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The 5 technologies that are going to define the next decade in cities

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Colin O’Donnell

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Colin O’Donnell is the chief innovation officer of Intersection.

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Cities have always been hubs of technological experimentation, shaped by the people who inhabit them and the tools they use. We can still see the marks, both charming and garish, from technologies of years past — from old aqueducts to telephone booths to the damage done by cars.

The next wave of real-time technologies that will define the next decade are software (rather than hardware) upgrades to the city that will nonetheless transform the way we work, play and live in our physical environments — our “brick and mortar” cities. And these technologies, each transformative in their own right, when used in combination to develop new products and experiences, will have a multiplying effect on the rate of change we see in urban environments. (And clearly, in the future, all technologies will have two-letter acronyms.)

Fifth-generation wireless (5G)

5G is just a marketing term right now, but there is no denying that mobile data consumption is exploding, and all of our future technologies will require vastly faster, ubiquitous wireless connectivity. Demands on networks are doubling every year. At this rate, with a bit of quick math, we can see that in the next decade we will have 1,000x the demand for mobile data.

To meet these skyrocketing demands, we need to densify the mobile networks of years past. This means moving from macrocell sites that cover neighborhoods to small cells that cover blocks, down to femtocells and picocells that bring high speed, synchronized connectivity to your home and human-scale settings. Bandwidth has become the lifeblood of cities as much as water, good roads or electricity have supported thriving cities in the past. It’s really the base technology that all others are built on. Look for ubiquitous gigabit-speed wireless in leading cities over the next decade.

Computer vision (CV)

Of all the sensors available, video-as-a-sensor will emerge as the most important tool — and maybe the most controversial — for helping us understand cities over the next decade. Sound, air quality and others are important, but CV allows the broadest range of possibilities and supports the greatest number of possible use cases. From understanding density of populations, to usage patterns, to speed of traffic, to how resources are being used, CV will quite literally be the eyes of the city.

This comes with well-warranted concerns for privacy, but with pioneers like Intel managing tight security and on-device processing, and Movidius promising insanely detailed chip-based object recognition, there’s reason to believe we’ll arrive at a scenario that protects our privacy. And if you can’t imagine the city being covered in cameras, take a look around and count the number of cameras already in the city. Nearly every store, street corner, cab and cop has a camera. The change will occur in swapping out the human who reviews a recording today for a computer that processes the images instead.

The innovation will happen when this computer-generated data can be shared safely and securely across the city to foster new combinatorial innovations. For instance, it could support a real-time 3D map of the city that could be used for guiding autonomous vehicles around children playing in the street, supply city planning departments with real-time data on resource utilization or help business owners understand customer trends and create more responsive services and offerings. If 5G provides the base connectivity layer required for cities to evolve, CV will provide the understanding and “ground truth” of what’s going on.

Mixed reality (MR)

Where virtual reality, augmented reality and plain-old reality mix together to bring digital overlays that incorporate real physics and computer graphics and create immersive experiences with the best of the physical and digital, we call this mixed reality. MR has perhaps the most limitless possibilities of all five technologies listed here, and likely will serve as the eventual replacement to the mobile phone.

From virtual goods that reduce strains on our resources to overlays on the world for entertainment, education and work, MR has astounding implications. With the help of companies like Samsung, Google and Magic Leap, use cases and interfaces that Google Glass or Pokémon Go have hinted at will transform into seamless, natural combinations of the internet, physical city infrastructure and society. Imagine changing the architecture of a city on-the-fly, or making certain information about yourself visible to different circles, like your relationship status in a dating-overlay or your blood type and heart rate for first responders.

Autonomous vehicles (AV)

We have more than one billion cars on the planet. That’s trillions of dollars of rapidly depreciating infrastructure sitting on the streets, used for only a fraction of its life. And even when cars are used, their most efficient use (when driven close to capacity at the top of their performance profile) happens briefly and rarely, like when you are loaded up with kids and all your stuff from your summer vacation.

We have given these cars billions of square feet of prime real estate in cities around the world. Autonomous vehicles not only have the potential to change the idea of car ownership and last-mile travel, but also radically change the way we manage logistics and delivery of goods. We will see cities’ use of space and people’s travel habits change dramatically over the next decade, enabled by changes to vehicle sizes and the addition of intelligent routing, breaking down car travel into everything from package-delivering drones (think Amazon Prime Air or Starship), to micro-buses making commutes efficient and cheap, to intelligent, tiny, easy-to-use single-person rideables.

Artificial intelligence (AI)

We need brains to bring these technologies together and make them work. And we’re not talking about order-taking robots or computers we need to program with every detail. AI should let us manage by objective: tell the system what we want to achieve, help it when it needs it and course correct it as it goes along.

With learning systems that can scale massively in scope via cloud computing and maintain responsiveness across billions of interactions on the most minute level via in-device edge processing, AI is the most unpredictable and existential technology of the bunch. It has the potential to bring things together to help us solve critical macro issues — we can use AI to make vastly better use of our resources, solve equity issues and prevent crime — and the smaller, more personal challenges, like finding a better way to get to work, meet a mate or optimize your schedule to better suit your desired lifestyle.

Sure, there are lots of other breakthrough “physical” technologies out there, from 3D printing to micro housing. But, it’s 1,000,000,000 times harder to move an atom than an electron, so we think these real-time software technologies will drive the greatest rate of change in cities over the next decade.

Think of them as your five basic ingredients with which you can build an infinite range of recipes. The real power of these technologies will be unlocked when we combine them — 5G-connected AVs, utilizing data sourced from the city via CV sensors to anticipate obstacles in real time, using AI to process the data and coordinate with other AVs for maximal street-level effectiveness, all while passengers look out a virtual MR window onto their individualized city (two-letter acronyms are the future!).

Keep your eyes open and you’ll see these five technologies popping up in development today, and then gradually becoming a core part of pretty much all of our interactions with each other and the city over the next 10 years.

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