FutureStructure

Cities: The Eighth Wonder of the World

The new marvels of the world will be the cities that, amid the great urban migration, utilize the Internet of Everything to make infrastructure work better than ever before.

by Chad Vander Veen - Editor, FutureStructure / January 13, 2015
For thousands of years people have been cataloging the wonders of the world. To meet future challenges, the city will have to be re-imagined into the next great wonder. Photo from Shutterstock

For more than two millennia scholars, historians, architects and anyone with an interest in being awed have been compiling lists of the wonders of the world. Such lists of wonders typically cite seven manmade or natural monuments, thanks to Philo of Byzantium, a Greek engineer who is thought to have compiled the original list of the Seven Wonders of the World.

From about 200 B.C. to recent iterations like USA Today’s 2007 list or Slate’s 2015 rendering of the New Seven Wonders, humans have been categorizing a select few things and places as truly wondrous. Common to almost all things deemed a wonder of the world, however, is the characteristic of being a single monument or structure. But here and there a system of things finds a place on the list, such as the Incan city of Machu Picchu and the Old City of Jerusalem.

And as long as there have been lists of seven wonders, people have been ascribing the title “Eighth Wonder of the World” to other impressive feats of human or natural engineering. In recent times, marvels such as the Empire State Building, the International Space Station and even the Houston Astro Dome have been called an eighth wonder. But now, with humanity on the precipice of an unprecedented shift toward global urbanization, the true Eighth Wonder of the World may be the cities that evolve to not only house the masses migrating to cities but deliver a quality of life hitherto unknown to much of the world’s population.

These will be the cities of the world that embrace intelligent transportation systems (ITS), sustainable resources, built-in resiliency and smart buildings, homes and offices. All of these systems will be interdependent and deeply interconnected thanks to an extraordinary development in technological connectivity – the Internet of Everything.

In this relatively new space there has been some confusion and disagreement as to whether this new era of connected stuff ought to be called the Internet of Things or the Internet of Everything. The Internet of Things, Cisco Internet of Things Vice President Tony Shakib, explained, is simply the connectivity – the infrastructure that is established in order for Internet-connected devices to interoperate.

The Internet of Everything, in contrast, involves three additional components: the data that is generated by connecting such a vast web of things; the smart applications used to solve public-sector problems; and finally application enablement. “All four layers together are the Internet of Everything,” Shakib said.

From small towns to megalopolises – the Internet of Everything is poised to have significant transformative power and the new wonder of the world may in fact be the very places we live.

System of Systems

A city that is truly a wonder of the world would be considered so ultimately because it exceeds the needs and desires of the people who reside in it. Cities of wonder will be those places where ideas, infrastructure and technology together add up to the highest standard of livability. Yet with population growth expected to result in 70 percent of the world’s population living in cities by 2050, how can cities deliver exceptional quality of life while staring down the formidable challenges of such growing populations and associated problems like dwindling resources, drought and climate change?

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The answer may lie in our understanding of what a city is. At their core, cities are vast, complex systems. They are systems of systems. As former IBM CEO Sam Palmisano once said, “A city is a system - indeed, a city is a complex system of systems. All the ways in which the world works - from transportation, to energy, to health care, to commerce, to education, to security, to food and water and beyond - come together in our cities.”

According to the United States Census Bureau, in 1900, more than 60 percent of Americans lived in a rural environment. A mere 90 years later that number was more than halved. By 1990 only 25 percent of Americans lived in a rural environment while 75 percent lived in an urban environment. Today, data from the World Health Organization shows that already more than half the global population lives in a city, 54 percent. That number is expected to rise to 70 percent by mid-century.

This shift in how and where we live may be one of the most significant developments in the history of civilization. And with this shift will come the need to meet the monumental challenges required to facilitate it. 

For city leaders often concerned with addressing immediate problems, taking the long view may seem impractical or even threaten reelection. Understandably, supporting a recovering economy, fixing broken roads and bridges and keeping crime at bay take precedent over selling the public on a future of smart buildings, connected cars, intelligent infrastructure and millions of online devices. But striking a balance between managing present demands and preparing for the future has always been the calling card of exceptional cities and leaders.

In the risk-averse and “let someone else be first” world of public administration where do mayors, councilmembers, city managers, planners and engineers look for inspiration? After all, no single city exists that could serve as an adequate model for what cities should look like 30 years from now. There are, however, cities the world over that have implemented portions of the city-as-a-system concept – Copenhagen, Boston, Barcelona, and Singapore to name but a few.

To build a city of wonder, it makes sense to pinpoint where smart city solutions have been deployed, learn why (or if) they’ve been successful, and figure out how to adapt those solutions locally.

Smart and Livable

Songdo International Business District in South Korea is an oft-cited example of one of the smartest cities on the planet. Fifteen years ago the district was little more than a brackish backwater a few miles from Incheon International Airport. Presently about two-thirds of the planned build-out is complete and Songdo is generally recognized as a high-tech utopia.

Residents of Songdo enjoy vast swaths of open, green space. The trash they generate is whisked away via an underground pneumatic tube system. Schoolchildren enjoy real-time access to their peers around the world via Cisco Telepresence. Buildings are smart, connectivity is baked-in and nothing goes to waste – including actual waste, which is recycled and processed to produce energy.

Songdo is a towering achievement and testament to what’s possible today. There is much public officials can learn from Songdo. But there is also the reality that precious few cities are being built from scratch today. For almost every other city, the challenge isn’t so much identifying gee whiz technology but figuring how to incorporate it into an existing city with infrastructure that may be one hundred years old or more. Many technologists – and a growing chorus of elected officials – are beginning to believe the Internet of Everything is the key to doing just that.

In December, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Data Innovation hosted a panel to discuss the impact policymakers might have on the development of the Internet of Things. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), a panelist at the event, said the Internet of Things presents the U.S. with the opportunity to remain a globally competitive innovator.

“I think there is a tremendous opportunity as we welcome the new Congress to examine the Internet of Things,” she said. “How we look at this going forward is going to be critical for the United States to remain a leader in innovation. What we need to do is to ensure, as policymakers, we continue to encourage that innovation.”    

For the Internet of Things to prosper, having congressional support is a crucial early step. But the rubber will meet the road in cities – specifically in our homes, offices and transportation systems. 

“The Internet of Things is a rapidly growing movement of Internet-enabled devices and people who are intelligently connected throughout our communities,” wrote Dustin Haisler, Chief Innovation Officer of FutureStructure’s parent company e.Republic and the former Assistant City Manager and Chief Information Office for the City of Manor, Texas. “It is leading to many new intelligent use-cases, and is poised to make our communities more efficient, sustainable and livable in the future.”

Haisler and other technology observers believe cities stand to benefit enormously across the board as the Internet of Things matures. City infrastructure and transportation; education and governance; our homes and the environment – even how energy is managed; all these “systems of systems” are being tied together through connectivity. As connectivity increases, so too does the volume of data the city produces. This data, in turn, can be analyzed and leveraged to help city officials make better decisions about their city – from a macro level as well as to something as specific as making a particular traffic signal stay green one second longer.

Ultimately, the smart city is about enhanced livability. The idea is that as connectivity increases, more and better data will yield improved decision-making. And improved decision-making leads to a city where infrastructure systems such as water, waste, energy, and transportation work better, are more sustainable and can be made more resilient. As service in these areas improves, and the spaces in which we live and work evolve to the point they feed energy into the grid, then the city as the Eighth Wonder of the World begins to move from idea to reality.

San Diego is one such city where leadership has embraced the idea that the purpose of the smart city is to create a place people want to live in, work in and create in. In a recent interview with FutureStructure, San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer said that his city, “like all smart cities, displays a high level of livability, workability, and sustainability. Smart cities are places with a vibrant and sustainable urban ecosystem; communities that combine technology and creativity to solve problems and overcome shared challenges. They are the kinds of places where government works in harmony with community to create opportunities for and improves the lives of all residents in all neighborhoods.”

Faulconer can point to a lot of tangible evidence to back up his claims. For example, San Diego aims to be using 100 percent renewable energy by 2035; the city has a climate action plan for sustainability and resilience; it is working on installing a number of electric vehicle charging stations; the regional government has begun work on a dramatic expansion of San Diego’s light rail system, and in the northern part of the county the United States’ largest desalination plant is more than halfway complete.

The mayor was also careful to note that his city and region are earning accolades for their embrace of smart city concepts.

“San Diego has recently been ranked by Forbes as the Best City for Startups,” he said. “Prominent biotech magazine, The Scientist gave five of the top 10 innovation awards for 2014 to San Diego companies. National Geographic is featuring San Diego in a documentary as one of the world’s smart cities, making the point that some cities will succeed as the massive migration of people into urban cores creates new opportunities, while other cities will fail to keep up.”

For myriad reasons many cities can’t undertake sweeping smart city reforms such as those taking place in San Diego. But that doesn’t stop them from taking a more piecemeal approach. In cities like Boston and Buffalo, for example, the Internet of Things is helping optimize snow removal and plow operations. In San Jose, Calif., the city’s Chief Information Officer Vijay Sammeta hopes to leverage the Internet of Things to explore correlations between air pollution and traffic, to improving traffic flow and parking, to help with planning and monitoring bike travel, for pushing out public notifications, and using air quality monitoring to inform urban growth.

Optimizing the smart grid through improved energy management has long been touted as one of the great potential outcomes of the Internet of Things. Homeowners – and eventually entire neighborhoods – can now become much more proactive and informed consumers of energy thanks to technologies like Nest Thermostats. Following Google’s much ballyhooed purchase of Nest last year, speculation ramped up about what might be possible as the Internet of Things intertwines with energy systems.

Yet the Internet of Things has been has a rough go amid mainstream media. Too often the technology is described as little more than refrigerator that alerts you when you’re out of milk or as an app that allows to turn on your lights from your phone. The reality is such examples are just leading-edge, consumer-facing novelties. The true nature of the Internet of Things has far greater potential. 

“It’s not about making sure your toaster is unplugged when you’re at work,” Zach Supalla of Spark, a company that creates hardware and software to support Internet of Things products, told FutureStructure. “There are a lot more systematic, infrastructure level opportunities that come from getting better data about how the system is working, and being able to use that to improve efficiency.” 

Intelligent Transportation

For the last few years, the Internet of Things has routinely been heralded by the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) as the next great…well…thing. The behemoth gadgetry trade show is looked to as a leading indicator of what to expect in consumer technology. And if the manufacturers of connected devices – of which Cisco has famously predicted there will be 50 billion by 2020 – are to be believed, the next generation of ubiquitous connectivity is just beginning.

Even with billions of connected things, for the Internet of Everything to flourish we need to broaden our definition of what constitutes a device. We may think of phones, FitBits, or even the aforementioned toaster, but if we think about our transportation systems as networks of connectable devices, then the Internet of Everything starts revealing some truly mind-boggling feats. 

Along with the Internet of Things, connected cars have been the stars of recent iterations of CES. And the fit among the two is natural. A connected car network is an ideal, large-scale embodiment of the Internet of Everything in action. As Cisco’s Shakib argued, the Internet of Everything is about connectivity, data-generation and problem-solving applications. Traffic is one of the issues every city must deal with. Connecting cars to each other and to the roadside infrastructure will help solve traffic congestion problems, greatly improve safety and provide city officials with valuable, real-time data about a city’s traffic environment.

Kirk Steudle, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America and the Director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, said during a Governing webinar that connected vehicles are the way forward for city traffic management.

“When we think about connected cars and when we think about all these other problems we have, we simply can’t afford to just build our way out of this congestion and all of these challenges,” he said. “We need to think smarter and we need to use technology. Technology can enable us to manage our existing systems, to optimize capacity, reduce costs, provide new and improved travel alternatives, improve vehicle and highway safety, and build new roads and bridges that are smarter to meet future demands.”

Imagine how many lives would be spared were all our vehicles able to instantly communicate their speed, heading and direction with other cars, as well as with smartphones and with buses, trains, traffic signals, toll plazas and emergency responders. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates such technology would eliminate up to 82 percent of accidents involving unimpaired drivers.

Thinking about how we move through the city also means thinking about how and where we park. Presently, parking in the city is hard on the both the environment and the pocketbook. At the recent Smart Cities Now Forum in San Diego, Kevin Welsh of Verizon noted that in a typical large American city 20 to 30 percent of the people traversing downtown at any given time are actively looking for parking. The result of this perpetual hunt is increased congestion and emissions.

Organizations including the American Institute of Architects, the International Parking Institute, and Shuffle City imagine a future without multi-story concrete husks dotting the city.  If, for example, you’re able to open an app on your phone and order a driverless car to drive from a central facility to your location, then the parking dynamic of a city changes completely – as does the concept of car ownership. When driverless cars begin making automated transportation-as-a-service possible, it will change the urban landscape.

If a smart city is one that delivers exceptional livability, fundamental to providing that is optimizing the way citizens in that city get around.

“Cities are struggling with transportation today and will struggle even more in the future,” said Bill Ford, Jr., executive chairman of the Ford Motor Company, while addressing the ITS World Congress in Detroit in September 2014. “We need to redefine what mobility is for the coming century.”

Redefining mobility means building connectivity into the transportation networks, it means creating Intelligent Transportation Systems. Cars, subways, and smartphones can and will be connected via the Internet of Things. These connections will create vast amounts of data, making the lives of citizens better and providing city officials with invaluable information, which ultimately will lead to more-informed decision making.

Data-Driven Wonders

Intelligent Transportation Systems, connected or even driverless cars – transportation is but one aspect of the city that is ripe for transformation through connectivity. The Internet of Everything can be applied to, well, just about everything. Water pipes that provide data about their condition; bridges that tell engineers about structural issues before problems occur; a smart grid that helps to optimize energy delivery and consumption; buildings that communicate with the devices they house to optimize energy efficiency – these are but a few examples that exist on the tip of the iceberg of what’s possible.

The city is a system. It is a systems of systems. These systems are interdependent. The Internet of Everything is making them more intelligent, fostering deeper connections between them, and creating a city that generates useful, actionable data that civic leadership can use to make better, more-informed decisions that ultimately lead to a city people want to be in…a smart city.

San Diego’s Faulconer, who was the keynote speaker at the Smart Cities Now Forum in December, said creating these places isn’t easy and that even though such projects can prove costly, they’re the “right thing to do” if cities wish to remain prosperous in the face of the ongoing human migration to urban environments.

“It all fits into that ever elusive quality of life,” he said. “You have to be digital, a city that competes globally, and a city that is sustainable and resilient.”

The city as the Eighth Wonder of the World is one that is built on intelligent infrastructure and connected by the Internet of Everything. But such cities may not look dramatically different than they do today, they may be no more imposing, no more vertical. So perhaps when thinking of the city as the eighth wonder, it’s not about being awestruck but rather creating a city wherein a resident might wonder why he or she would ever want to live anywhere else.

But this is just the beginning work of foundation building. The Internet of Everything opens the door to limitless possibilities – some of which we’ll explore in the months ahead. Beyond connecting infrastructure, the Internet of Everything will help create connected citizens and communities; it will change the governance process and it will transform cities into living laboratories. Stay tuned as FutureStructure explores how the Internet of Everything will connect all facets of life in the city.

And in the not too distant future, the only thing left to connect may be our brains.