How Technology Can Transform Cities

A few years ago, the world crossed a threshold. For the first time, more than half the human race is living in cities. By 2050 the figure will rise to 70 percent. We are adding the equivalent of seven New Yorks to the planet every year.

This means the most important locus for 21st-century innovation—technological, economic, and societal—will be our cities. They present the most promising opportunity to make our planet smarter.

Cities bring together the systems by which our world works: education, transportation, public safety, and health care, among others.

We have the capacity to inject new intelligence into those systems. Enormous computational power can be delivered in forms so small and inexpensive that it is being put into phones, cars, and appliances, as well as things we wouldn't recognize as computers, such as roadways (to monitor traffic) or rivers (to monitor pollution and better allocate water use). The data captured by these digital devices—soon to number in the trillions—will be turned to intelligence, because we now have the processing power and advanced analytics to make sense of it all.

Our challenge is to apply this technology to improving the places we live. Consider the applications:

There is a broad consensus in cities around the world on the need for fundamental change. But if we are really going to drive meaningful change, we need to get smarter about how we work together. Every city will need to do some soul-searching. Today's global economy is shaping up as a competition among the world's cities, regardless of their location, for talent, investment, and influence. Therefore, every city will need to make some decisions about what can truly differentiate it in that marketplace. What are its distinctive assets, capabilities, and limits? Once a city has clarified the end state it's shooting for, its managers can optimize systems around that vision.

Cities of the future will have to be far more collaborative. I'm not talking just about public-sector/private-sector cooperation. None of the systems I've described is controlled by any one agency, sector, or industry. Therefore, we will need ongoing, structured collaboration among city agencies; across business, the nongovernmental sector, academia, and communities; and among cities and regional authorities. And that's going to require that we develop new skills for both managing people and leading organizations.

We must also agree on standards. To borrow a term from systems engineering—a field IBM knows something about—we will need standardized interfaces between the transport system and the energy system, between the education system and the health-care system, and among traffic, public-safety, and government services.

Finally, we also need to ensure that our regulations, policies, and institutions encourage greater openness and innovation, not hinder them. I believe it would be a grave error to retreat into our shells, to adopt protectionist policies. That would increase our vulnerability to global system crises (both man-made and natural).

The world's cities, new and old, have the potential to be the economic, governmental, cultural, and technological power plants of a more efficient, prosperous, and progressive world—if we can make them smarter. The time to start doing so is now.

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