I was recently in Berlin to attend a conference on Smart Cities sponsored by IBM. This conference is part of a global dialogue on the growth of cities and urbanization in general that IBM launched a few months ago as part of its overall Smarter Planet initiative.
“Why cities?”, asked IBM’s chairman and CEO Sam Palmisano when he kicked off the Smarter Cities dialogue at the end of April. He then proceeded to articulate the two key reasons for focusing on cities, one centered on people, the other on technology and systems.
“Well, to state the obvious - that's where the people are. By 2050, 70 percent of people on Earth will live in cities. Which means that cities ... more than states, provinces or perhaps even nations ... are increasingly the central arena for success or failure.”
“And a city is a system - indeed, a city is a complex system of systems. All the ways in which the world works - from transportation, to energy, to healthcare, to commerce, to education, to security, to food and water and beyond - come together in our cities.”
Let’s talk about the human aspects of cities first. Every two years, the UN Population Division issues its estimates and projections of the rural and urban populations of the world. According to the most recent such estimates, last year the world population reached a major landmark: “for the first time in history the urban population will equal the rural population of the world and, from then on, the world population will be urban in its majority.”
The UN report adds that “between 2007 and 2050, the world population is expected to increase by 2.5 billion, passing from 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion (United Nations, 2008). At the same time, the population living in urban areas is projected to gain 3.1 billion, passing from 3.3 billion in 2007 to 6.4 billion in 2050. Thus, the urban areas of the world are expected to absorb all the population growth expected over the next four decades while at the same time drawing in some of the rural population.”
Several key statistics attest to the rapid urbanization of the planet. In 1950, there were only two mega-cities, - the New York and Tokyo areas, - defined as urban agglomerations with more than 10 million inhabitants. Today there are 19 such mega-cities, and the UN study estimates that the number is expected to increase to 27 by 2025. Large cities, with populations from 5 - 10 million, are expected to grow from 30 today to 48 in 2025. Cities classified as medium-sized, with populations between one and 5 million, will grow from 382 today to 524 in 2025.
The planet is clearly undergoing a process of rapid urbanization. Sam summarized the challenges at hand in this recent article
“It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that "history" has been, at root, the story of our planet's urbanization. And it's a story that is now moving a lot faster. In 1900, only 13 percent of the world's population lived in cities. Two years ago, we crossed a threshold - for the first time ever, more than half of us were urban dwellers. And by 2050, that number will rise to 70 percent. We are adding the equivalent of seven New Yorks to the planet every year.”
“This unprecedented urbanization is both an emblem of our economic and societal progress - especially for the world's emerging nations - and a huge strain on the planet's infrastructure. It's a challenge felt urgently by mayors, heads of economic development, school administrators, police chiefs and other civic leaders. The challenges these leaders face - educating their young, keeping citizens safe and healthy, attracting and facilitating commerce and enabling the smooth flow of planes, trains, cars and pedestrians - are only being compounded by the global downturn.”
Thus, helping improve the way cities around the world work must be one of the top priorities of any initiative aimed at making the planet smarter through the use of information technologies and information-based intelligence. It is also one of the most challenging tasks facing the world’s technical community.
The week before my trip to Berlin, I attended an Engineering Systems Symposium hosted by MIT. I participated in a panel, where we discussed the critical issues and grand challenges in engineering systems as we tackle increasingly complex, large-scale, multi-disciplinary problems.
After hearing talks by my fellow panelists on financial, health care and engineering systems, I discussed that what makes these systems complex is not just that they are composed of large numbers of parts. What makes these systems so uniquely complex is that they are composed of many different kinds of parts, intricate organizations and highly different structures, all interacting with each other at different levels of scale. They are essentially systems of coupled systems, and it is their coupling and ensuing interactions that make them so dynamic and unpredictable.
Cities are arguably the ultimate system of systems. At the Berlin Smart Cities conference we had breakout sessions in six major components of cities: health care, education, transportation, utilities, public safety and government services. We could have had many more, since just about every area of human endeavor is somehow part of the mix of cities.
Up to now, we have focused on the components of a city pretty much in isolation. First of all, they are each complex enough in their own right even before we start exploring how they interact with each other in the everyday life of a city. And, until recently, we did not have the proper technologies and tools so we can begin to analyze, model and attempt to optimize the city as a holistic system. Advances in technology, as well as in our understanding of complex systems are making that now possible, although we are still in the very early stages.
When thinking of a city as a system of systems, I find it useful to consider three major classes of systems: infrastructure, business and people.
Infrastructure systems include transportation, utilities, communications, water management and energy among others. The key objectives for such public infrastructure systems is to significantly improve their quality, efficiency and sustainability.
A city must also be an attractive place for conducting business, as ultimately this will be its key source of jobs and wealth. A smart city requires a smart government, in particular one with economic development policies to attract and retain companies and start new ventures. This requires a well thought out approach to planning, product and services regulations, labor policies, openness to foreign trade and investment, taxation, ease of starting new companies, and so on.
But in the end, the top asset of a city is its human capital, - its ability to attract and retain talented people. Doing so requires attention to a number of basic human services, like education, health care and public safety. But it also includes a rich variety of social, community and cultural services that will appeal to the people and families from all over the world that the city wants to attract, both as residents and visitors.
During our panel at the MIT Engineering Systems Symposium, we said that in order to properly manage a complex system of systems, you must have a pretty good idea of the objectives you want to achieve. What are the key values around which you want to optimize the overall system? Technology, science and engineering will prove of little value if we don’t have a common set of goals that the different parts of the system are working towards.
I think that for a city, its key values must be embodied in the quality of life it aims to attain. A number of surveys try to distill quality of live into a single number, a liveability index against which they rank cities around the world. I don’t think it's that simple.
Cities are hardly homogeneous. Each city has its own unique style and character, reflecting the key values that its citizens and their elected leaders choose to emphasize. The style and character of a city are particularly important in our increasingly global, mobile world. While poorer people will clearly go to those cities and regions where they can best get a job and earn a living, those with more education, marketable skills or financial means will choose to live in those places that offer them and their families the quality of life they are looking for. These are clearly the kind of talented, entrepreneurial and innovative people that cities are increasingly competing to attract.
The Berlin Smart Cities conference was a really stimulating event. We have much to learn about cities: how to improve their operations by leveraging technology and engineering; how to best manage them day-in, day-out by using all the real time information at our disposal; and how to best plan for their future by viewing cities as systems of systems. The challenges are enormous, but so are the opportunities to now do something about them.