Smart cities: A runner’s perspective

Being a fairly typical 40-something with a sedentary job, I’ve done what any sensible middle-aged man fearful of an expanding waistline and narrowing arteries would do—I started running.

Mainly, I run to work. Most mornings I can be seen dodging cars and pedestrians as I make my way through the centre of London to my office in Soho. Running gives me a unique perspective on the state of the city. I’ve become attenuated to the weight of traffic on a given day, the quality (or lack thereof) of the air, and the mood of the cyclists (angry, mostly).

Having recently returned from South by Southwest, a technology festival where I spent most of my time attending talks and events on the subject of ‘smart cities’, I find myself wondering what my morning jog will look like in a few years.

Today, cities account for nearly half of the world’s population—that’s 3.5 billion people. By 2050, predictions put that number at near 7 billion—an enormous pressure on a physical space that’s not going to get a whole lot bigger. The number of connected devices is growing even faster; currently around 7 billion worldwide, estimates vary wildly but internet-enabled gadgets could rise to as many as 100 billion by 2025.

What do these two things have to do with each other?  The only sustainable way our cities can cope with such a massive increase in population is with technology. At the same time, these connected devices, the so-called ‘internet of things’, will radically alter the way cities work.

So what does this mean for my morning run?

Autonomous vehicles will drive change

The first change, and probably the most hyped, will be the introduction of autonomous vehicles—that is, driverless cars and delivery trucks. These vehicles will be quicker to respond to challenging situations than their human occupants—which they’ll need to be, because in all probability I won’t hear them coming since they’ll likely be electric.

Parked cars will become less common, since there’s no reason for an autonomous vehicle to stay near its owner. In theory, your car could be off earning you money by acting as a taxi or a delivery car. Even if it’s not gainfully employed, in all likelihood it will be able to take itself away from the congested parts of town until it’s needed.

So my run should be safer from a traffic perspective, and the air will be cleaner, meaning I won’t need to wear a pollution mask on my way through London.

Car fumes will be replaced by data exhaust

All of the connected devices we have either on us (smartphones, wearables, connected hairbrushes) or around us in lamp posts, advertisement hoardings and autonomous cars will be generating a huge amount of data, much of it about us. On my morning run, I’ll be leaving behind an invisible wake of information—often called data exhaust—which organisations may be able to access. Should I be worried?

The short answer is yes. We should all be aware of the anything that affects our right to privacy. But as long as the right safeguards are in place, we’ll need to think about the value exchange. Many of us use Google for our email, navigation and photo storage. These services exist because Google can monetise the data we produce when we interact with them. Most people are happy with this because Google gives us something of value in return.

Smart cities need to work in a similar way. Citizens need to be aware of the data they surrender simply by walking around, and make an informed decision about whether the benefits are worth the loss of privacy.

Robots will keep us safe… or will they?

I’m pretty lucky. I’ve never been the victim of violent crime. But I recognise that many people choose not to run or cycle in London because of the perceived risks. In 15 years’ time, when the city is a fully connected and deeply sensorized urban environment with everyone’s whereabouts knowable and trackable, will people feel safer?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is going to play a big part in the law enforcement of our cities. In the UK, one of the factors limiting the use of closed-circuit television (CCTV) is the fact that someone needs to watch the footage. With AI however, the role of the camera operator becomes largely redundant. A machine can ‘watch’ thousands of streams simultaneously and flag suspected issues to a centralised control room.

AI can also be used to predict trouble before it happens; this is already being trialled in Chicago. If you think this sounds a bit Minority Report, you’d be right. An AI plugged into enough data sources (including social media, CCTV, traffic monitoring and the like) can predict with a high degree of accuracy when and where crimes are likely to take place.

While AI can be excellent at crunching huge amounts of data (in fact without AI, the data a smart city creates is rendered meaningless due to the sheer amount of it), it’s less good at applying ethical or moral judgement. Whilst we can be confident that law enforcement will have many more tools at its disposal, we should be concerned about how machines judge what constitutes suspicious behaviour.

There’s already a burgeoning sub-industry creating an additional layer of AI that will check up on other AIs. This is where things start to get sci-fi; the technology has yet to even mature, and we’re already creating AIs to police the AIs. Yes, my daily jog through the mean streets of London will, in theory, be safer. But just as with every other benefit of living in a smart city, this comes at a cost.

Shops will exert an invisible pull

I’m trying to be more mindful about the things I buy, which in practice often means not buying very much. Running through central London, especially Regent Street, makes me shake my head at the amount of stuff being bought. There’s no doubt retailers will use the data and connectivity of smart cities to try harder to lure me in.

My run past the chain stores of Regent Street will involve dealing with highly personalised messages delivered via a largely invisible voice-enabled digital interface (think Joaquin Phoenix in Her) making sponsored suggestions or offers based on contextual insights such as my likes and dislikes, gender, proximity to payday and such. Participating in the benefits of smart cities will probably mean having to accept a degree of advertising from brands.

But there may be a shift in the way we think about the ownership of our personal data. Startups like PeopleIO are working on platforms that give us ownership of our data whilst enabling us to effectively lease it to advertisers. In practice, this means brands will be encouraged to deliver highly relevant offers and messages in exchange for access our personal information. Most important however is the notion that if we own the data, we can withdraw access at any time we feel advertisers overstep the mark.

The future is a jogger, not a sprinter

This year at South by Southwest, Marc Jacobs remarked, “When fashion talks about the future, it usually ends up silver.” The reality is that, on the surface, the future looks very much like the present.

The same is true of my run to work in 15 years. I’ll be older—I’d like to imagine a wiry 60-year-old with a grey beard and weathered cheeks—and a few more things about my environment will baffle me (I already find it baffling that we all walk constantly looking at our phones). But while our cities will evolve, we largely won’t.

We’ll integrate the incremental technological changes into our daily routines, just as we’ve always done. Notions of car ownership will change, and we’ll struggle to remember the days when people drove themselves around (how dangerous!) just as we can now hardly imagine what it was like to be on a train or bus where people smoked. I’ll be dodging autonomous delivery robots and the air will be permeated by the sound of drones going about their business, but this will simply be our reality—we’ll be more concerned about the next looming change to our city streets.

To some extent, technological advance has always lagged behind consumer expectation—the future always looks more futuristic than it turns out to be. My hope is that smart technology will bring us a step closer to cities that can adapt to the individual instead of the other way around. The smart city in my ideal future will be like a pair of running shoes that look similar to ones I’ve had before, but fit me much better. Probably in silver.


Follow Marc on Instagram at @exmonkey

Photo credit: Naomi