Responsive cities

In partnership with The Future Laboratory

As continuing urbanization places further pressure on infrastructure, space and the environment, the successful cities of tomorrow are likely to harness smart technology to become intuitive entities, able to respond quickly to the evolving behavioral patterns and needs of citizens.

Cities are hubs of innovation and economic growth, but many are beset by strained infrastructure, polluted environments and growing social division. Pre-pandemic, research from the UN indicated that 68 percent of the world’s population were expected to live in urban areas by 2050, but changing attitudes to work and life are powering the big remote – urging individuals to reconsider their kinship with larger cities1.

In 2021, Upwork reported that nearly 36.2 million Americans could be working remotely by 2025 – reducing commuter miles by 70–140 billion each year2. Harnessing the green credentials of fewer vehicles and overcrowding, cities of tomorrow will have the breathing room to champion health and resilience in order to thrive.

 Connectivity is already providing the answer. According to Report Banana, the global smart cities market is forecast to exceed USD 4 trillion by 2030, facilitating a new era of responsiveness for cities, where data collected by connected infrastructure – from smart buildings and energy grids to mobility and waste systems – enables services that assess, respond and adapt to demand3.

A connectivity tipping point

 Smart city initiatives are already attracting significant investment, with IDC estimating that the value of spending on such schemes globally will top USD 189 billion in 20234. At present, however, the smart city journey is one of slow and steady optimization, ultimately limited by the amount of infrastructure that is currently connected. But growth in smart devices – combined with retrofitted existing infrastructure – may soon provide the foundational data required for responsive smart city concepts to fully flourish.

 The EU’s Humble Lamppost project is one example. It is working to upgrade 10 million lampposts across Europe to deliver a range of smart city services, providing the basis for a city-wide network of 5G sensors that can monitor pedestrian and vehicle traffic flows, measure air quality, host free public Wi-Fi and deliver urgent public information through digital displays.

 As more infrastructure is similarly connected or retrofitted, we’ll soon reach a tipping point at which cities become intuitive, with integrated artificial intelligence (AI) enabling seamless responses to citizens’ evolving behavioral patterns and needs. ‘Once both citizens and infrastructure become connected to each other, a holistic view of cities and the people living in them is enabled,’ says Valentina Contini, founder of the Innovation Lab at Porsche Engineering. ‘This view will create exponential opportunities for positive change.’

Citizen empowerment

For citizens, newly data-led cities will empower them to have an active role in the design and experience of their surroundings, as cities become responsive to their needs. Initially, this responsiveness will be driven by improved citizen engagement, with apps like those created by the city of Zurich enabling residents to digitally report infrastructural damage5.

 As we move through the decade, responsiveness will be increasingly outsourced to AI, with public services seamlessly responding to citizen demand. Research from McKinsey predicts that by 2025 cities that deploy smart mobility applications could cut commuting times by 15–20 percent on average, highlighting the impact of this responsiveness on quality of life6.

Living laboratories

By 2030, connectivity could mean entire cities will become testbeds for new innovations in urban living, encompassing everything from mobility, wayfinding and smart buildings to AI, redefining the city experience as we know it.

Hinting at this future, a digital twin of the city of Herrenberg, Germany, is already being used to consult citizens about projects such as a shopping center, with virtual replicas demonstrating how a planning proposal might change a view from an apartment or impact traffic congestion. As Nicolai Reith, advisor to the mayor of Herrenberg, states: ‘You don’t have to make a decision and then see what happens; you can see before you make the decision what the effect will be via the digital twin. This makes it easier to make the right decision.’

Companies are also exploring the smart city concept. One example is Toyota, which recently unveiled plans for Toyota Woven City, a smart, open-source city in the foothills of Mount Fuji. Its objective is to foster research and relationships between brands, humans, robotics and the environment. Described as a ‘living laboratory’, the Woven City aims for full-time residents and researchers to trial and develop new technologies and innovations that improve people’s lives. Aware that future urban living cannot be dictated by one brand, Toyota plans to open up the Woven City to other commercial and academic collaborators, with such initiatives potentially providing the framework for responsive cities to thrive.

Key implications

  • Open-source cities: By creating open-source smart city initiatives and infrastructure that enable future innovators to ‘plug in and play’, cities may be able to speed up their responsiveness to change.
    • Data transparency: Data is the fuel of the responsive city. Success is likely to depend on addressing potential citizen privacy concerns by ensuring transparency and responsible data-handling, while communicating the potential benefits on offer to city-dwellers by making their personal data available.
    • A citizen center: While facilitated by tech, people should sit at the heart of responsive cities, which should ensure that technology responds to the needs of citizens and improves quality of life, rather than simply optimizing infrastructure and improving efficiencies.

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