To improve cities, follow these steps

Adrienne Cernigoi
Adrienne Cernigoi

City-living is being transformed as technology sheds light on the way we live and move in urban areas – and the resulting information overload can be used to improve cities

The internet of everything (IoE) – where devices from mobile phones to washing machines and cars connect and ‘talk’ to each other through the internet – is transforming cities into “Formula 1 cars” as they collect and process layers of information, said engineer and inventor Carlo Ratti, director of MIT SENSEable City Lab.

The information beamed back from millions of devices, often referred to as big data, can increase efficiency, encourage better use of resources and help people connect with each other.

“All this can help us to run the urban infrastructure in a more efficient way,” said Ratti, speaking at the Internet of Things Expo (ioTx) in Dubai. “That knowledge can be a powerful force for change.”

ioTx, the first conference of its kind in the region, saw academics, inventors and government officials discuss the potential of IoE. The digital revolution could yield an economic impact of $2.7 trillion to $6.2 trillion a year by 2025, according to McKinsey Global Institute estimates.

Carlo Ratti
Carlo Ratti is Director of MIT's Senseable City Labs, a research group that explores how new technologies are changing the way we understand, design and ultimately live in cities

Ratti presented several IoE projects his lab is working on, such as using images from photo sharing site Flickr to track drought. MIT SENSEable City Lab has applied IoE to the supermarket of the future that promotes sustainability; the project, Future Food District, is on now at Milan Expo 2015.

Far from being a fantastical vision of the future, however, the IoE revolution is already here: there will be 25 billion connected devices globally by 2020, according to forecasts. Some 60 per cent of new cars shipped will be connected to the internet and around 200 million homes will have smart appliances by 2018, said Gilles Fayad, director, technical marketing at US telecoms giant Qualcomm.

“Now, we walk with the internet in our hand,” said Fayad. “Tomorrow, not only will the internet be with us, but everything that surrounds us will be communicating, interacting, adapting to what we do and helping us achieve the better experience.”

Boosting smart services and the smart city is part of Dubai’s Vision 2021 plan, launched by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

Mobility is one area where experts are keenly aware of IoE’s potential benefits. Another MIT SENSEable City Lab project combines information about people’s locations and the much-vaunted self-driving, or autonomous, car.

“The point about self-driving is that the car can give you a lift to your office and then can give a lift to someone else in your family, or to anybody else in the city,” said MIT’s Ratti. “What you’re doing is blurring the distinction between private and public transportation.” A system like this could meet urban mobility demands with just one fifth the number of vehicles a city has now, he added.

Now, we walk with the internet in our hand. Tomorrow, not only will the internet be with us, but everything that surrounds us will be adapting to what we do

Gilles Fayad, Director of technical marketing, Qualcomm

Issues of privacy still need to be worked out, however, and Ratti urged all participants to collaborate and think more about how the data is used, by whom, and how to manage it. Our cities are becoming like computers for living in, but sometimes computers break down, he cautioned.

The digital revolution of the past two decades has transformed the way we live. The number of internet users jumped seven-fold from 400 million people to 3.2 billion people globally between 2000 and 2015, according to the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

Still, it is the mobile phone and its connectivity to the internet that first spurred the IoE phenomenon. There will be more than 7 billion mobile cellular subscriptions globally by 2015, said the UN.

“At the heart of internet of everything is the user,” said Fayad. “Smart cities need to evolve quickly because users evolve quickly.”