The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the entire world upside-down, but it has also highlighted some of our biggest shortcomings. From energy usage to infrastructure and public policy, there are a lot of things we need to address as our population continues to grow. Smart cities will by no means tackle every problem we are grappling with, but they will play a necessary role in our growth as an ever-more-connected society.
Saudi Arabia recently unveiled its plan for a $500 billion smart city, funded, in part, by the country's energy ministry.
The futuristic mega-city, Noem, is set to be built in the desert on the Red Sea, and while all the details are still shrouded in mystery, the smart city is said to include artificial rain, a fake moon, robotic maids, and holographic teachers.
Saudi Arabia's ambitious plans may seem over-the-top, but the harsh reality is that these wild innovations will be necessary to support a global population set to reach nearly 10 billion people in the next 30 years.
So, what, really, are smart cities?
Technology has already connected the world in ways we could have never imagined even 30 years ago, and as the 5G revolution looms, another wave of inter-connection is set to follow. Higher wireless internet speeds and greater access to this network will bring what has coequally been called "The Internet of Things" into our lives in an entirely new way.
And it's all built on data.
When it boils down to it, we are all walking, talking data machines. While giving up this data does come with some privacy concerns, it also has real-world applications that are poised to transform entire cities and create a way of life that most people are still struggling to understand.
Data collected from our basic movements and interactions with the world around us will play a key role in a completely new transportation system. With the development and rollout of technologies such as self-driving cars, interconnected micro-sensors will provide connectivity between smart vehicles, creating a virtual highway on top of the physical highway. The development of this web of connection will be vital to navigation and safety of tomorrow’s self-driving fleet of cargo trucks and personal cars. But that's only one piece of the city of tomorrow.
This tech revolution - or should I say, data revolution - will also help regulate energy usage, manage water and waste systems, tackle traffic buildup, streamline governance and city planning, and even potentially prevent crime.
The dangers of smart cities
Smart cities offer a number of promising solutions to some of the biggest problems with which humanity is grappling, but they also come with plenty of risks that need to be addressed.
The rise of data collection raises certain ethical concerns over our individual privacy, for instance. Already, a number of cities are equipped with CCTV systems that, using publicly scraped data, can leverage artificial intelligence and facial recognition to identify individuals on the street without consent. Not only does that draw our own freedom of movement into question, but the technology is also still fairly new - leading to a lot of misidentifications which could lead to serious consequences.
Another issue to consider is the security of these smart systems. Hackers have already crippled major government organizations, energy plants, and even taken over the social media accounts of some of the most influential people on the planet. When building new smart cities, it will be of the utmost importance to take every potential threat seriously and build technological infrastructure to keep this web of data safe.
Controlling the weather or creating artificial moons may be decades away, but cities are growing smarter by the day. And though there are still a lot of ethical issues and potential risks to address regarding privacy and data management, this move towards technology is inevitable. As a society, we will need to start considering the risks and benefits of how we interact with this technology, and we will need to push for policies that ensure our safety as this revolution kicks into high gear.
By Michael Kern for Oilprice.com
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