space usage.

Multi-surface, experiential, and outdoors learning would be encouraged in a smart city. With real-time data, local governments and citizens could decide how to use the resources available more efficiently. So, for example, schooling and classrooms could be decoupled from fixed buildings, with the learning experiences tasking place at a range of different geographical locations within the same neighborhood. This might reduce the amount of physical space required for a school, as a proportion of the pupils would always be out on location.

When Student Engagement is Civic Engagement

An AI backbone supporting smart city life should allow for deep personalization and contextualization of learning. For example, an engineering student could utilize smart technologies to learn about mega skyscraper construction within the context of the smart city in which she lives. The AI could take into account the details of the locality of the project, build in relevant local and cultural considerations, and even incorporate information about the methodologies and experience of the various partners on the project. This type of student engagement would raise local involvement and potentially increase civic engagement—a win-win.

Smart cities should be inherently sustainable because of intricate provisioning and monitoring of public resources, such as roadways and energy. With a built-in focus on guarding the commons, students in a smart city would ideally and naturally obtain a sense of the value of balance and responsibility for the public good. Through strategies involving rewards (and possibly punishments), smart cities could enforce policies that support the smooth flow of traffic, avoid waste, and maximize energy use, among other benefits.

The ability to create behavioral change will be both a risk and a benefit to education in a smart city context, treading the fine line between surveillance and privacy. When it comes to young children in particular, there may be special considerations for buildings that record one’s every move, prompt activities that might violate free will, and use facial recognition monitoring. Schools will be key settings in which to define the socially accepted boundaries of observational technology.

Teaching Smarter

Even when technology has the power to make the everyday activities within smart cities more predictable, there will be no such thing as a “normal day,” especially regarding education. While AI might teach the more technical lessons, teachers could gravitate towards a life coach role that inspires those in their charge. One-on-one conversations would create closer relationships between mentors and mentees. Credits may be awarded for developing socialization skills through interactions with diverse audiences online and in the local community—becoming another data point that smart cities could track. Rather than grades, or perhaps as a supplement to grades, students might be assessed by their community credits and socialization scores.

Businesses could be involved in the training and education of the future workforce and could also play a part in developing new curricula. Artificial intelligence would be the enabling technology for schools to provide an education curriculum that evolves with the expected future needs of the business world. The World Economic Forum predicts that two thirds of today’s primary school children will work in job types that don’t yet exist, implying that a world comprised of smart cities needs to create learning experiences fit for the future of work rather than the past or present.


A well-thought-out smart city vision, enabled by a robust and well-executed plan, could provide the foundation stones for the next stage of social development. This implies a world where science and technology are genuinely harnessed in service of creating a very human future. Clearly the role of education in molding well-educated, conscientious citizens is central to the realization of this vision of the future.


  • How might the private and public sector integrate their efforts and resources in order to create a very human community?
  • How can we prepare future generations of individuals and businesses for the level of data capture and potential invasions of privacy required in the cities of the future?
  • How can we ensure that a new technology-enabled education system will unleash humans’ potential talents?

This article is excerpted from The Future Reinvented – Reimagining Life, Society, and Business. You can order the book here.


A version of the article was originally published in Independent Education Today.

Image: By thedigitalartist


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