Voices of Digital Communities

Smarter Cities May be the Key to Survival

At the start of the 20th century, only about 10% of humanity lived in cities.  Today, over 50% live in urban environments. By the middle of ...

by / November 11, 2009

At the start of the 20th century, only about 10% of humanity lived in cities.  Today, over 50% live in urban environments. By the middle of the 21st century, the number could be as high as 70%. For that reason, making cities smarter may well be the key to the survival of the human race. Our book, Future Cities , examines ways, in the words of Star Trek, to "make it so."

It is in cities that new technologies and major scientific discoveries and inventions arise. It is here that new strategies for sustainable development, renewable energy, and combating climate change ferment and blossom. In Future Cities , you can read about the major forces of urban change that will ultimately reshape our world.

The interrelationship between the city, the evolution of humanity and new technology is powerful.  Clearly the future of cities has many dimensions related to art, culture, education, health care, business opportunity, trade, political relationships, governmental and military systems and much, much more. Nevertheless communications and information technology (IT) are incredibly powerful drivers of change.  In the United States, cities such as Philadelphia are using smart recycling bins embedded with RFID tags to track and encourage residents for recycling. In recent months, the government of Kenya successfully designed and implemented an elaborate e-learning program, which trained over 22,000 nurses in the basic medical skills necessary to treat diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.

In China, there is world's largest electronic education program known as the Chinese National TV University, which I helped to start in 1986 as an Intelsat-based satellite experiment under Project Share. This system now provides innovative programming to over 10 million students. In Korea, transportation managers have deployed a network of wireless sensors to ensure the safety of bridges throughout the country. 

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In Stockholm, a city I had the privilege to visit when the International Space University met there over a decade ago, its city planners have been using information technology in a broad range of ways that led to its selection as the current Intelligent Community of the Year.  These are only a few examples of how technology is redefining our world.

As I said when I gave the Arthur C. Clarke Lecture in 2001 in Washington, D.C., the 21st century will be the most challenging century in the entire history of humankind. More people have had to find a way to live and survive on planet Earth since the start of World War I than in the entire history from the time that marked the start of the human race. With each decade, the challenges only seem to escalate.

Consider this thought experiment.  If we to take the millions of years since the origins of the first "apeman" and compress that time into a single "SuperMonth" we would find that for 29 days and 22 and half hours we were hunter/gatherer nomads. In the last hour and a half of our SuperMonth, we took up farming, agriculture and building permanent settlements. Only the last 90 minutes represents the age of human towns and cities. Four minutes to midnight represents in SuperMonth time the Renaissance. The last two minutes were the industrial revolution and the last 25 seconds or so is the time represented by computers, television, space missions, lasers, atomic energy - and spandex.

We live in a time of future compression driven by technology. Some of the great challenges of the 21st century--a brief flash of cosmic time--could well see us Homo Sapiens coping with a global population of 12 billion people; adjusting to large-scale technological unemployment triggered by what I call "super automation;" and the real biggie, climate change. All of these problems are, of course, intensively interrelated. It is within the Future City that we can hope to find solutions to these challenges.

Dr. Joseph Pelton is the award-winning author of over 25 books related to the future, applied space systems and communications networks.  His books explore not only how technical systems work, but how they impact society. He is the Former Dean of the International Space University and former head of Strategic Policy at Intelsat.

Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.