Building A Smarter City [Future of Cities]

Building A Smarter City [Future of Cities]

PSFK Labs explores how the real-time flow of information is helping improve the way our cities operate.

  • 20 october 2013

As cities around the world grow in size, one of the major challenges will be how to make city services and infrastructure more adaptive and responsive in order to keep existing systems running efficiently, while expanding to accommodate greater need. In our Future Of Cities report, PSFK Labs investigated the key trends and pressing issues that will play a role in shaping the evolution of urban environments over the next decade.

A major theme identified in the report is Sensible Cities, which is bringing intelligence to the city and its citizens through the free flow of information and data, helping improve both immediate and long term decision making. This theme consists of six key trends: Citizen Sensor Networks, Hyperlocal Reporting, Just-In-Time Alerts, Proximity Services, Data Transparency, and Intelligent Transport.


The Citizen Sensor Networks trend described in the Future Of Cities report highlights how sensor-laden personal electronics are enabling everyday people to passive collect environmental data and other information about their communities. When fed back into centralized, public databases for analysis, this accessible pool of knowledge enables any  interested party to make more informed choices about their surroundings. These feedback systems require little infrastructure, and transform people into sensor nodes with little effort on their part. An example of this type of network in action is Street Bump, which  is a crowdsourcing project that helps residents improve their neighborhood streets by collecting data around real-time road conditions while they drive. Using the mobile application’s motion- detecting accelerometer, Street Bump is able to sense when a bump is hit, while the phone’s GPS records and transmits the location.


The next trend of Hyperlocal Reporting describes how crowdsourced information platforms are changing the top-down nature of how news is gathered and disseminated by placing reporting tools in the hands of citizens, allowing any individual to instantly broadcast about what is important to them. Often using mobile phone technology, these information monitoring systems not only provide real-time, location specific data, but also boost civic engagement by establishing direct channels of communication between an individual and their community. A good example of this is Retio, which is a mobile application that allows Mexican citizens to report on organized crime and corruption using social media. Each issue is plotted on a map, allowing users and authorities to get an overall idea of what has been reported or narrow results down to specific incidents.

earthquake app1

Our trend Just-In-Time Alerts describes an increasing number of city services that are being networked with the cloud, allowing the management and flow of information between various agencies, officials and citizens to become more responsive, quickly disseminating important messages and alerts throughout a population using a combination of phone calls, SMS texts or emails. The just-in-time nature of these notification systems ensure that every person has the most current and accurate news at hand, helping provide an intelligent basis for forming opinions or making decisions. For example, The government in Mexico city has launched a mobile-phone application that will give citizens a one minute advance notice of impending quakes. The free app will emit a ‘Seismic Alert’ in the form of a sound when an earthquake is on its way, allowing residents to evacuate buildings or engage in emergency preparations.


Next, Proximity Services looks at mobile technology platforms that are leveraging location as a key metric for helping citizens seamlessly access a host of services to help them better navigate their urban environments. Whether providing a real-time map of available parking spots or instantly connecting nearby people around location-specific conversations and meet-ups, these solutions make it easier for anyone to easily find and tap into services and information when they need them most. As an example, ZapKab is a smartphone app that invites people to hail a cab with their mobile device by simply tapping on their screen. Users’ GPS coordinates and ride requests are sent to cab drivers, and nearby available cabs can be viewed on a map in real-time.


Data Transparency is a trend that examines how city administrators, institutions, and companies are publicly sharing data generated within their systems to add new levels of openness and accountability. Availability of this information not only strengthens civic engagement, but also establishes a collaborative agenda at all levels of government that empowers citizens through greater access and agency. For example, OpenSpending is a mobile and web-based application that allows citizens in participating cities to examine where their taxes are being spent through interactive visualizations. Citizens can review their personal share of public works, examine local impacts of public spending, rate and vote on proposed plans for spending and monitor the progress of projects that are or are not underway.


The final trend in the Sensible Cities theme from our Future of Cities report is Intelligent Transport. This trend describes how the continuous flow of information being gathered by a network of sensors coupled with seamless communication platforms and sophisticated, autonomous systems is streamlining the movement of people and things across cities. This data is being leveraged to solve any number of transportation challenges from real-time traffic management to the creation of less dangerous roadways for pedestrians and bicyclists. Through automating certain processes and alerting drivers with real-time information, these technologies not only ensure a safer, more efficient commute, but remove a principal source of stress from daily urban life that can improve health and overall well-being. For example, Technology company Virtual Traffic Lights has patented an algorithm designed to ease traffic by intelligently dictating the flow of cars passing through a four-way intersection. When cars approach the intersection, dedicated short-range communication equipment relays back information about how many cars are approaching and which direction they are headed, helping create a more continuous stream of vehicles.

In our Future Of Cities report, PSFK Labs examines the innovations and driving forces that will shape the urban environments of the future. To purchase the full report featuring fives themes, 28 trends and multiple examples of change, please visit the publishing page.

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