Built For You: The Cities of Tomorrow

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27 min read

FINDING A PLACE to call home matters. It’s human nature to want a place where you feel like you belong, although you’d be hard-pressed to find one city today that checks off all the boxes—no place is perfect. Yet no matter where we choose to plant our roots, place has a way of shaping our identities. And in turn we, along with our neighbors, collectively define our city’s identity. Hopefully, the result is a livable environment that works for everyone.

Roughly 55 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas today. By 2050, the global population is expected to skyrocket to 9 billion people, and the United Nations projects that 68 percent of the world population will live in urban areas. This level of urbanization has the potential to usher in a new era of economic growth and technological advancement, among other benefits. For now, however, it seems our cities have been built with vehicles in mind rather than the people who inhabit them. That means countries around the globe will need to figure out how to meet the changing needs of their growing urban populations despite having an existing infrastructure that may not be best-suited to the future.

Perhaps you’ve heard the term “smart cities” to describe these urban centers of the future. While that’s seemingly a broad concept, the Smart Cities Council promotes three specific core values that it believes make up the foundation of future cities: livability, workability, and sustainability. From traffic flow and healthcare to affordable housing and public safety, today’s advanced technology has the ability to address the council’s core values to effect meaningful change. Here are just a few of the ways it can happen —all stemming from technologies already in limited use.

Access to Affordable Housing

With nearly 7 in 10 people expected to live in urban areas by 2050, millions of new dwellings need to be built every year for the next 30 years to accommodate the huge influx of people. The accelerated need for affordable housing is undeniable, yet real estate development is historically slow and costly, and has failed to improve significantly over the past several decades.

Today, several companies are utilizing artificial intelligence to tackle this complex real estate problem, including Miami-based tech startup Deepblocks, whose AI software uses algorithms to optimize and streamline the real estate development process.

“[Deepblocks] came about out of a deep frustration for how fragmented the real estate development process is,” Olivia Ramos, founder and CEO of Deepblocks, tells Cognitive Times. She explains that everyone involved in the process—whether it’s the architects, the brokers, the contractors, the lenders, or the developers—currently works with completely different datasets, meaning they typically fail to understand the totality of a project or the potential of a property. To combat this, Deepblocks’ AI software mirrors Ramos’ desire to learn the whole process from beginning to end, combining everything into one platform to streamline real estate development.

Where does Deepblocks come in? The software aims to completely streamline the initial analysis phase, a process that currently can take three to six months to phase out what projects you want to build due to disparate data on potential costs and revenue. Deepblocks wants to compress the process and deliver information in an instant. “The more we can optimize that process, the lower we can make those ultimate rents,” says Ramos. “[Currently,] the problem with affordability is that it’s too costly to create a project in the first place. In the end, there are such little returns that no one’s really incentivized to build it. In a lot of cities, only projects that build a certain amount of units are actually incentivized with tax benefits. So smaller affordable projects are almost impossible to get done.

“So, instead of depending on subsidies or tax benefits,” Ramos says “there is a future where the building itself can be so much cheaper to build that you can afford to bring down the rents and still make a good return.” As more and more companies use this kind of technology on the development side, Deepblocks believes it will invite healthy competition to meet the demand for lower rent.

Beyond merely identifying projects where revenue potential can overlap with affordable living, there’s that whole issue of physically building spaces. Here, the use of 3D printing technology is a solution that’s been proposed to solve the housing affordability crisis. For example: ICON, an advanced construction technologies company based in Austin, Texas, uses 3D printing to build homes on-site that are more affordable and energy-efficient than current homes of comparable size at a fraction of the cost.

“There are a lot of roadblocks to accessing affordable housing, but the biggest culprits are supply, construction costs, and fees,” says ICON co-founder Evan Loomis. He says the United States needs over 9 million new homes to meet current demand, however, “there’s been very little innovation in housing for the past 1,000 years. We’ve basically been doing it the same way one stick and brick at a time. Technology has unlocked tremendous benefits for every other industry, and it’s time for us to use technology to help us build more beautiful, affordable, and resilient homes at a fraction of the time.”

Loomis references a recent report from McKinsey & Company stating that construction is the only industry over the past 50 years to have lost productivity gains, thus driving up costs. Speaking to fees, Loomis says, “In many parts of the U.S., regulation is bloated to the point where ‘fees’ make up 15 to 20 percent of the cost of a house. That’s incredibly high on a dollar basis and punishes lower-income earners the most.”

Since its founding, ICON has made waves across the United States and Mexico as they address each roadblock with their 3D-printing technology. In 2018, ICON printed a 350-square-foot home in East Austin for just $10,000 in 24 hours. Less than two years later, the company delivered a cluster of 3D-printed homes in Northeast Austin’s Community First! Village to provide shelter to some members of the city’s growing homeless population. With its Vulcan II 3D printer, which utilizes robotics and automated material handling, the company’s goal is to cut home-building costs by 30 to 50 percent. Of course, this means rent would significantly decrease.

“The housing of the future must be different than the housing of our past,” as Loomis puts it. “We believe the future is automated and digital and this will be no different for the construction industry.”

Intelligent Connectivity and Enhanced Safety

Physical infrastructure is just one aspect of ideal future cities—they need to be designed to optimize modern information infrastructure, too. “The most important new fact about the human condition is that we are now suddenly connected,” as Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe put it during the 2019 Time Machine AI and Future Tech summit. Metcalfe said 57 percent of the world’s population is now connected to the Internet, and there were already 8 billion “things” connected to the internet. By 2030, the Internet of Things will comprise more than 30 billion devices connected to the internet.

What does this mean for cities of the future and the people who inhabit them? It means trillions of sensors scattered across the city, collecting valuable data that can be used to optimize everything from bicycle routes and traffic congestion to public safety and environmental sustainability. The potential of the Internet of Things (IoT) is virtually limitless, especially with the ongoing development and expansion of 5G technology.

For some people, 5G means little more than downloading their favorite movies at lightning speed, but there are other eventual benefits to get excited about. Reliable connectivity and speed are the lifeblood of IoT and are needed to make sense of the oceans of data cities generate on an hourly basis. In the handful of countries that have launched 5G services, 5G can send data to and from as many as a million devices per square kilometer, compared to 100,000 devices per square kilometer using today’s 4G networks.

In other words, the IoT behind modern cities will get a major boost from 5G-grade connectivity as more and more device sensors survey and react to the bustling cities around them.

Those sensors will increasingly power the improved urban mobility and safety essential to improving the quality of life of city-dwellers. For instance, Henry Ford’s great-grandson Bill Ford believes that “the mobility model that we have today simply will not work tomorrow.” He’s held this notion for nearly a decade, and city planners and companies alike are working tirelessly to address this complex issue. According to a report from Accenture, applying smart city solutions like IoT and 5G technologies to the management of vehicle traffic and electrical grids could produce $160 billion in benefits and savings through reductions in energy usage, traffic congestion, and fuel costs.

It’s not just a financial move, of course. The National Safety Council estimates that 38,800 people died in car crashes in 2019, and roughly 4.4 million people were injured seriously enough to require medical attention. If IoT and 5G technologies combined ensure safer roads where cars communicate with each other and city infrastructure, it’ll lead to a significantly safer driving experience in any city.

cities of the future

More Public Design Participation and Understanding

Augmented and virtual reality possess that “cool” factor usually associated with gaming or social media. And with AR in particular, developers use existing environments out in the real world and create a playing field on top of them. Think Pokemon Go and Snapchat filters, for instance. However, both augmented and virtual reality have the potential to make the leap from being a fun social experience to an advanced technology that improves city residents’ lives.

Believe it or not, buildings pose both cognitive benefits and risks to people’s health and well-being depending on their design. Whether it’s the layout of the space, the availability of natural lighting, or where a building is physically positioned within a city, well-designed architecture and urban planning determine the difference between a happy city-dweller and a stressed-out individual who wants to escape from their metropolis. Luckily, augment- ed and virtual reality essentially allow everyone impacted by and involved with city design to see how physical changes will impact a community and the surrounding environment— all before any paperwork is signed or bricks laid.

Right now, augmented and virtual reality help many urban planners visualize prospective projects to understand how they’ll impact residents. But if we’re focusing on designing cities of the future with people in mind, people should also have a say in what’s getting built, where it’s getting built, and what it means for the city overall. Today, augmented and virtual reality also aid public participation in urban planning by allowing citizens to see 3D virtual representations of proposed buildings visualized on top of existing architecture instead of trying to decipher 2D design plans.

While this kind of public access is already happening, it’s still not widespread or common. Luckily, initiatives like Google Cardboard and its ilk are working towards bringing down the cost of VR access, and modern smartphones running both iOS and Android have increasingly enabled users to enjoy the benefits of AR. And as we move towards the city of the future—one where building happens with people in mind and cities exist in conjunction, not conflict, with nature—utilizing augmented and virtual reality to democratize design will be vital. Having more pervasive then tech will be, too.

Alongside other present-day tech like 3D-printing, artificial intelligence, and 5G connectivity, AR/VR is undoubtedly part of the tapestry of our future cities that happens to be available today. These tools and potential applications are only the beginning, of course. As we grow increasingly tech-dependent, more technically driven tools and unique solutions will inevitably surface. Put simply: Citizens have a lot to look forward to when it comes to finding a place to call home. And that place may look a lot different—an inclusive, interconnected city that works for everyone.

“There are a lot of things that we can learn from the natural cities that have been made by nature. Now we’re using not only artificial intelligence, but also biomimicry to really understand how these things work and how we can generate buildings like that,” says Deepblocks’ Ramos. “That’s something that if we have the opportunity to in the future, the goal would be to create buildings that are completely autonomous and that don’t require any infrastructure to be a healthy operating system.”

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