Considering the future of smart cities in uncertain times


There is a long tradition of seeing the future of cities in a utopian or dystopian light and it is not hard to conjure images in either mode for cities in 25 years, writes Eric Woods.

At a time when predicting what will happen next month is hard, thinking 25 years ahead is both daunting and liberating, particularly when considering the future of cities. For more than a decade, the smart city movement has been driven by visions of how technology can help address some of the most intractable urban challenges. The Coronavirus pandemic and the growing recognition of the impact of climate change have added new urgency to these questions.

Citizen health and economic survival have become existential priorities for city leaders. Accepted ideas on how cities are organised, managed, and monitored have been overturned. In addition, cities face depleted budgets and reduced tax bases. Despite these urgent and unpredictable challenges, city leaders realise the need to rebuild better to ensure resilience to future pandemic events, accelerate the shift to zero-carbon cities, and address the gross social inequalities in many cities.

Rethinking city priorities

During the COVID-19 crisis, some smart city projects have been postponed or cancelled and investment diverted to new priority areas. Despite these setbacks, the fundamental need to invest in the modernisation of urban infrastructure and services remains. Guidehouse Insights expects the global smart city technology market to be worth $101 billion in annual revenue in 2021 and to grow to $240 billion by 2030. This forecast represents a total spend of $1.65 trillion over the decade. This investment will be spread over all elements of city infrastructure, including energy and water systems, transport, building upgrades, Internet of Things networks and applications, the digitalisation of government services, and new data platforms and analytical capabilities.

These investments – and particularly those made in the next 5 years – will have a profound impact on the shape of our cities over the next 25 years. Many cities already have plans to be carbon neutral or zero carbon cities by 2050 or earlier. Impressive as such commitments may be, making them a reality requires new approaches to urban infrastructure and services enabled by new energy systems, building and transportation technologies, and digital tools. It also requires new platforms that can support collaboration among city departments, businesses, and citizens in the transformation to a zero carbon economy.

Shaping the future of our cities

There is a long tradition of seeing the future of cities in a utopian or dystopian light and it is not hard to conjure images in either mode for cities in 25 years. The threat presented by climate change to cities is well documented as are the potential dangers of an overreliance on AI. Conversely, there is a prospect for a new era of clean, efficient, and more equitable cities that can lift millions out of poverty, begin to heal the environmental damage of the past two centuries, and provide a range of new experiences based on the almost limitless potential of digital technology.

Whether cities in 2046 are closer to a utopian or dystopian vision may depend on decisions made in the next 5 to 10 years.

Four key areas of technology innovation highlight key factors in those choices:

  • Cities of the future will be highly connected. By the 2040s, cities will be deploying the seventh generation of mobile networks and 5G will be legacy technology. Almost all operations and services will be reliant on high performance, resilient communications. Cheap sensors and communication services will make it the default to connect and monitor any form of asset or operation. For cities, one of the biggest questions is how they will ensure that access to these connected services is available to all communities. Connectivity will be a crucial metric of the equity of future cities, and digital communications will trace the social fracture lines of a city as housing, transport, and education systems do today.
  • Cities will be run with AI. Artificial Intelligence – in its many forms – will play a central role in managing city services and infrastructure. Such systems will be essential to manage the complexity of a fully connected urban environment. AI will also be intrinsic to creating resilient cities through the monitoring and containment of threats, whether human or natural. We are already seeing the battle lines drawn over how such systems are governed; what level of oversight is available to the public; and the implications for privacy. The forms of surveillance and decision-making we are willing to secede to algorithms and those who control them will have a profound influence on how we experience the city of the future.
  • Cities will be fully automated. Robotic systems of many sorts will be intrinsic to the management and navigation of cities: from autonomous vehicles to robotic waste collection, from maintenance and care services to surveillance and control. Again, this trend will raise questions of governance and transparency, and it will accelerate the debate over the nature of employment in future cities. Optimists cite the creation of new high tech jobs as compensation, but it is unlikely they can compensate for the loss of so many low skilled roles (as well as formerly highly skilled ones). Radical changes will be needed in our concepts of work and employment in cities that, for example, may span universal basic income schemes and new approaches to retraining and continuous education.
  • Cities must be sustainable. If we are to avoid climate disaster, cities will need to be run on clean energy systems and adopt circular economy principles that massively reduce resource consumption. Although there are positive signs we are moving in the right direction, it is also evident that we are not going anywhere near fast enough. If climate goals are not met, massive investment in urban climate adaptation programmes will be needed to address the increased risks from flooding, fire, drought, and other consequences of global warming. Either way, climate change will be one of the major influences on the shape of future cities.

How these technologies are used today, how quickly they are deployed, in what forms and with what modes of governance and citizen acceptance will provide the contours for cities of the future. The biggest unknown is the combinatorial capacity of all of the above coming together on a global scale. What will be the emergent properties of fully connected, automated, and intelligent cities?

Rebalancing the city and nature

However, when we consider what cities will be like in 25 years, it is at the intersection of urban and biological systems that we might find the most profound changes in terms of ecological approaches to creating greener cities, the need to combat biological hazards such as pandemics, and the impact of gene enhancement technologies on the human population itself. Cities are often seen as the antithesis of the natural. This perception is starting to change. Concepts such as the circular economy enable cities to be considered as part of planet-scale resource cycles and value chains. There is also growing interest in green infrastructure and other building approaches that use natural solutions to help combat carbon emissions, flooding, and air pollution, for example.

The Coronavirus pandemic has dramatically shown how cities are vulnerable to the drastic impact of human activity on natural ecosystems. The growing threat to cities from wildfires provides another example of how our perspective on cities and nature is changing. When we think of how our cities might look in 2046, we need to consider that they may not only be smarter but also much wilder places: cities that have embraced their role in the planet’s ecosystem or are suffering the consequences of not doing so.

About the author

Eric Woods is a research director leading Guidehouse Insights’ smart cities and ecosystem services. In this role, he brings together his experience across the energy, mobility, buildings, and government technology sectors. He has more than 25 years of experience as an analyst and consultant on new technology trends.