Sally Eaves: Forecasting a decade where smart tech becomes the norm

Sally Eaves: Forecasting a decade where smart tech becomes the norm

Ahead of CIT’s Beyond IoT event later this month, Sally Eaves looks to the changes incoming for our everyday lives.

In 1950, 746m people lived in cities, but just 100 years later in 2050, this is anticipated to surpass 6bn — some 66% of the world’s population.

In this increasingly urban, data-driven, and hybrid world that integrates the physical and the virtual, the concept of smartness comes to the fore.

The vision of a smart city has been in existence for many years but it is only recently that advances in technology have enabled tangible progress towards its real-world actualisation.

I believe this is also critical to the successful implementation of the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

What does a smart city mean to you? The concept may conjure up visions of sensor-rich, fully automated buildings, intuitive parking, and traffic-management systems, and utilities that provide precision like efficiency in their deployment — all things that make our everyday that every bit easier to navigate and to optimise, while reducing frictions such as ageing or legacy IT.

Our needs are met by systems that anticipate what we may wish to buy, monitor our health and wellbeing, and preventively prescribe maintenance treatments, as well as cater to our insatiable demand to be informed and entertained.

And as we commence 2020, we are already seeing transformations that are bringing real-world actualisation to smart city anticipation.

Mobility is a key example, with today’s passenger increasingly expecting on-demand and intermodal transit options that are both reliable and affordable.

As the decade progresses, we can realistically envisage autonomous taxis and minibuses covering ‘the last mile’ between our homes and public transport hubs; bringing together convenience with a reduction in congestion.

Similarly, today’s driver expects ever more sensory communication from their vehicle and its surrounding infrastructure as exemplified by connected vehicle projects that enable this authentic human-tech partnership, rather than replacement.

This is an era of interconnected and digitalised mobility, which is evolving our everyday travel behaviours. The future of urban mobility will become increasingly autonomous, connected, electric, and shared.

These developments can perhaps be considered as a delivery of the promise of integrating the Internet of Things, 5G, artificial intelligence, cloud storage, big data analytics, block chain, robotics, autonomous vehicles,drones, voice activation, and biometric recognition.

Is this a utopian city vision that offers people a dreamlike future existence? Or, do we need to focus more on aligning the technological promise with the very human nature that lies behind the beating heart of our cities. Surely, it is really all about people and our collective quality of life.

This refocuses attention to the purpose behind the technology and the spaces, communities, and overarching society that makes up our cities and with this, issues of access, inclusion, and diversity.

Sally Eaves: Forecasting a decade where smart tech becomes the norm

Unintentionally, along with the new opportunities, technological advancements and increased urban living have also brought with them a range of new challenges. These include overcrowding, environmental degradation and pollution, resource depletion, and often underpinning this, a lack of infrastructure readiness.

As just one example, urbanisation has seen the demand for power continue to exceed supply in developing countries, with a growth rate of some 5%-7% per year.

And across the world, our appetite for data is leading to ever-increasing demands on data centre capacity and power consumption.

Another impact has been unequal access to the benefits of smart city development and higher social divides. How accessible are smart solutions to those living in poorer areas or without digital literacy?

One example is the Virtual University of Senegal in Dakar, the country’s first public virtual university, which uses ICT to address inequalities in access to higher education.

As cities increase their capability to use and target data, we also see issues around trust and transparency, alongside privacy and ownership. In an age where everybody’s activity is ‘sensed’, there remains questions and concerns about what exactly is happening with that data?

Building trust is a global imperative across sectors and for smart cities,civic tech is often leading the way with real-world innovation that seeks to address social issues through collaborative creation in the community, with city residents themselves having a key voice.

Further, with so much focus on big data, AI, and machine learning in relation to smart cities, we must also keep in mind that data is not a new thing.

Rather this ‘new’ data augments decision-making with old data — it is a complementary, not a replacement either/or, relationship.

And similarly, the usefulness of this data comes down to being able to filter the noise to focus on the nuanced insights that matter and measure progress on specific outcomes.

This is particularly important to transparently showing impact in areas such as sustainability and sharing best practice so we can scale changes weso urgently need to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

As I envisage the next iteration of smartness, I believe this means focusing on enhancing equality of digital, economic, and educational opportunities, alongside mobility and sustainability.

Smart is also about enabling informed choice, such as the cheapest, fastest, or most eco-friendly solution.

Innovation, collaboration, and collective knowledge sharing to combine both human and artificial intelligence is a prerequisite to reimagine the future.

This calls for a change in orientation and attitude, a shift from smart city to smart society supported by smart technologies — this is where we can move from sensors to skills and to sense making.

How can ‘smart’ benefit everyone? This is the question I will be addressing at my keynote and fireside at Beyond IoT 2020, January 20/21, at Cork Institute of Technology.

The time is now to reduce the gaps between ambition, local realities, and the potential for the future — join us.

Dr Sally Eaves is Emergent Tech CTO and global strategy adviser.

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