At the turn of the last century, in 1900, it’s estimated 200 million people lived in cities, at the time, about one-eighth of the world’s population. A little over one hundred years later, over 3 billion people now occupy an urban space and in 2015, London surpassed its 1939 peak of 8.5 million residents, placing unprecedented demands on both infrastructure and public services.
It’s the raw speed of urbanisation that matters. As the TV news reports nearly every day, we are in the middle of the largest migration period in history and one can’t help but notice the future of the millions of urban poor being conspicuously absent in the utopic vision offered by the digital prophets in many developed and developing nations.
The security researcher Robert Muggah describes the phenomenon of ‘turbo-urbanisation’, and this is one of the key drivers of fragility and risk in developing economies today. Where for example, China is adding a mega city the size of London every two years and India needs to build the equivalent of a new Manchester every year to keep up with inexhaustible demand for urban housing.
It was as true of the era of Thomas Edison as it is of the present, that the search for an answer to the challenges of growing human urbanisation is believed to exist through the smarter application of new technologies. Where once, electricity and the arrival of the elevator gave us vertical cities, today, we have the promise of the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Big Data, micro-controllers (MEMS) and new materials to help manage a very crowded future.
Perhaps we should simply admit that nobody has a clue what the world will look like in even five years’ time, and before we start prematurely celebrating the arrival of ‘Smart Cities,’ we urgently need to solve the problems of ‘Sick Cities‘ and ‘Safe Cities’ first. More importantly, we might ask if we are so focused on the promise of an urban utopia, that we have lost touch with some of the very real technical, infrastructure and social problems that define the fastest growing urban environments. I noted on a recent BBC news report that some Chinese cities have been erected without adequate drainage and sewer systems to deal with regular monsoon-driven flooding.
Today, we are living in what has been described as ‘An Era of Possibilities,’ a special window in both time and technology is now driving the scaling of commercial and social activity beyond the familiar boundaries within which we become accustomed to thinking. Everywhere you look, it can be argued we are on the cusp of a technology-based societal transformation that will be at least as big as that of the Industrial Revolution.
In hundreds of cities across the world, we are seeing the arrival of a new civic consciousness as the smartphone becomes a platform for reinventing the urban landscape from the bottom up and we move away from dull, monolithic and centralised, City Hall-controlled data into far richer and more useful crowdsourced data from millions of smartphones. Cities are already the most complex structures mankind has ever created and for a new generation of civic leaders, in larger and developed ‘super-cities’ like New York, London and Singapore, smart technology represents an opportunity to rethink and even reinvent the tired-looking model of local government.
In a conference presentation this summer in London (IFSEC Global) I was asked which ‘Smart Technologies’ will have the biggest impact on cities in the future and what emerging trends are keeping people and property safe? Can we can evolve the emerging concept of a smart city organically; one app, one Uber, one check-in, one API call, one Arduino, one hot spot at a time?
The potential for cities to improve performance and personal security using data and crowd-sourced analytics is both dramatic and potentially unlimited. Technology appears to hold many if not all the answers it promises but it simultaneously presents us with most of the bigger problems too. Why? Well, for one reason, in the past, urban risk was widely distributed among structures rather than devices and where today technology companies and even politicians imagine anything capable of holding an electric current, from the city’s water supply valves, to your bathroom light-bulb with its own IP address, connected to the Internet; confronted by a perfect storm of risk factors and potential vulnerabilities that might make the recent Ashley Madison hack look like child’s play as each of these connection points is potentially a source for a security breach.
If I were to summarise the message of my presentation at IFSEC Global this last summer, it would be this.
Much like the arrival of Uber and Airbnb, The Internet of Things will deliver exciting opportunities and new kinds of services, many of which we have yet to imagine. However, there will be equally unimagined and unintended consequences, if only because, in highly complex systems with many connected and tightly-linked elements, accidents are inevitable.
The vision of a utopian urban future, rests heavily on the success of Open Data and a fast-evolving Cloud Computing paradigm. However, unless government and industry can collectively find a standardised model to properly secure a trillion or so smart devices, the surface area risk for tomorrow’s Smart Cities appears daunting as a wider communications break-down in the Cloud could lead to the kind of ‘Downtime’ paralysis described by the SF novelist, Cory Doctorow, in his short story, ‘Human Readable.’
That’s not to say I’m a pessimist, far from it. On a recent visit to give a talk in Hong Kong, my taxi from the airport had five smartphones fixed to a specially constructed Perspex dashboard, neatly positioned in front of the driver and at any one time he appeared to be using at least three.
Having grown-up with an earlier vision of the future from the Ridley Scott movie, ‘Blade Runner’ the oriental combination of a very old Toyota taxi and a small gallery of smartphones, pointed me firmly in the direction of another urban landscape. Governments and big technology companies may have grand visions for the future of smart cities, but ultimately, the coming age of global urbanisation will be crowd-shaped by citizen interest groups, market forces, Open Data, smartphones and even an army of fast-talking, multi-tasking Chinese taxi drivers?
Simon Moores (@SimonMoores) is a strategic technologies and risk consultant. A Vice President of the Conservative Technology Forum and a former ‘Technology Ambassador’ for the British Government.
A Guardian newspaper contributor and a regular Chair of the UK Internet Policy Forum. He advises organisations on information security, cyber-risk and the emerging trends shaping the future of business. Rated in the ‘Top Ten’ of UK ‘Tech Thought Leaders in 2014, he is the Chair of the annual international eCrime Congress.