Future Cities in the Age of Disruption
What does the City of the Future look like? The future city will have no traffic congestion and no crime; have plenty of green spaces; be walkable; have inspiring and beautifully designed environments for people to live, congregate and collaborate; be 100% environmentally sustainable, renewable, and rechargeable; will be able to produce and provide ample food, with unlimited access to clean water; have buildings that respond to the needs of those that live, work, learn, and live within; be economically thriving, innovative; and ultimately, stimulate happy and healthy living. Too good to be true?
Sadly, the realities of today present us plenty of challenges grounded in hyperbolic social, economic, political, environmental, and technological pressures and advances. Innovative urban design practices, economic incentives, improved social services, cost-cutting operations, environmental efficiencies, and transformational mobility solutions are just a few of the big issues that municipal leaders must contend with in order to re-imagine their communities.
What the World Economic Forum labeled as the "fourth industrial revolution"--building on the digital revolution and further characterized by a fusion of technologies that blur the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres--is opening the doors to a new set of capabilities that can enhance and accelerate the pursuit of the Future City.
"Not all Smart Cities are Future Cities, but all Future Cities will be Digital Cities"
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a lot more than "smart". For a while, we assumed that if we added the world "smart" in front of something, that it reflected an automatic modernization and betterment of the old. Smart manufacturing, smart hospitals, smart grid, and smart cities -- all have the connotation that if we simply add digital capabilities we are solving our biggest challenges. Cynics have suggested that the addition of "smart" is the doing of the technology sector as a ploy to sell more digital solutions.
Maybe this is true. But, adding digital capabilities for the purpose of generating more value from what were previously unconnected and disjointed systems and devices, remains a smart thing to do. The process of connecting unconnected people and things (Internet of Things) and converting them to digital assets in a hyper-connected world is also called digitization. Digitization is table stakes--a municipality's business strategy has to be accompanied by a digital strategy that aims to digitize all processes and things: the foundation for the promise of digital transformation. A digitized smart city is future-ready.
It is when we take a people-centric view of combining planning and design, incentives, services, operations and efficiencies, mobility, to name a few, together with digital capabilities, that we have the basis to re-imagine our communities. A Future City is only possible when we transcend foundational digital technologies such as video, mobile, Internet of Things, cloud and big data (the table stake technologies) with the next wave of innovation that is about to take us by storm: 3D printing, robots, drones, mixed reality, analytics and artificial intelligence, autonomous cars, and block chain.
Municipal leaders have heard all this from technology companies, associations, consultants, and others. It's no surprise that 2017 IDC research shows that 96% of leaders in Canada know that the fourth industrial revolution (including digital) will have a profound impact on the dealings of their organization. The same study shows, however, that only 17% of these leaders have a digital strategy to accompany their business strategy for the purpose of preparing for this disruption.
Why such a gap? Change is hard. Especially when it is triggered by things from which we don't fully understand all the implications. Also, we build communities to last decades and centuries, yet the latest technologies appear to be replaced and upgraded in a heartbeat. It's difficult and daunting to reconcile these dramatically different timelines. But we simply have to do it: our children and their children will expect it.
This is calling for a transformation process that is iterative and incremental. Unless you build a brand new city from the ground up, you will have to introduce digital capabilities and deliver innovative new outcomes in a phased and controlled manner. The benefits of one solution or deployment have to deliver sufficient value, which in turn will generate savings or revenues that can be re-invested in the transformation journey.
A sustainable approach for transformation (MIT's Leading Digital calls this the Digital Transformation Compass) knows four succinct, incremental, and iterative stages. Any transformation journey starts by FRAMING THE CHALLENGE. Without clear awareness, prioritization of digital transformation, and the right coalition of champions, the cultural foundation may not be present to commence the journey and make it successful. Communities need to assess their readiness, build on their strategic assets, and constantly challenge their models. Smart regulation has to be introduced to ensure the break-down of political and regulatory barriers. And the vision needs to be shared by many. A Future City cannot rely only on a Mayor or elected-official; nor can it depend solely on the passion of a private sector stakeholder. A successful transformation includes "providers" (private sector companies, small-medium enterprises), "nurturers" (government, libraries, education, healthcare), and "pioneers" (universities, start-ups, entrepreneurs). Only a balanced vision and execution demonstrates the most sustainable transformation. This is not a technology challenge -- this is one of value and outcomes.
Next, we can FOCUS THE INVESTMENT when we translate our vision into action. A digital roadmap is needed that articulates how new capabilities can enable us, differentiate us, and eventually redefine us. A proper governance model with owners, committees, and accountability can help prioritize and manage future city projects. Chasing shiny objects, awards, and photo opportunities has proven not to be sustainable without an integrated view of a holistic plan under one consolidated vision. Also, it has shown to be the most expensive approach as foundational and shared investments aren't properly considered. For instance: a future city will need one platform that can be shared by all future digital solutions. Proprietary solutions and lack of integration will stifle future expansion and waste precious capital. In addition to foundational investments, the portfolio of smart (future-ready) and future city projects will require maintenance investments (both upgrading capabilities but also latching on to legacy maintenance spending), ROI-driven investments (with returns that can be re-invested in the journey), and early-stage innovation investments. Funding mechanisms include matching grants from research, re-directing operating expenditures, and public-private-partnerships.
With a clear vision and a focused investment (resources, time and money) in place, then you MOBILIZE THE COMMUNITY. The benefits and journey need to be shared using all communication channels possible. Everyone needs to feel engaged and have a sense of ownership. Citizens in most "smart cities" don't actually know that their community claims to be a "smart city" at all. The stakeholders that helped to frame the challenge need to walk-the-talk. Transformation needs to be a co-creation process for it to be sustainable. Champions need to be identified; quick wins need to be evangelized; and the culture needs to evolve into one that is innovative, not afraid to fail, focused on adoption, and inclusive and embracing. Government or business leaders may be the ones to ignite the Future City journey, but the people and their enthusiasm are the fuel for sustainable execution and growth. It is therefore important that the benefits to the people are at the front and center of the journey at all times.
Now that the transformation is in motion, we finally SUSTAIN THE TRANSITION. Foundational capabilities such as skill-building, education and the necessary underlying digital platforms need to be in place. The collaborative eco-system needs to be rewarded and incentives may need to be put in place (e.g. tax incentive for those that generate value such as reducing carbon emissions or increasing growth by taking advantage of the digital transformation). Success needs to be measured and celebrated. A prestige award won't last. The process starts again. This is iterative. This is a journey.
To build a Future City, we will require technology and a digital platform. This is the easy part. For us to live, learn, and work in cities that we haven't fully imagined yet requires incremental innovation, and a culture of inclusion and creativity. Just based on our experiences from the past 20 years we do know that the next 20 years will show even more change and disruption.
Municipal leaders have the daunting task to lead the process of re-imagining our communities. Future cities are for people and by people. Take advantage of their collective knowledge, and take advantage of the stakeholders that are energized about the fourth industrial revolution. The time is now.