Smart City

The Future Of Cities: Tapping The Transformative Power Of Exponential Technologies

The Future Of Cities: Tapping The Transformative Power Of Exponential Technologies
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Co-founder and Executive Chairman at Singularity University
7 min read
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If you could build a city from the ground up using first principles, how would you do it? What would it look like? By 2050, two-thirds of the population, more than six billion people, are expected to live in urbanized areas. Exponential technologies will radically change the way we build and organize our cities in the future. In this article, I will cover mass urbanization trends, building future cities, and exponential technology implications.

Considering the transformative power of exponential technologies, is it better to take a top-down approach when designing cities, or a bottom-up approach? Let’s dive in.

Mass urbanization
Cities currently house over 50% of the world’s population, and generate 80% of the world’s GDP. The UN estimates that continuing urbanization and population growth will add 2.5 billion people to the world’s urban population by 2050, with nearly 90% of the increase concentrated in Asia and Africa. While the city population is growing dramatically, the footprint of the city (the number of square kilometers it covers) will grow at a faster rate, ultimately causing the city densities (people per square kilometer) to decline. The expected increase in urban land during the first three decades of the 21st century will be greater than the cumulative urban expansion in all of human history.

This poses a unique challenge for sustainability endeavors, as low-density cities tend to produce higher carbon emissions than higher-density cities of a similar population size. By 2050, the UN projects that demand for water and energy will increase by 55%. By 2035, the demand for energy will increase by 33%. As people migrate to cities, existing infrastructure will need to be improved, or we will face significant shortages. Technology has the potential to dramatically reduce the downsides of urbanization. With big data, ubiquitous sensors, computer intelligence, and transportation technology (autonomous cars, flying cars, Hyperloop, and so on), we can imagine central systems that are far more efficient and offer far greater performance than the ones around today.

Building future cities
Four recent projects in this area have caught my eye:
1. Sidewalk labs
Sidewalk Labs is Alphabet’s urban development organization that seeks to imagine what cities would look like if they were built “from the internet up.” In 2012, Sidewalk’s subsidiary Intersection began converting old payphones into free, technologically advanced access points, complete with video call capability and screamingfast Wi-Fi. Over the next several years, 7,500 “links” will be installed throughout New York City. In October 2017, Sidewalk announced its plans to build a tech-centered neighborhood southeast of downtown Toronto called Quayside. Waterfront Toronto, Sidewalk’s partner in the project, said that the city will be “a testbed for emerging technologies, materials and processes that will address these challenges and advance solutions that can be replicated in cities worldwide.”

2. Bill Gates & Belmont Partners
Bill Gates recently announced his commitment of US$80 million to build a “smart city” just outside of Phoenix, Arizona with the help of Belmont Partners, a real estate investing group. In a press release, the company described the city as a “forward-thinking community with a communication and infrastructure spine that embraces cutting-edge technology, designed around high-speed digital networks, data centers, new manufacturing technologies and distribution models, autonomous vehicles and autonomous logistics hubs.” Unlike Sidewalk’s project in Toronto, this city would literally be built from the ground up– currently, the 24,800-acre site is a patch of empty land in the desert. Grady Gammage, a spokesperson for the Belmont Partners, argues that this fact gives the company a unique advantage: “Envisioning future infrastructure from scratch is far easier and more cost efficient than retrofitting an existing urban fabric.” Eventually, the city (currently called Belmont) will boast 80,000 homes, 3,800 acres of industrial, office, and retail space, and 470 acres for public schools.

3. Dubai's 'Smart Dubai 2021' Plan
Over the next decade, Dubai will look more and more like it came from a sci-fi movie.The city has laid out 2021 goals that include: - 3D-printing 25% of the city’s buildings
- Making 25% of transportation trips automated and driverless
- Installing hundreds of artificial trees that use solar power to provide the city with free Wi-Fi, screens with mapping information, and ports for charging phones
- Integrating passenger drones that can carry individuals into their public transportation system
- Becoming one of the top 10 sustainable cities by 2020
- Becoming the happiest city on Earth With this top-down approach, Dubai is setting a prime example for other governments around the world to follow. As other nations see Dubai’s tourism and efficiency exponentially increase, I’m confident that other cities will follow suit. And, as cities begin to intelligently incorporate big data into their infrastructure, they will become more efficient, sustainable and prosperous.

4. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's Neom Project
Saudi Arabia is also redesigning the ideal future city with NEOM, a $500 billion independent economic zone currently under construction in a 26,500 sq. km. area in Tabuk. This tech utopia, part of the Saudi Vision 2030 plan, will be powered solely by sustainable energy. Economic incentives in nine sectors aim to reduce regional dependence on oil, while an open source approach invites global data scientists and entrepreneurs to catalyze urban innovation. Other goals in the NEOM road map:
- Automate and democratize access to government services
- Free highest-speed Internet and free online continuous education for residents
- Net-zero carbon footprint on all buildings
- A transportation system built in anticipation of future mobility platforms, with a layout equally suitable for pedestrians, cyclists and commuters

Saudi Arabia is already demonstrating how legacy regulations and linear systems must adapt to our exponential future. In November 2017, Saudi Arabia granted the first citizenship to Sophia, a humanoid robot by Hanson Robotics. In June 2018, many Saudi women drove for the first time, as a decades-old ban was lifted by royal decree. How will futuristic, open source, utopian cities like NEOM and Dubai interface with linear, slow-moving governments? How will the rise of such global innovation hotbeds rebalance economic activity and investments?

Implications and big questions
The implications of exponential technology on cities are vast. In our lifetimes, we will see exciting developments that blur the lines between science fiction and reality. If I was starting a city from scratch, here are the questions I would ask and think about. What about you?
- Would you begin with a Massively Transformative Purpose (MTP) for the city?
- Would you incorporate a city-wide Token/Coin and do an ICO for city services?
- Would you make human driven cars illegal?
- Would all-autonomous cars allow the elimination of all parking lots, parking garages and street parking?
- Do you need traffic lights?
- Would you make the city and all transportation 100% renewable electric, with maximum solar penetration?
- Would you put a Hyperloop station at the center of the city plan?
- How would you leverage AR & VR for creating citizen avatars that potentially disrupt transportation even further?
- Would you require vertical farming to generate 50% of the food supply?
- Would you offer wireless gigabit services for free within the city footprint?
- How would you enable movement of human capital to encourage innovation?
- How would you deliver education? (Wait for my next article for my thoughts on this.) We must ask all these questions as we adapt to large and fast-growing city populations.

Some cities, like the ones I’ve mentioned above, have a head start on this with their proxy MTP announcements. Will they attract better talent, or dominate future trade? How will these implications change the geopolitics in an oil-based region like the Middle East? To me, one thing is crystal clear: the future of cities is an exciting place for innovation and disruption.

This is the first in a four-part series by Peter H. Diamandis, M.D., co-founder and Executive Chairman at Singularity University, on how exponential technologies will create abundance and opportunities for entrepreneurs and governments alike. Dr. Diamandis will be in Dubai on Oct 29-30, 2018. Contact team@a360dubai.com with comments or feedback.

Related: The Future Of (Public) Innovation Labs

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