Future Cities – Urban Mess or Brave New Worlds?

iCity - Designing future, intelligent cities

K Ananth Krishnan, VP and Chief Technology Officer, TCS

What comes to your mind when you hear about the names New York, Mumbai, Tokyo or Shanghai? Probably something to do with vastness and vibrancy? Something that is abuzz with activity and speaks of creativity? These are today’s mega-cities (typically with a population of over 10 million), home to many large businesses and drivers of a global economy. The cities we know of today, especially in developed economies, have been in existence for many decades and centuries now. We know from various experts that urbanization as a phenomenon is rapidly growing.

On the other hand, the cities we will see in the future are going to be radically different. More than 50% of the world’s population is already living in cities and this percentage will grow even more in the coming years. There will be hundreds of new fast-growing cities and tens of new mega-cities, mainly in emerging economies.

While living in cities has its advantages, mega-cities come with their mega challenges, impacting the quality of life, starting from urban planning to operational issues such as garbage disposal, traffic congestion or quality of air.

Now think – what would it mean to add tens of cities like Mumbai or Shanghai, to the world in the coming decades?

The demographics and needs of citizens are changing with times. In many countries, advances in healthcare and reduced fertility ratio have led to a significant increase in aging population. Such an aging population is related to increase in chronic diseases, lower employability and economic uncertainty. This has implications on workforce, healthcare, as well as finance and social programs to engage the senior citizens more meaningfully.

City administrators have additional worries as well. Cities are now competing with other cities in attracting the right talent, the right industries. This could lead to scenarios where there is migration into a city and unemployment of existing inhabitants if they don’t get re-skilled. So the city managers have to work on ways to continually make, also keep, its citizens employable.

Managing an aging population, deteriorating health conditions, increased crime, social unrest, employability, and homelessness are only a few of the many highly complex and interlinked problems that are being faced by a mega-city. These problems are not solely due to high concentration of people that compete for the limited natural and man-made resources available to the city. In fact, we may not know how to solve fully some of these problems, as solving one problem may lead to additional and even more complex problems somewhere else. The challenges that will be faced by future cities are going to be even more difficult, solely because of their unprecedented rate of growth.

In fact, a lot is happening in the area of making cities more efficient, using the power of ICT. There are many key technologies that have been maturing over the past few years, and which are creating a paradigm shift in our thinking. Technologies around Social Media, Mobility, Analytics, Cloud and Internet of Things (IoT) are creating a big impact, enabling problems to be solved hitherto considered very difficult.

How will such future cities thrive in a rapidly changing environment? How will they face these challenges and complex problems? How well prepared are we to tackle the known, and the unknown?

ICT has been of immense help in answering some of these questions.

Also, this has spawned an entirely new focus area for cities and vendors for the interplay of city operations and ICT, especially using new technologies I mentioned above. This has created an increasing interest in terms such as smart, connected, future cities.

While these technology-led initiatives are gaining a lot of visibility across the world, there is still less clarity if technology can entirely solve these mega problems.

Are there any new elements of thinking that can be introduced, which can make such city projects more effective?

What do you think?

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