The United Nations predicts that by 2050, 68% of the world population will live in urban developments; 60% in megacities of over 10 million people. So, over 6.5 billion people living in cities and it is only headed in one direction. The dystopian view has tended in fiction to future cities that will become grid locked, cess pits of pollution, with residents struggling to breathe and avoid contagion of one sort or another. Optimists in the genre hope for a better outcome; some putting their faith in the discovery of cheap, non-polluting power, others in off-loading population to other planets. None of this seems likely in the foreseeable future, in the meantime, the best hope is probably smart cities.

Smart cities are being created at the confluence of interlocking new technologies: The Internet of Things (IoT), Edge Compute, fibre optics, artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning (ML), 5G and Flash-memory. All of these things may be coming together in the nick of time to ensure cities become liveable spaces not wastelands. Between them, these technologies have the potential to enable us to manage everything from traffic flow to street lighting, parking to security and waste management to messaging. They can also help manage the atmosphere inside and outside buildings and make our energy production, distribution and usage more efficient. As always with new technology, we have to develop standards that will ensure systems can communicate with each other.

The backbone of any smart city will be, and in some cases already is, a fibre optic spine that provides connectivity: public service Wi-Fi, data collection and dissemination, communications, transportation, education and other public services. This has to be regarded as infrastructure, a shared facility, just like a road, along which anyone can transport their data and communications.

5G, which is still a decade away in development and full deployment even in major cities, will, provided enough investment is found, eventually create capacity to handle huge volumes of connections operating in a smart city. The introduction of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) plus, now deep learning, will surely mean that the enormous increase in data can be handled and processed ever more efficiently and productively, in time. Other technologies are also emerging to help things along.

So, the technologies for smart cities are exciting but we are already seeing the results of a total focus on technology which forgets the people who have to live in our smart cities. Examples exist from earlier industrial revolutions where steam and water power first brought people together in grim, polluted cities. The second industrial revolution gave us mass production and the third automation and electronics. None of these were unqualified successes for the growing city populations. Digitalisation and data are being heralded as the fourth industrial revolution and need to genuinely produce quality of life as well as efficiency in production.

To get smart cities right we need to clarify who is responsible not just for the infrastructure but also for the data: creation, management and security.