Horizon Scan reveals key shifts in urban tech that will shape cities

Horizon Scan reveals key shifts in urban tech that will shape cities

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.

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