Cities, especially big ones, are complex organisms. To work efficiently, they have to rely on a web of interactions, and it can be difficult for authorities and institutions to square the circle. Interventions that are made to solve one problem create another – for example, making life easier for cars generates air-quality problems. But in this ongoing fight to balance accounts, today’s megalopolis has a new ally: information.

That’s where the real quantum leap is: the wealth of information or data now available is simply unprecedented. Peter Madden, CEO of Future Cities Catapult, an urban-innovation research centre based in London, says: “Of all the data ever created, 90 per cent has been created in the last two years.”

Data enables information exchange in cities and allows municipalities to create better services in almost every field, from energy consumption to transportation and reduces inefficiencies. It also provides economic opportunities for third parties who can build services and applications on top of the data collected.

Hitting the spot: public Wi-Fi

Transforming public payphones into free wireless hotspots? It’s an idea the municipality of New York has been cherishing for a while, at least since 2012, when the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications issued a request for information about the future of the payphone.

It was the beginning of a lengthy process, which included the 2013 Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge and led to the request for proposals issued in May of this year, for the creation of a robust, citywide network of 7,000 internet hotspots. The network will constitute one of the largest free Wi-Fi networks in the US, and greatly increase access to broadband across the five boroughs of the Big Apple. 

Lovers of old-fashioned communication need not worry, though: in addition to free Wi-Fi 24/7, the communication structures will continue to offer phone services, including free emergency calls. 

Some of this information is produced by sensors embedded in a city’s infrastructure: from air-quality-monitoring stations to public-transport tracking systems. Much of it, however, is produced by the citizens, through smartphones or other mobile devices. As a recent UN report claims, more people now have access to mobile phones than they have to toilets (six billion compared with 4.5 billion).

Even in developing countries, people are rapidly switching over to smartphones, as devices become more affordable and 3G and 4G networks advance. “Every one of us,” says Madden, “pretty much now carries around in our pockets a device that allows us to interact with data in our cities, create data ourselves and use other people’s data in a way that can improve our quality of life.” Leveraging this layer of “digital intelligence”, cities can boost economic growth, attract talent and establish their pivotal role in the global economic system. Great megalopolises like New York, London, Shanghai and Dubai are leading the way.

Dubai, which has one of the highest smartphone penetration rates in the world, launched the mHealth initiative to enable doctors to monitor their patients’ conditions remotely and the mGovernment project to allow citizens to access government services through their mobile phones.

In the Western hemisphere, as cities continue to expand their networking infra-structure and bring connectivity to even the most remote areas, the rage is all about making data accessible to the public in a format that allows private developers to build applications and services on top of them. In the Big Apple, the 311 system allows residents to report non-emergency complaints online (or by phone). All of the service requests from 2010 to present have been published online in an open format, allowing the public to gain insight about problems in the city, and making officials more accountable.

A recent UN report

A recent UN report claims, more people now have access to mobile phones than they have to toilets (six billion compared with 4.5 billion)

But it’s not only a matter of transparency, but also of participation. After the observation part says Carlo Ratti, Director of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab, there needs to be the operational one, the actuating. These two phases, taken together, form the feedback loop that is the basis of all transformation in the urban environment. It is important that citizens are involved in this process, giving them all the tools to become a more self-aware and active community.

In London the bike-hire scheme, set up a couple of years ago with docking stations across the city ,“only really came alive,” says Madden, “when the data was made open and people created applications that showed you where the nearest bike station was, allowing citizens to use the infrastructure more effectively.”

Of all the data ever created, 90 per cent has been created in the last two years

Peter Madden, CEO of Future Cities Catapult

In the developing world, as entire countries leapfrog the wired internet thanks to wireless connectivity, new cities could start to emerge as information hubs. Nairobi, Kenya, is one of the world leaders in mobile payments thanks to its M-Pesa system. Jakarta, Indonesia, which has the fourth-largest mobile market in the world, is using mobile apps to ease its infamous traffic congestion.

Cities, just like computers, will start to be managed by a central brain that will gather and analyse information in real time. Cities eager to shine in the planetary competition to provide the best quality of life and attract the best talent should start fine-tuning their operating system today.