Future Cities Digest

Our weekly synopsis of stories & signals that we believe might impact future lives in cities.

Future Cities Digest #5 (20.12.2013)

#future #technologies #predictions #IBM

This time of the year is plentiful with technology predictions for the forthcoming year. And so did IBM recently publish its annual list of ‘top technologies that will transform the world’ in the next 5 years. According to IBM, the ‘new era of computing’ (as they say, ‘the era of cognitive systems’) will mostly be based on learning systems and big data analytics. This could mean that, for example, savvy retailers could tap cognitive technologies and use the immediacy of the physical stores to create experiences that cannot be replicated by online-only retail. Or that cognitive systems would learn to understand what people need, what they like, what they do, and how they move from place to place—so the managers of the city can respond better to their needs. And security systems could acquire a 360-degree view of an individual’s data, devices and applications, that they’ll readily spot patterns that could be precursors to a cyber-attack or a stolen identity. IBM’s original videos on these topics are available here, but you can also read about 2014 tech predictions from Gartner, GreenBiz (with insights from Arup) and NESTA.

#cities #exchange #governance #AtlanticCouncil

A great discussion took place last week during the Atlantic Council Strategic Foresight Forum between Tim Campbell (Urban Age Institute & author of Beyond Smart Cities), Saskia Sassen (Columbia University) and Greg Lindsay (author Aerotropolis), about new models for international governance around cities.  Two phrases that catch attention where the notions of the ‘underground economy of knowledge exchange between cities’ and ‘clouds of trust’. According to Campell, we are often forgetting that there are over a thousand cities around the world with a population of over 0,5 mln people and “these places have heft, they have budget, smart people… and they are the ones that face all global challenges (…) they also know, that as a risk strategy they can’t spend a lot of time inventing new solutions at home, so an element of that risk strategy is go out and seek what is already out at some other place”. The World Bank estimates that there is about a 1000 to 10000 technical visits between those cities each year what creates “clouds of trust” – ie mutual confidence and knowledge flows – for addressing challenges which each of those cities encounter. Worth watching the first 15-20 minutes if you find the time.

#car #rental #schemes #Uber

Ever wondered how supply/demand models work in practice with car-sharing schemes during severe weather conditions? Snowy weather storm that struck NYC last Saturday lead Uber – a technology company that has developed a software that allows anyone to request a ride via mobile app, text message, or the web – to use ‘surge price options’, which optimize charges depending on the demand and supply of the fleet. As a result, at the peak time Uber was charging its clients an over 7x higher rate than usual (¬ 5.81$ per minute or 23.25$ per mile), well beyond usual standards. As one of the co-founder commented “We are able to get a far greater number of drivers on the system when Surge Pricing is in effect – it’s basic economics. Higher prices encourages more supply to come online. It gets some drivers out to work and keeps other drivers from going to alternatives like renting their car out for the night, or trying their luck at hustling rides on the street”. This situation is an insightful point to what some refer to (even for services as Uber) as the ‘sharing-economy’.  If you’d like to read more about the principia around Uber, you should definitely have a look into this weeks article in Dezeen.

#autonomous #robots #acquisitions #Google

Two weeks ago we shared information about Google’s recent acquisitions in the robotics industry. This message becomes even stronger as last Friday Google has confirmed its eight acquisition of the acclaimed Boston Dynamics robotics group – particularly known for its work for DARPA [US military research agency] on animal-resembling robots with very well developed dexterity and agility.  Some of Boston Dynamics projects might seem quite dystopian – eg the Cheetah Robot running up to 28.3 miles per hour (slightly faster than Usain Bolt), a horse-size legged robot walking in desert and snow conditions, or a humanoid robot that could potentially operate in natural disasters and catastrophic areas. Executives at Google are circumspect about what exactly they plan to do with their robot collection, but claim that commercial robots of some nature could be available in the next several years.

Recent reports out there:

This week’s artefact from the future:


Wearable Futures (Fabrica)
“They say neuroimaging technology is currently being researched and developed to read and record the thoughts of the public, with the aim to detect ill intentions before they are carried out. So Lisa Kori Chung and Caitlin Morris designed the anti-NIS (neuroimaging surveillance) pieces to detect when surveillance technology linked to CCTV cameras is trying to read the wearer’s brainwaves. Each faceted piece covered with decorative patterns is designed to detect when the wearer is being scanned and provides a distraction to change their thought pattern. “Rather than simply blocking access to the brain, which would require unsubtle and complex equipment, each piece proposes a method of momentary cognitive diversion,” said the designers.”

Future Cities Digest #4 (13.12.2013)

#smartcities #hype #debate #Economist

Throughout the week an enthusiastic debate on cities was taking place on the Economists online platform – the big question was  Are smart cities empty hype? Defending the notion was Anthony Townsend (Research Director, ITFT) while against was Irving Wladawsky-Berger (VP Emeritus, IBM; Strategic Advisor Citigroup). Townsend began with an argument that “the quest to centralise the distributed and messy intelligence of existing cities within a single network or piece of software is at best, quixotic”. Wladawsky-Berger held a position that “platforms are software frameworks designed to make it easier to develop, run and integrate applications of all kinds and will play a major role in the evolution of cities”. A guest contribution to the discussion came from Adam Greenfield (Managing Director, Urbanscale), who strongly defended that “systems currently being sold to municipalities, and the public, under the rubric of “smart cities” are by large repurposings of existing, off-the-shelf technology, force fit into contexts in which they may or may not make any sense, dressed with the most superficial mantle of metropolitan glamour”. Joe Dignan (Chief Analyst, Ovum) argued that “different industries approach the subject from their comfort zones. IT companies define a smart city through a technology lens; developers concentrate on physical infrastructure; utilities insist it is about sustainable energy; and the green lobby champions the environment – and smart cities are all of the above”. As of Thursday evening, the results of online voting where 47% agreeing with the motion & 53% against.

#datascience #institute #cities #Imperial 

Last Friday at event at TechCity, Imperial College announced its new hub for expertise in data-driven research – The Data Science Institute. The new institute is planned to underpin major developments across the College’s research in areas including healthcare, financial services and city infrastructure. One of the highlighted examples of potential work was the use of data fusion and analysis via the Digital City Exchange programme in exploring ways for digitally linking utilities and services within cities to enable new technical and business opportunities. Scientists are also said to use observational data to model and improve urban design to make cities more sustainable by reducing air pollution. The Institute at Imperial will open at its South Kensington campus in 2014. This is another news in the last weeks showcasing attention to growth in UK’s Data Science capabilities – at the end of November, University of Edinburgh announced its new Doctoral Training Centre in Data Science.

#mobile #communications #networks #5G

A recent article in the MIT Technology Review introduced some valid points on the possible transformation that might shape the future of communications network (5G). The piece relies on a conversation with Federico Boccardi, a wireless communications expert at Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs. Boccardi sees the fifth generation of mobile communications as end of the “cell” as the fundamental building block of communication networks. In his opinion, the network will change according to a device’s data demands at that instant. Devices will have the ability to decide when and how to send the data most efficiently – “Our vision is that the cell-centric architecture should evolve into a device-centric one: a given device (human or machine) should be able to communicate by exchanging multiple information flows through several possible sets of heterogeneous nodes” says Boccardi. Another disruption these guys identify is the ability for devices to communicate with each other without using the network at all.  Boccardi and co say this will be essential for the ways in which future networks will be used. For example, a sensor network may have ten thousand devices transmitting temperature data and that means it will be easier if they can send it from one device to the next rather than through a single base station. Quite a valuable piece for those interested in telecoms.

#speech-recognition #AI #telemarketing #TIME

The TIME has posted two days ago an article revealing some rather ambiguous innovations happening in the ‘robo-call’ industry. The TIME journalist recorded a conversation he had on the phone with a telemarketing consultant, Samantha West, trying to offer him health insurance. The voice of the woman felt warm and charming, but once the journalist became slightly more suspicious and asked the question “Are you a robot?” he received answers suggesting this was not true (“… I am a real person, can you hear me OK?” and “I am a real person, maybe we have a bad connection, I am sorry about that”). You can listen to these recordings here. This incident rises a few important issues. It shows (unless it’s not a human being with a pre-recording set) how sophisticated the combination of voice-recognition technology & AI is becoming, and how easily such tools could be used against people from disadvantaged backgrounds, making them potential victims of scamming activities (eg the elderly, hard of hearing, with some intellectual disability). At the same time, an advanced level of speech recognition technology allows also other groups (eg blind people) to cope with day to day accessibility issues – a few valuable points about what can technology do for the blind is available in this Techonomy article from June 2013.

New releases on Amazon [City & Town Planning]:

 This week’s artefacts from the future:


A Machine That Prints Out Your Daily Nutrition (IFTF)
“That if self-care practices did not entail engagement, willpower, and attention? Through a quick body screen and a syncing up of your devices, e-z-health can create the appropriate nutritional needs and environmental conditions to optimize your health. While you wait 90 seconds for the customized nutritional tablet to print, your schedule is adjusted to ensure your day’s plan is right for your health. A daily dose of e-z-health, takes the guesswork out of self-care.”

Future Cities Digest #3 (6.12.2013)

#futures #science #predictions #kaku

Last week New York Times published a piece from Michio Kaku (NYU theoretical physicist, futurist & communicator of science) titled A Scientist Predicting the Future. In his article Kaku laid out what he expects to be the major transformations for the coming decade, based on series of interviews with over 300 scientists. Kaku suggests that: “computers will soon disappear”, “augmented will be everyday reality”, “the brain will be augmented with the Internet”, “parents will be designing their offsprings” and “intellectual capitalism will replace commodity capitalism”. Such way of communicating predictions brought the attention of Geoff Mulgan and Noah Raford who both on twitter expressed mild reservations towards such manner of presenting futures (Mulgan: “Half plausible, half inadvertent parodic reminder why futurism so often gets thing wrong”). Worth having a look if you want to build your own opinion.

#futures #governance #WEF #scenarios

 An article from Joseph Nye (former chairman of the National Intelligence Council and Harvard Professor of Governance) in last week’s Project Syndicate referred to a conversation that took place during the World Economic Forum Global Agenda 2013 Summit in Abu Dhabi. The big question was How might governance look like in 2050? The conversation lead into the development of three scenarios. In the first one participants considered a world ruled by “megacities”, where governance is administered largely by major urban agglomerations. The second was a world in which strong central governments use big data to fortify their control. In the third, central governments were fundamentally weak, with markets – and the enterprises that dominate them – providing almost all services.  The general conclusion was that in the coming years, governance systems capable of addressing fundamental issues like security, welfare, liberty and identity, will require coalitions that are small enough to function efficiently and being able to make decisions concerning the underrepresented. However, in Nye’s opinion, although megacities have the potential to create new opportunities for workers and businesses, they cannot solve universal problems such as climate change or managing the production and protection of national and global public goods.

 #drones #octocopters #logistics #Amazon

Amazon broke the news on Monday morning sharing information that it will be testing the use of octocopters for short range parcel deliveries. According to Bezof (Amazon’s CEO) 86% of the companies deliveries weight less than 2,5kg, which makes them potentially suitable for half-hour deliveries. However, even now Amazon officials acknowledge that the technology is not yet there and expect it to be ready in 2015 when the new US FAA regulations will take place. The name for the envisioned service is PrimeAir (video). The Monday hype was quickly addressed by IEEE Spectrum which published an reply pointing out to a number of obstacles for this type of technology. In their opinion, the main difficulty with such services is the GPS navigation (a simple address is not enough for a drone to land on a door step), reliable real-time avoidance systems (what might require a lot of computing power and sophisticated sensors) as well as safety, legality and liability issues. It is worth noting that UPS also expressed interest into air-delivery technologies, which might indicate further attention and R&D inflows into associated technologies.

 #robotics #logistics #acquisitions #Google

 According to an article in the New York Times, in the last half year Google has acquired seven technology companies in a declared effort to create a new generation of robots. According to the team leaders, only recently has a range of technologies come to mature to a stage where this kind of automated systems can be realistically deployed. Among the acquired companies are organizations which develop humanoid robots, computer vision systems, robots for loading and unloading trucks and robotic camera systems. These observations correspond with last month International Robot Exhibition in Tokyo, where according to IEEE Spectrum, the four most visible robotic trends where: dual arm robots, robots with cameras on hands, wearable robots and high-speed pick-and-place robots. According to Google sources, the seven companies are already capable of creating technologies needed to build a mobile, dexterous robot, but Google will be pursuing additional acquisitions in this area soon.

Recent reports out there:

This weeks’ artefact from the future:


Smart Shopping Card (IFTF)
“What if important health information were delivered through multi-sensory processes, so that you not only relied on visual cues to make health decisions, but you were informed through touch, smell, and sound? HealthCart, steeped in findings emerging from the burgeoning field of multi-sensory research, promotes healthy decisions at the grocery store by leveraging not just your sight, but all of your senses. Your HealthCart knows your previous shopping habits, biometric data, and/or shopping values, making navigating the grocery store easier and even healthier for you.”

Future Cities Digest #2 (29.11.2013)

#cloud #software #digital #connectivity

One of the more evocative articles from this weeks Wired magazine is a short essay from Balaji Srinivasan (Stanford Bitcoin Group) on How Software is Reorganizing the World. Srinivasan uses a rich set of examples ranging from co-housing schemes, shareable car fleets, digital assembly lines & neighbourhood crowdsourcing, to argue that the future of technology will actually “not be about location-based apps, but making location unimportant”. By this, he means switching the attention of technology developers from focusing on geographical distance to geodesic distance – the number of degrees of separation between the two nodes in a social network. The kind of phenomenon that makes 2 people come together thanks to a dating site, a formation of 10 people to live together for a year in hacker house, or a formation of 100 people to work for a few months at a start-up incubator. And if those goods themselves can’t be digitized – Srinivasan argues – the interface to them will be. Recommended read.

#wearable #technology #batteries #3Dprinting

Wearable electronics, including Google Glass and a new wave of smart-watches, are quickly multiplying. However, lithium rechargeable batteries seem to be the limiting elements in the technology. For that reason, a group at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology decided to work on applying lithium-ion batteries right into the fabric – hoping that the technology could be scalable shortly. At the same time, Harvard material scientists reveal that  progress is being made in producing lithium-ion batteries and high-performing electronics with 3D printers. This innovation – if successfully deployed – could possibly lead to creating self-powered biomedical sensors, affixed to the skin, that could continuously transmit vital signs to a smartphone. The Harvard group holds already eight patents for its inks and is working on licensing and commercializing the technology in the next few years.

#engineering #research #future #innovation

Last week David Willets (Universities and Science Minister) announced details of a 350mln£  fund to stimulate a new generation of PhD’s in engineering and physical sciences.  72 new Doctoral Training Centres will be opened in 24 universities selected in a competitive process. From the perspective of Future Cities at least 12 centres seem to be highly relevant – naming but a few:  Centre in Urban Science and Progress (Warwick), Data Science (Edinburgh), Future Infrastructure and Built Environment (Cambridge) and Digital Civics (Newcastle). One can expect that in the following months these new centres will be establishing their research agendas, which could indicate a good moment for establishing collaborative relationships.

 #visions #smart #cities #IBM

The October edition of the Technological Forecasting and Social Change journal introduced an article from two Warwick Business School academics evaluating strategic views on smart city technologies (including a case study of IBM’s Smart Cities programme). The research provides an interesting, empirically-backed view on different city technologies from the perspective of stakeholders and actors who feel “they are tasked with the role to create them”. It depicts technological, systemic and strategic views of those companies towards smart cities and points out their principal dilemmas (eg How can city technology help organisations deal with particular strategic issues?). An additional, insightful element of the article is a table summarizing different perspectives on smart cities from the likes of Siemens, GE, Accenture, Cisco, Microsoft, HP and Google – all in one place. Article worth having a look for its business aspect.

Recent reports out there:

 This weeks’ artefact from the future:


Energy Wants To Be Free (IFTF)
“The UN has teamed up with the global Pirate Party, a political party with a platform of open intellectual property (IP), to provide new disaster relief kits that use open-source components to build ad hoc infrastructures for everything from power to water to Internet access. At the core of the relief kit is the now famous Tesla Box—a 10-foot shipping container that can power a neighbourhood by harnessing the sub-atomic Casimir Effect. What else will you find in the open-source kit? Wireless light bulbs, mobile device chargers, rechargeable desalination straws, and an Internet-in-a-suitcase.”

Future Cities Digest #1 (22.11.2013)

#autonomous # vehicles  #driverless-car  #Google

This week opened with a large article in the New Yorker showcasing the story behind Google’s driverless car. The article is an extensive, well researched and well suited for reference purposes piece of writing. My attention was particularly drawn to the major role Darpa Grand Challenge(s) played in creating incentives for innovation, the way the innovation-team at Google was created (purposefully avoiding ‘industry-people’ in favour of AI folks) and the concerns car-manufacturers expressed towards: (i) reliability of the systems, (ii) loosing the ‘driving experience’[which might go against theidentity of their core-business] and (iii) general impression on ‘market-readiness’.  Definitely worth the read if interested.

#UAVs #drones #networks #Matternet

One of the recently published and widely commented TED Talks comes from Andreas Raptopolous, founder of Matternet, a (future) network of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) aimed at transporting medicine and goods to places with poor road infrastructure. Raptopolous presents in his talk an idea for the applications of autonomous octocopters to carry up to 2kg packages within 10km distance networks of docking bases. The talk has at times a quite ‘grandiose’ narration, but clearly illustrates the founders vision and draws nicely on good visuals. Some of the proposed applications are also suggested for highly dense, urban areas. The project is indirectly supported by the teams from Singularity University and Google[x].

#urban #futures #London2062 #UCL

On Monday, the team behind the UCL Grand Challenge of Sustainable Cities launched an edited collection of writings about the forces and factors that will shape London in the fore coming 5 decades – ‘Imaging the Future City: London 2062’. The publication is an outcome of the UCL London 2062 project which ran between 2010 and 2012. The piece is divided into four sub-sections: Things, Connections, Power and Dreams and consist of nearly 30 essays contributed by UCL academics and affiliated partners. The publication can be downloaded here (+ is already available in the Futures repository).

#research #funding #universities #programmes

Based on data from this years research councils grant allocations, UCL,followed by Cambridge and Imperial, are the institution which attracted the most research income. According to UCL officials, the institution received “boost” thanks to the emphasis on building consortia around global challenges, such as: infectious diseases, energy demand and dementia. At the same time, one research council nearly doubled the value of the awards it made in 2012-2013 (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which might suggest that many new research programmes will be launching in the incoming months (eg Oxford will lead 6 new Centres for Doctoral Training).

Recent reports out there:

  • Roadmap for Financial Inclusion (Global Financial Development Report 2014) – Nov 2013, World Bank [highlights: global  ‘state-of-affairs on financial inclusion, call for stronger addressing of market failures, assessment of mobile payments & identification tech.]
  • Environmental Indicator Report 2013 – Nov 2013, European Environmental Agency [highlights: analysis of global demand and supply mechanism in food, water, energy and housing; review of opportunities for responding to main challenges]

New book releases on Amazon [Urban Development]: