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Cities get smarter

Richard Adler | Oct. 29, 2014
Cities can seem immortal, lasting for thousands of years. Imagine the possibilities when we make them smart.

rio de janeiro operations center
The smart-city operations center of Rio de Janeiro. Credit: City of Rio de Janeiro

Cities are unique among man-made institutions in being essentially immortal. A number of cities in Northern Africa and Western Asia are least 5,000 years old, and Jericho, in the West Bank, is believed to have been continuously inhabited since 10,000 BC.

Their remarkable longevity was one of the characteristics of cities that attracted the interest of Geoffrey West, past president of the Santa Fe Institute and a theoretical physicist, who decided to turn his attention to studying living organisms to see if he could make biology less of a descriptive science and a more analytical science. After focusing on animals, seeking a correlation between their physical size and their life span, he began to explore the dynamics of human institutions such as corporations and cities. He quickly realized that while corporations have finite lifetimes (very few business enterprises survive for even 100 years), cities seemed to have the capacity to be nearly immortal.

Cities can be amazingly resilient: think, for example, about the cities in Europe and Japan that rebounded after they were virtually obliterated by bombing during World War II to become vibrant urban centers again. Unlike countries, whose borders are imaginary and subject to revision, cities are actual places with a physical structure that shapes the lives of their residents.

One reason for cities' resilience is that they are highly efficient: West and his colleague Luis Bettencourt found that as cities grew larger, their performance increased on a per capita basis in terms of such diverse factors as energy use, income and patents produced (in technical terms, they scale "super-linearly"). Above all, cities are social networks: places where people connect with other people -- both people like themselves and people who are quite different. As a result, cities serve as engines of innovation, places where creative people choose to live and work in order to collaborate with other creatives.

It is fortunate that cities have these positive characteristics. According to a recent report from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, for the first time in human history, more than half of the world's population now lives in cities, and more than two-thirds are expected to be urban dwellers by 2050.

Building the future in Rio
As efficient as cities are today, there is a movement under way to make them much more efficient. Companies like IBM, Cisco and Samsung have been actively promoting the concept of "smart cities" that use digital technologies to provide civic leaders with a better view of how their cities function and enable them to orchestrate their operations.


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