June 10, 2014

The Emerging Future of Cities

I travel a lot, and just in the last year I've spent time in some of the worlds wealthiest cities, its poorest, and its most rapidly changing.  London, Dubai, Bangkok, Istanbul, Detroit, and Mogadishu are just a sample.  I also am a constant reader and love to learn new skills in computer science and business strategy.  So out of this mix I have some observations and some proposals on how these observations will evolve.  Is it an optimistic future? For those who can adapt it will be incredible. And for everyone who refuses to do so... not so much.

*Edit: Please note this is not a prescription for future cities.  My objective here is to identify variables and perceptions that are currently not central in discussion yet are central to the realities of tomorrow.

Dynamic Urban Interface
For many years we have described the cyber world as separate from the physical world. This way of thinking needs to stop. There is an interface between the cyber/physical, and this interface is of critical to the future world. As found in a timely piece in Science Magazine, the internet is about to get physical.  Or maybe it has been for awhile. For example, a new post from Brookings Institution suggests that humanitarians should consider the implications of cyber warfare upon mass displacement.

Interaction is Experienced Through Environments
The form of this interface is changing at a rapid rate and accelerating. Only 10 years ago the primary way to use a computer was with a keyboard. Now you can shake it, throw it, walk past it, or swallow it.  This will continue to change and more quickly.

Physical environments are likewise responding to the transformation of the digital interface. The digital urban interface is essential to the future evolution of urban planning, architecture,  and design into a broader field of urban experience design. How we choose to embrace Urban Experience Design in relation to economic policies, organizational systems, and business strategy will continue to be disappointing. While the world is changing quickly, people are not changing with it fast enough to create better policies, markets, or in general, a better world.

Shifting Infrastructures
Robust digital urban infrastructures are the key to making the best use of the digital urban interface. The digital urban infrastructure exists as an interconnection of hardware (physical networks, physical computing sensors), software, and data as input in the form of GIS data, core urban analytics (traffic, pollution, security, water). The speed of these systems to acquire input and process it into a meaningful output (forms vary) will distinguish the ability for one city to embrace greater economic growth than another. Today we have smart cities... so consider how much computing has changed in the last 25 years and apply this same rate of transformation to the year 2039. The curve is exponential.

The New Slum is a Digital Wasteland
The 20th century observed the rise of the middle class and the 21st century is giving way to its demise. The cities with the most optimistic futures are the ones that can connect its citizens to the information and tools needed to compete within a global market place. A good example is this forward-thinking library in Chattanooga that has invested heavily in equipment and seminars for 3d printing and product fabrication technologies. Of course when I asked a librarian in Detroit about this, her response was "it will be very difficult for me to convince the board to put our 300 dollar budget for acquisitions toward new technology since we have so little to work with." Communities that adapt to the speed and interconnectedness will thrive and communities that do not will die. More importantly, communities of data creators will thrive, while concentrations of data consumers will collapse inward, as winner-take-all markets continue to thrive.

Integrated Supply Chains
Even today it is difficult for most companies to track each element of a supply chain. The Conflict Minerals Trade Act has provided incentive for technology companies to shift their practice of component sourcing. Interest in companies like FoxConn have pushed for better treatment of workers. Ultimately this trend will continue. Companies must have better monitoring mechanisms, and our physical environment will transform in response to the demand. Yet this will be expensive. Obtaining a granular level of information will generate new opportunities to cut cost and increase profits. The cost of this refinement will be passed to consumers, exerting more pressure upon a shrinking middle class.

Kanban Urban Management 
Extreme socio-economic polarization combined with integrated supply chains and robust digital infrastructures will create new city management models.  Kanban management methods focus on just-in-time implementation and production. Zero overhead.  Zero waste.  For example, digital sensors in the street will notify the city of a pothole, its dimensions, and location. A service worker is immediately dispatched with the appropriate amount of filler. Problem solved with precision. We won't be perfect at this for a long time - there is a steep learning curve - but the future financial constraints will ultimately demand the emergence and implementation of this technocratic model.