And yet, even as city planners work to operationalise the ICT infrastructure of the past 10 years, the technology that spurred the smart city movement continues to race forward.

Internet of Things & Connectivity

In 2008, the number of things connected to the Internet surpassed the number of people connected through personal devices for the first time. In 2016, 5.5 million new things are being connected to the Internet every day. By 2018, IoT sensors and devices will exceed mobile phones as the largest category of connected devices. 

When 50 billion connected devices come online in 2020, they will be transmitting data at speed 1 thousand times faster than today’s sensors and devices as 3G networks give way to 4G and LiFi wireless networks.

By 2008, the 2G networks that paved the way for early cellphone adoption had been almost entirely replaced by the newer, faster 3G networks. But even as smart cities were busily building apps for the newly-launched App Store, the next generation of wireless communication systems was already taking off. 

4G networks were introduced in 2011, and by 2016, 4G signals enjoyed more than 50% available in 62 of the 70 countries included in Open Signal’s annual State of LTE Report.  South Korea, the Netherlands and the US enjoy more than 80% 4G availability. With baseline connection speeds of 200 Mbps and speeds reaching 1Gbps, 4G has enabled a significant step forward in Internet-enabled experiences, including IP telephony and HD mobile TV, that are delighting users and facilitating the promise of smart cities.

But there is a new generation of wireless connectivity on the horizon, that has the potential to dramatically re-shape how we interact with the Internet.

“5G network technology will open a new era in mobile communication technology. The 5G mobile phones will … be an intelligent technology capable of interconnecting the entire world without limits.”

Reaching by 1 Gbps connection speeds powered by a seamless combination of broadband, LAN, PAN, MAN and WLAN, the 5G networks that will come live in 2020 will be cable of dynamic information access and supporting wearable devices with artificial intelligence capabilities.  

If they are ready for it, smart cities will be able to leverage 5G to take the next leap forward - towards ubiquitous computing with simultaneous connections and concurrent data transfers to multiple devices: IOT-connected devices can upload and download information, interact and respond to each other, autonomously.

 

Artificial Intelligence

5G networks will play an important role in promoting the advancement of the technology that has become a central element to the smart city experience in recent years: Artificial Intelligence. 

Fuelled by vast volumes of data and faster and faster processing speeds, Artificial Intelligence has accelerated by dramatically over the past decade, and interest in machine learning and cognitive computing is peaking. 

Annual venture funding for Artificial Intelligence in all sectors exceeded USD $974 million in June of 2016, and is on track reach up to USD $2000 million by the end of the year. Recognising the impact for artificial intelligence for systems and service delivery, cities are joining the funding rush: the AI-based analytics market could reach to USD $70 Billion by 2020, nearly a 10-fold increase from USD $8.2 Billion in 2013. 

Industrial automation and autonomous transportation are huge markets for artificial intelligence, with many smart cities making moves to include autonomous transport in their roadmap. McKinsey reports a potential positive impact to the global economy of USD $1.9 Trillion from driverless cars by 2025. 

Dubai and Singapore have already announced a strategy to convert a significant percentage of trips to autonomous vehicles in the the next 10 - 15 years. And both cities are actively pursuing Artificial Intelligence projects with impacts in a range of sectors, from city services to healthcare. 

As AI enters the mainstream, cities will need to be equipped for the technological and social challenges they will need to confront to make the most of this technology. 

 

Blockchain

Powering these new AI systems will be massive volumes of city data. Robust and secure systems will be required to facilitate the storage and exchange of this data to ensure city systems and process continue to operate smoothly. 

Blockchain, the technology behind cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, offers a promising new approach to digital transactions that meets city’s requirements for a secure, verifiable and indelible record of transactions. 

Applied to cities, Blockchain technology can be directed to enable the trusted exchange of health records between a patient and his or her doctor. Blockchain can simplify multi-step verification processes, such as the exchange of contracts or title deeds for properties. 

Under Dubai’s Blockchain Strategy, announced in October 2016, the city aims to move all applicable government transactions onto the blockchain by 2020. His Highness Sheikh Hamdan, the Crown Prince of Dubai, recently declared “in 2021, Dubai government will celebrate its last paper transaction,” effectively setting a 5-year deadline for the city to ‘go paperless.’ The transformation would be powered by the blockchain. 

As cities explore new use cases for the technology, legislators will be forced to grapple with the future of Bitcoin as well. On April 1st 2017, Japan enacted the ‘Virtual Currency Act,’ defining Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies as a form of payment method, not a legally-recognised currency.  Instead, Bitcoin is defined as a taxable asset. Japan’s law is among the first to formally recognise Bitcoin, and it will be the first of many new legislations from the world over, as cities and countries grapple with new means of transacting digitally, made possible by blockchain.

The move to the digital economy will depend in large part on how flexible cities and countries are in their response to disruptions to traditional markets from emerging technologies.

Technology will continue develop faster than bureaucracy can keep up. The smart cities of today were planned in 2013, or earlier. The smart city ambitions of the early 20-teens are coming online in a vastly different technological landscape.