The study by Cornell Tech synthesises more than 250 urban tech breakthroughs and also lays out the “technical debt” already on the books due to hasty decisions in some areas, including governance.
A supercharged infrastructure, streets that take on new roles and networks that empower the disempowered are among the six technological shifts that a team from Cornell Tech in the US believe will shape future cities.
The Horizon Scan ‘synthesises’ more than 250 urban tech breakthroughs, innovations, and applications, as well as the field’s potential and risks over the next decade. It claims to be one of the most comprehensive surveys yet of the emerging field of urban tech, covering infrastructure, resiliency, machine learning and equity, among other issues.
Smart city forecast
The project was led by Dr Anthony Townsend, the inaugural urbanist in residence at the Jacobs Urban Tech Hub at Cornell Tech. Townsend, the author of two books and numerous technology forecasts on topics including smart cities, automated mobility, and last-mile delivery, sees the report as a founding document for the field.
“The Horizon Scan is meant to create a conversation across the many areas that are a part of urban tech,” he said. “The report describes the innovations that the field could produce in the coming decade. But it also lays out the ‘technical debt’ that’s already on the books due to hasty decisions about sensing, AI, and tech governance. The hope is that this roadmap helps the field come together to make better decisions about applied research going forward.”
“By focusing our gaze on the future, we can make better-informed decisions on the increasing challenges that today’s cities face every day”
The Cornell Tech report covers a variety of technological advances – from autonomous vehicles and facial recognition to carbon sinks and urban sensing – that are poised to transform our cities over the next 10 years. The year-long research effort produced six narrative forecasts that summarise the most important shifts likely to shape the future of cities nationally and globally.
These are the Horizon Scan forecasts and upshots in outline:
1. Supercharged infrastructure: urban systems converge into a deep, actionable web
The smart cities movement aims to equip buildings and infrastructure with digital sensing, and engineers have deployed these technologies to control individual systems. But smart buildings and infrastructure aren’t yet linked up at an urban city scale.
Upshot: Over the next decade, the convergence of physical and digital infrastructure will speed up, enabling us to track the flow of energy, water, and waste in real time. Cities will play a catalytic role orchestrating this process. But the bigger challenge will be harnessing the power of this vast, deep, actionable web.
2. Wild and well: life science transforms urban systems
The lockdowns of 2020 revealed a powerful desire to reconnect with nature in urban public spaces. At the same time, advances in surveying the natural world are making it newly possible to assess the way environmental health is linked to our own at the microscopic scale.
Upshot: Researchers are mapping microbiomes within urban transit systems and sampling sewage to detect Covid-19 outbreaks. Municipal governments are wiring up waterways to calculate the vitality of ecosystems. Arrays of citizen-operated sensors are collecting climate data.
3 Resilient corridors: scaling sustainable building technology
Over the next decade, many cities will launch climate ‘moonshots’ to cut carbon emissions and weather the shocks of climate change. To maximise impact, leaders should concentrate political and financial capital alongside concentrations of networked infrastructure, where technology will amplify the advantages of density.
Upshot: Streets will take on new roles as cities seek to extract maximum value from the public realm. Remote work, learning, and healthcare will drive changes in the kinds of buildings we need; novel materials and automated construction techniques will transform how we build them.
4 Dark plans: urban chaos gives way to an algorithmic hum
Artificial neural networks that power machine learning are creating tremendous value in our cities by revealing order in the movements of people, goods, resources, and information. They can help us organise our urban world with a predictive capability unrivalled in human history.
Upshot: There’s no telling what society will gain and which individual freedoms we will lose to create a more connected, orderly system.
5 New screen deal: inclusive urban innovations challenge surveillance capitalism
Equity goals are becoming as important as the efficiency aspirations that have long driven smart city agendas. As tech becomes the vehicle and catalyst for transforming society’s most prized and vital institutions, a new sociotechnical compact is emerging.
“The Horizon Scan also lays out the ‘technical debt’ that’s already on the books due to hasty decisions about sensing, AI, and tech governance”
Upshot: Networks that empower the disempowered should be fostered, while those that extend the reach and consolidate the control of the most powerful must be checked.
6 Urban innovation industrialises: big business cracks the code of the city
The tension between proprietary and open-source tech has been a constant in the smart cities movement, creating suspicion of corporate smart city solutions and blocking implementation of large-scale private digital projects. But in the decade ahead, big tech will crack the code of the city.
Upshot: As a new urban innovation industry takes shape, big financial and political interests will move in. Much of the decisive action will play out within the high-stakes context of Sino-American geopolitical jockeying.
“This research project is a testament to our belief that the future of technology is the future of cities,” added Michael Samuelian, founding director of the Jacobs Urban Tech Hub at Cornell Tech. “By focusing our gaze on the future, we can make better-informed decisions on the increasing challenges that today’s cities face every day.”
Cornell Tech is Cornell University’s campus for technology research and education on Roosevelt Island in New York City. It was founded in partnership with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and the City of New York. The Jacobs Institute fosters radical experimentation at the intersection of research, education, and entrepreneurship. Established jointly by Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, its mission is to transform key industries through technological innovation, deep-tech start-ups, and uniquely skilled talent.