Oct 16, 2021 - Technology

The smart city comes of age

Illustration of a skyscraper wearing glasses.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Better sensors, more intelligent AI, and the coming wave of 5G wireless could finally fulfill the promise of the smart city.

Why it matters: How we organize, run and power our cities will be increasingly important in the years ahead, as urbanization expands and the damaging effects of climate change compound.

  • A smarter city can be a more sustainable and livable one, but connecting where we live carries privacy threats as well as the risks of more disruptive cyberattacks.

By the numbers: Even with the pandemic suburban boom, 80% of Americans live in urban areas, up from 64% in 1950. The percentage is projected by the UN to rise to 89% by 2050.

  • Pre-COVID, 3 million people a week around the world were moving to cities — which brings challenges around overburdened infrastructure and equity.

Between the lines: Those millions of people create a deluge of data through their actions and behaviors — 16.5 zettabytes this year alone, Sameer Sharma, global GM for IOT Solutions at Intel, told me in a recent Axios event.

  • That amounts to about 250 billion times more data than a 64 GB iPhone can hold, and until recently, much of that data went to waste.
  • As cities add sensors to capture that data — and in the future, 5G wireless to capture even more — and harness AI to draw insights from it, they can bring meaningful intelligence to both the day-to-day operations and longer-term planning of an urban area.
  • That will have a direct impact on real-world problems. Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, a spinoff of Alphabet's smart-city arm Sidewalk Labs, helped create North America's first virtual power plant, which pays customers to reduce energy use at moments of high demand, eliminating the need to add more physical power generation.

Details: Smarter cities can start at the neighborhood planning level. Sidewalk Labs has developed a tool called Delve that uses AI to rapidly generate dozens of different design patterns for a development, which can then be scored for density, walkability, energy use and more.

  • On the screen, the product looks like the computer game SimCity come to life, and it can "contract months of planning time into a few days" for developers, says Douwe Osinga, co-head of Delve.
  • More detailed data collection can also help cities better manage sudden crises. Intel works with Chicago to harness video analytics and phone use to provide real-time insight into public transit use, which allowed the city to manage capacity as COVID-19 shifted transit patterns.

The other side: Smarter cities are built on data collection, which brings with it concerns about both cybersecurity and privacy.

Yes, but: "If you want to see technology and industry advance, [city officials] are going to have to take a leap of faith in working with industry," Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto told me.

  • Peduto has leveraged the AI expertise in Pittsburgh's university and startup scene to test out autonomous vehicles on city streets and create a network of smarter traffic signals to reduce congestion and idling time.

What to watch: The rollout of 5G wireless connectivity to cities, which will allow far-denser data connections between the millions of internet-enabled devices and sensors active within an urban area.

  • The ability of cities to intelligently manage electrical grids or traffic patterns will "radically change once you activate 5G connectivity," says Jonathan Winer, co-CEO of Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners.

The bottom line: The future of the world is still an urban one, but the nature of that future will depend in part on whether cities can grow smart as well as grow big.

Go deeper: Watch our Get Smart by Axios video short course about 5G

Go deeper