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Predicting the not-so-distant future of connected cities

Be careful, that lamppost is listening to your conversation.

Well, not yet at least. However, one of the great hopes for the internet of things is to be able to connect infrastructure — water and sewage systems, the power grid, roadways, buildings trash bins just to name a few. National and local governments salivate at the possibility that a connected city will allow for a more efficient city. With greater visibility and insights into the functions of a municipality, governments could aspire to greater control and management of their day to day responsibilities — identifying areas of waste, anticipating outages before they happen and gaining insights into operations.

Improving upon existing operations makes sense, but what are some more futuristic areas of disruption that could happen if your city was connected?

  • No more cars — better urban planning? A recent Economist article examined the amount of city real estate dedicated to cars. It’s not just roads. Consider all the space we devote to parking our cars — cars that are only used 5% of the time! And when those cars are in use, think of the possibilities when information from the vehicles and the roads themselves combine to streamline the flow of traffic. All of a sudden we reduce emissions from idling vehicles (and frustration from idling drivers), improve police and emergency workers’ response times, and find and fix dangerous roads and intersections. Would this level of connectivity be the tipping point to the adoption of fully autonomous vehicles? Rather than have cars sitting idle 95% of the time, could you reduce the inventory of cars and have them connected to the city grid where they are dispatched on an “on demand” basis? With more efficient usage of cars, how much space could a city free up? Real estate developers would certainly jump at the possibility of all the new space freed from parking garages.
  • Consumers no longer have to carry money or their IDs. This might be a leap, but if your infrastructure and city is all connected, why do we need to carry devices or even money around? Could our data simply follow us on the grid? If the connected grid leveraged facial recognition, touch ID or even retinal scanning technologies, couldn’t we then validate our identity and ability to pay for goods and services anywhere? Imagine walking into your local Starbucks and the facial recognition identifies you as soon as you enter the store. All your information, preferences and payment methods are immediately fed into the POS system, and the barista even knows how to spell your name — and how to pronounce it. Companies such as Panasonic are already working on leveraging facial recognition in their POS systems to pull up your loyalty information as you stand in front of the system. How much more could be done once we have greater connectivity?
  • Airbnb on steroids. If our personal data can follow us around, what about data related to services such as lodging? Airbnb works on the model that willing participants put their excess inventory on their network which is then open to other participants who can search for that inventory. Could a fully connected city mean real-time access to excess lodging? Not only could this feed more private homes into the Airbnb inventories but completely transform how hotels and motels are run. It might even change how housing is managed and viewed in general and bring down the barriers to accessing public or private meeting spaces, or even offices.
  • Hyper-efficiency for fulfillment. One of the biggest challenges for retailers is consumers demanding hyper-granular fulfillment. They expect and demand getting their products when, where and how they want them. It’s a challenge for any brand to meet these expectations. Even some of the most technologically savvy retailers can only serve a customer within a certain time window, can only deliver to specific places, and are limited to people-powered last-mile delivery methods. One of the major hurdles is the lack of visibility of customer availability, dealing with traffic and access issues within an urban setting. What if there was a real-time, constantly updated view of what was happening in the city? Retailers could have instant updates and access to what is the best route to fulfill orders, if they had access to the autonomous cars mentioned above use these to deliver items. Could cities also start leveraging connected lockers? These could serve a flexible delivery drop points for retailers and consumers. Some are already experimenting with one-hour delivery and the use of drones. But for most urban-dwelling customers, deliveries still rely largely on when they (or a doorman) are available, and only a few limited choices related to shipping.
  • Increased safety. With a fully connected city, would crime go away? That might be a stretch. However, cities such as San Diego are leveraging technologies such as Shotstopper to pick up gun shots, allowing the police department to get a jumpstart on what could be firearm-driven crime. Not far behind will be the day when infrastructure will warn the fire department that an electrical panel is being overburdened or that the grease in a restaurant’s kitchen ducts is getting too thick. Connected infrastructure of the future will warn the fire inspector before it becomes an issue. Additionally, greater connectivity will warn medical resources if a patient suffers a falls or is involved in an accident. The smart grid could be expected to sense and provide warnings to the authorities when and where these occurrences take place.

While it seems the biggest limitation to what the IoT can deliver is limited to our imagination, we’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s possible as more cities, customers and businesses become connected. Of course there’s also a host of underlying issues and concerns that must be addressed — privacy being one of the main issues. What would be the rights and limitations of the data sharing and collection? How will we ensure the security of the data?

When it comes to new urban planning the possibilities provided by connected cities are endless: better usage of space, the free flow of data and information, increased safety and improved lives. The reality is the initial impacts we will experience are incremental improvements to existing processes. What the future holds remains to be seen, but we certainly can dream.

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