History repeatedly tells us what happens when too many people are trying to live with insufficient land, resources, or jobs. And while data may be a new concern with regard to population growth,it poses unforeseen threats, in addition to the opportunities it creates. It could be argued that there has never been a time in history when “too much information” was even possible at the city level. But as the Internet of Things becomes the Internet of Everything, we will enter a new, information-laden reality. The systems and platforms implemented today will harness more or less of that data, depending on how systematically it is captured and how aware people are of its potential uses. Data, like fire, is agnostic when it comes to humans—its value, or danger, depends wholly on who uses it and how they use it. We must keep our data under control even as we discover new sources and uses for it, which will create a delicate balancing act.
As it turns out, the most ambitious attempts to build a data-driven city, the first indisputably modern city of the twenty-first century, are not Western endeavors. They are created, for the most part, in countries with
great need to combat the rising tide of urbanization. These are nations with young populations, widespread poverty, and insufficient investment in the economic infrastructure to create jobs. For nations such as India,
Korea, China, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia, the timing of development is urgent. Their urban populations are growing at an extraordinary pace, giving rise to conditions that threaten to shatter aging infrastructure.
For these nations and cities to provide for more people with fewer resources, in harsher conditions, they cannot be followers in the urban digital revolution—they must lead. New cities in Saudi Arabia, India, China, and South Korea promise to revise the definition of how a city operates. Digital networks will run as a de facto “fifth utility” that interweaves electricity, water, waste, and gas systems, creating a unified matrix of urban operations and explosive growth in information sharing. As more sensors, cameras, routers, and data storage facilities are added, these cities can actually expand their fundamental intelligence as they grow and add residents. But digital technology in and of itself is no guarantee for streamlined function, increased
revenue, cost savings, and residual benefits. Without foresight and careful planning, digitized services could create more problems than they solve or leave too many citizens cut off from the spoils. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, either. Each city and nation will have to shape their new cities to meet their own needs. The technology purveyors must be endlessly resourceful and willing to create business cases that fit the specifics of each economic market.
We can build smart cities today—and we must. Thousands of developed cities will need to build in digital technology in increments, fitting them to legacy assets and staying competitive with newer, streamlined cities. Even as the IoE explodes before our eyes, we must create solutions that contain the data and allow millions more residents to live in safety, with reliable Internet connectivity and power delivery. It is an enormous engineering challenge, but the way forward is clear. The West will need to take its cues from the East. IoE technology is tilting the playing field; suddenly nations and cities that were left behind in the twentieth century can catch up and push ahead. Western nations presently at the pinnacle of development cannot stand pat: U.S. and European cities must devise their own smart solutions to the challenges of modern commerce and communication. They are just as dependent on digitalized services as those with more poverty and immediate needs to fill.
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