The Future of Cities – My Reflections on Meeting of the Minds 2012

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//Editor's Note: BCLC is organizing a meeting on financing community resilience in late 2012 and a conference on sustainable systems in April 2013. Email Gerald for more info.// 

On October 10 and 11, I attended a very interesting forum in San Francisco called Meeting of the Minds, where the experts from around the world came together to share ideas for shaping the future of cities. The premise from the very beginning was that cities are not currently designed to meet the needs of a 21st century population. (related: The Role of Business in Shaping the City of Tomorrow)

In the information age, it is time to rethink cities once again.

The opening panel discussed that the original concept behind cities was agricultural. Then, cities were transformed after the industrial revolution to support industry. Now, in our current information age, it is time to rethink cities once again. This rethinking entails everything from transportation to energy to communications infrastructure. Three broad themes showed how people are thinking about the “new” city. 

  • Improved efficiency
  • Improved data analytics
  • Decentralized services

Improved Efficiency

Improved efficiency will be of major importance to the city of the future. This theme was especially important when talking about transportation. According to many of the speakers, the future of transportation is an integrated, multi-modal system.  Integrating the entire transportation system will help improve efficiency by reducing switching times (and costs) between modes. 

Other trends or technologies to increase efficiency included shared use mobility (for example Zipcar or other car sharing services), and autonomously controlled vehicles (which many people believe could solve the congestion problem in cities).

Improved Data Analytics

The second theme that is emerging is the importance of improving data analytics practices in cities. In the mass transit sector, Singapore is using data from their “smart cards” to improve their mass transit system. A lot of subway operators collect data on passenger usage, but very few actually analyze that data to improve the system. Singapore is a model for data analytics that many cities are looking to replicate. 

Another trend that is gaining traction in cities is releasing more of its data for citizens to use. Data.gov/Cities is a site that catalogs the different data sources that are now available to citizens, and the applications that many private developers designed as a result of the new data. Data includes public park locations, transit information, parking data, crime, public school information, etc. 

Decentralized Services

The third theme highlighted at the conference was the increasing decentralization of services in cities. Qualcomm publically announced their goal to increase cellular data speed by 1000 percent over the next 10 years. One of the major ways they plan to accomplish this is by decentralization, or in this case, putting cellular bay stations in people's homes. Instead of cellular service going from the outside (cell tower) ­­in (to your home), this model would be inside-out.

Qualcomm publically announced their goal to increase cellular data speed by 1000 percent over the next ten years. 

Another example of decentralization was discussed by the city of Barcelona. They are trying to create an “internet of energy” where city blocks, and even city buildings, will be self-sufficient in terms of energy generation. They would do this by using alternative energy sources like solar power.

In many of the presentations over the two days, I was also struck by the importance of public-private partnerships. Many of the successful innovations hinged on the ability of the business community to work with local government. 

BCLC has been advocating for public-private partnerships for years and will continue to work with companies to find solutions to society’s challenges. 

“Efficiency” is another word for doing more with less, and information technology is clearly emerging as a key strategy for helping cities in this regard.  While the vision is attractive, there are still infrastructure costs to consider, and a host of other switching costs that will affect the ability of cities to benefit from these new technologies.  In other words, it’s not whether business can help; it’s how to pay for the infrastructure to support the technology and empower customers to buy these amazing products.

BCLC has been advocating for public-private partnerships for years and will continue to work with companies to find solutions to society’s challenges. 

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