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Cornell Researchers Analyze Major Trends in Urban Tech

A team of researchers at Cornell Tech has developed a forecast of urban technology trends over the coming decade, predicting movements in machine learning, life sciences, infrastructure and other fields.

Singapore with dots connected by lines over it to represent a smart city.
A team of researchers at Cornell Tech, Cornell University’s tech-focused research campus, has developed a forecast for how technologies like artificial intelligence could shape cities in the coming decade. After a year of work, the team released its first “Horizon Scan” report last week to discuss the potential risks and applications of recent advancements in urban tech.

The forecast report predicts areas where the most radical and rapid changes in urban tech could take place, touching on topics such as “supercharged” smart city infrastructure, the use of sustainable building materials and machine learning in the public sector, among other areas of interest.

The project was led by Anthony Townsend, urbanist in residence at the Jacobs Urban Tech Hub at Cornell Tech, who has spent years studying tech-related issues like the digital divide. He said the goal of the Horizon Scan was to create a road map “to make better decisions about applied research” in urban tech.

Townsend said the need to weigh potential pros and cons of machine learning’s applications in the public sector is a recurring factor in the report. Noting concerns about AI used in schools for student monitoring and proctoring, as well as for facial recognition technology used by law enforcement and surveillance, Townsend said decision-makers must explore using AI and machine learning with both ethics and efficacy in mind.

“I think you can find an element of machine learning in almost every trend in our report because it’s the dominant approach to AI right now, and it’s really being woven into everything. We looked at a lot of the kinds of unintended consequences of that,” he said. “Transportation, energy, public service delivery, administration — you name it, there’s somebody working on it or buying it.

“One of the trends [for possible solutions] is algorithmic audits,” he said. “City governments need to have people whose job it is to look at these tools and identify which ones aren’t functioning properly.”

Besides AI, Cornell Tech’s forecast focused on conversations and advancements in infrastructure, life sciences, green tech, sociotechnical equity, and the relationship between private and public technologies.


As COVID-19 lockdowns and business closures led residents to make use of parks and other urban public spaces, the report said recent advances in surveying may expand our understanding of environmental health at the microscopic scale.

The report said scientists are mapping microbiomes within urban transit infrastructure and sewage to detect and predict COVID-19 outbreaks that could spread rapidly in dense urban areas, and citizen-operated sensors are collecting climate data to study shifts in weather amid climate change.

“One of the most interesting things that happened over the last year that we tried to reflect in the forecast is the return of public health and the arrival of life science as major forces shaping the future of cities,” Townsend said.


Cornell Tech’s forecast said concerns about equity related to technology will remain at the forefront as local governments join the smart city movement, and as private tech companies and governments align their interests — the industry’s desire to sell new tools, and the public-sector’s desire to streamline operations. The report said networks that might “consolidate the control of the most powerful” should be checked.

Townsend suggests cities should consider concerns about individual freedom and equity when integrating technology for functions that could include police surveillance criticized for racial biases, or that could create more harm than good without working properly. Conversations on how to reign in the power of “big tech” on the policy level will also continue over the years to come.

“We’re trying to make sure things don’t get out of control and these technologies are used mostly for good,” he said. “It’s not something that can be postponed or left only to the market to decide, and that’s what’s driving that forward.”

“This is a complex world with a lot of moving pieces, and what we’re wanting to do is map out and understand how we can influence the way things play out,” he added.


According to the report, smart cities are outfitting buildings and infrastructure with digital sensing tools to control systems to track the flow of energy, water and waste in real time. However, the report said this smart infrastructure is not yet interconnected at an urban city scale, meaning collaboration and planning will be needed to fully harness the potential of new technologies.

Aside from management of infrastructure, Townsend said cities could begin using new sustainable materials for future construction projects in an effort to reduce carbon emissions, such as structural timber and coatings used for buildings and road surfaces that absorb less heat.

“To me, that’s really fascinating, because it means we can do so much to combat climate change just by building with better materials, and those benefits will be embedded and built in forever,” he said.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.