Transforming cities with technology | The Economist
Cities are growing faster than at any time in history, straining services and infrastructure. Technology-driven advances are at the forefront of solving this age-old problem
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By 2050, two thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. Urbanisation is happening faster than at any time in human history.
Globally, 900 million people are living in slums. Cities can’t add housing fast enough. Today, an estimated one billion vehicles are already bringing urban areas to a standstill. Cities consume three-quarters of the world’s energy each year and are responsible for around 50% of greenhouse gas emissions.
These are challenges our cities have been facing for decades.
But now some city leaders, businesses, and even citizens, are taking new approaches to tackling these old problems. They’re transforming their cities with technology.
In Seoul, the use of data is seen as the key to tackling some of the big challenges of city life - like moving its people around. City workers here use sophisticated technology to understand and transform how the city - and its metro - can be run. The subway system transports 7 million people every day. It’s widely regarded as one of the best in the world. And the entire network from wheels to workers is driven by data.
The speed and frequency of the trains can be constantly adjusted to keep everything running smoothly. “Smart” cameras measure how many passengers are boarding - and how quickly and sensors on the trains and tracks monitor every last component to provide early warnings when maintenance is required and prevent a costly breakdown.
They use smartphone apps, social media and the web to give citizens real-time alerts and alternative routes - and keep this megacity running smoothly. Transport is just the start. Seoul’s city planners are using data to better understand more of the big challenges this fast-growing city faces, from air pollution to affordable housing.
There are an estimated 30,000 start-ups in South Korea - many of which are offering innovative solutions to challenges like the city’s housing shortages. One company uses this open-source data to pair up young people looking for accommodation with older citizens who have rooms to spare.
It’s a tiny offshoot of an industry that is growing rapidly in cities across the world. By 2020, this so-called “smart city” industry will be worth an estimated $1.5 trillion dollars. There’ll be investment in everything from networks and sensors to new apps and services, from the world’s biggest technology firms, to innovative new startups working from someone’s front room.
This is the headquarters of FLARE, a start-up based in Kenya. Its young entrepreneurs are working with real-time data sourced from that most ubiquitous of modern innovations: the smartphone. Kenya’s capital, Nairobi is emerging as a vibrant tech hub. It is also one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Home to 4.2 million people, it’s more than doubled its population in the last 20 years.
As in many cities in developing countries the ageing, inadequate infrastructure is struggling to cope. The problem isn't a shortage of ambulances - Nairobi has 150 of them - double the number needed in an average city. But the city has no centralized emergency service to coordinate them.
Residents here are faced with 50 different numbers to call for help - and no guarantee when - or whether - their ambulance will arrive.
The app aims to do the job of a centralized emergency service, compiling real-time data to coordinate and connect patients in need, available ambulances and the right hospitals or healthcare providers.
Across the developing world, innovators are increasingly exploiting existing technology to help citizens cope with their cities’ overstretched infrastructure.
In America, innovators are also looking ahead to the next wave - anticipating data-driven technologies that could help predict problems before they even happen. Boston, Massachusetts, is the 10th largest metropolitan area in America. It’s home to 4.8 million residents. And while Boston may be one of the oldest urban settlements in this country it’s fast developing world leading technology that could help shape the cities of the future.
This is the mission of MIT’s Senseable City Lab - to anticipate the impact of technology on urban life and use it to transform the way cities are run.
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