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The Path to Smart – Mapping the Rise of Tomorrow’s Smart Cities

By Steve Wells, Rohit Talwar, and Alexandra Whittington
How might the smart city story evolve from hype to action in the coming decade?
The Drive for Smart and Sustainable Cities

The shift to smart infrastructures is not simply fashionable or aspirational; in many ways, it is a critical enabler of the future sustainability of human life on the planet. This goal requires a smooth transition to cities that are more efficient, less wasteful, and more conscious of the impacts of the individual upon the greater good. While there are many ways the future could unfold, here we explore a possible timeline for the evolution toward smart cities.

Near-Term Future (2018-2020)

We increasingly see carrot and stick approaches to both change people’s habits and impact the travel decisions made by individuals and businesses. Local authorities are starting to penalize drivers who use fossil-fuel-based cars. For example, London has an increased Congestion Charge for the most polluting cars. Others are piloting or evaluating schemes that only allow car use on certain days or having entirely car-free days in certain parts of the city. Globally, metropolises could adopt these and other measures to encourage the use of public transportation.

To provide the data to underpin decision-making, cities could incrementally deploy a blanket of data collection sensors to monitor traffic and people. Main streets and intersections would become key nodes in the integrated network of a municipal mobility and transportation management system. The rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) could turn each sensor into a connected device able to analyze data in real time. Machine learning applications would evaluate and learn from the data to progressively suggest improvements to system operators.

In the drive for use of lower emissions vehicles, as the spread and reliability of charging infrastructures improves, more drivers are choosing electric vehicles. In the near future, lampposts, parking meters, and other street furniture, could be retrofitted into charging stations—possibly powered by solar energy. Additionally, cities could collect data on energy usage and pollution levels on roads to help plan further developments—possibly even self-charging roadways, with Sweden the first to open one in April 2018.

Mid-Term Future (2021-2025)

Data could be collated from an evolving and expanding IoT, encompassing traffic lights, cameras, pollution sensors, and personal devices—all feeding cloud-based data stores. Crunching the data is becoming easier due to rampant growth in the use of algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI), and predictive software. Smart roads could feature effective ultra-efficient self-monitoring, self-powering, and maybe even self-repairing mechanisms that will characterize the modern smart city. Over time, as the constituent parts are implemented, the concepts of smart cities and smart infrastructure should feel less visionary and more strategic; “smart” may become the new normal. So, gradually, autonomous vehicles, intelligent street signs, and robot and drone deliveries and roadway repairs may become commonplace. At the same time, fossil-fuel-powered vehicles could be banned from increasing numbers of city centers.

Many city centers could change dramatically as technology enables more flexible working and changing employment patterns drive growth in the gig economy. For example, retail and business premises could be repurposed for residential and leisure use. The real estate footprint for many of the remaining stores may shrink as retailers opt for checkout-free models and digital displays with “click and collect” or home delivery options.

Long-Term Future (2026-2030)

The data collected through sensors and cameras could mean autonomous buses and trains (surface and subway) are managed through a transport control center that automatically matches services to demand. Encompassing automated road and rail signaling, and live predictive analytics to make best use of roads and rail tracks, the system could enable significant increases in public transport capacity and a reduction in privately owned vehicles.

Embedded sensors could monitor surface and sub-surface road conditions, with traffic flows monitored constantly against transport control center data on the maintenance history of all road surfaces. Predictive analysis of the data would then allow local authorities to undertake proactive maintenance before increased traffic flows cause roadway damage. This pre-emptive approach would reduce the need for lengthier and more extensive repairs later on and help minimize disruption to traffic flows.

The use of smart road technology to charge electric cars on the go could increase rapidly if the early pilots demonstrate cost savings for drivers and road maintenance authorities. In parallel, solar pavement panels and kinetic walkways could capture energy, allowing streets to power themselves. Sunlight and pedestrian usage forecasting tools could help determine potential solar and kinetic supply patterns. This would help energy companies manage peaks and troughs in demand through a decentralized smart energy generation and storage infrastructure.

As positive experiences with autonomous vehicles accumulate, we should see the first cluster of municipalities and nations such as Norway and Sweden to outlaw human drivers because the risks are too great and errors too high compared to the safety record of autonomous cars.

The Smart City Leadership Challenge

We are moving from hype to the potential for positive action on smart cities. A combination of environmental pressures, technological progress, and a concerned and active citizenry are laying down the challenge for city leaders and planners. The issue for leaders in particular is to ensure that in the transition to tomorrow’s smart city, the citizens are the biggest winners, and the impacts are managed for those who might lose out. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure the city visions and strategies are centered on harnessing technology’s capabilities to ensure sustainable, livable, and vibrant cities that enhance the quality of life for citizens.


  • What’s driving smart city thinking today—citizen needs, environmental concerns, economic pressures, or technology promise?
  • How can we build genuine citizen engagement into the planning of smart cities and what behavioral changes are required to deliver the full potential of smart city visions?
  • How robust is our smart city thinking—how valid are the underlying long-term assumptions and how do our plans hold up under a range of possible economic and environmental scenarios?

This article is excerpted from A Very Human Future – Enriching Humanity in a Digitized World. You can order the book here.

A version of this chapter was originally published in Tech Donut.


Image: by Tumisu


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