Cities of the Future

NYC Media Lab
8 min readNov 8, 2019


Cities of the Future

This week, we’re learning about the future of smart cities.

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The new way to make cities work
This week, we’ll learn about smart cities — the cool, compelling and concerning — and consider what implications IoT, sensors, computer vision and new tech may have on city dwellers. We look at how technology can, for example, reduce traffic and energy consumption, by collecting data in ways previously unimaginable.

As the world increasingly urbanizes, we’ll take a global approach to what cities are doing to incorporate data-driven approaches to service delivery and governance. Also, in light of Sidewalk Labs’ new approach to its 12-acre test project in Toronto, we’ll ask ourselves what smart cities could deliver to urbanites, and at what cost.

We’ll also consider biology’s evolution from an empirical science to an engineering discipline, explore how Mars Corp. is evolving its business beyond candy and pet food, contemplate the ripple effect of Twitter’s ban on political ads, and read about a new theory of the universe.

We hope you’ve been enjoying this newsletter and would love any feedback (, especially in these early stages. Thank you again for reading!

Erica Matsumoto
NYC Media Lab


While definitions vary from person-to-person, it’s generally agreed that a smart city seeks to use technology and data analysis to optimize city functions and drive economic growth while improving citizens’ quality of life. In a smart city, value is derived from how technology is used to improve the quality of life in the city.

Regular Innovation Monitor readers are likely familiar with the concept of a smart city, but we liked two quick summaries. The first, in article form, is from IoT Agenda, and provides a great overview of basic smart city concepts.

And, from the IoT Agenda article, we also liked this visual layout of the various components that typically make up a smart city:

Source: IoT Agenda

All of these components will require an ever-increasing amount and reliability of data collection and transfer. Many innovations are underway, as you’ll see next, but forthcoming technologies like 5G will play a major role in facilitating smart cities.


This fantastic report, Smart Cities: What’s in it for the citizens (from Juniper Research + Intel) lays out the urgency behind the need to technologically transform our cities. First and foremost, the rise of urbanization and mega-cities are a massive challenge. As populations across the globe move away from rural life into cities, they increase the attendant problems in urban areas (the UN says 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050).

This has created (to date) 37 mega-cities with populations over 10 million, which have often overwhelmed traditional urban planning. Already, we’re seeing consequences like:

  • “Heavy Congestion in Cities can Result In Drivers Spending More than 70 hours per Year in Gridlock”
  • “Hospital Overcrowding in Cities can Result in Patients Waiting Longer Than 4 Hours for a Bed”

This is an unexpected framing on the benefit of smart cities that we really enjoyed: the idea of “Giving Time Back” to citizens. Reducing time spent stuck in traffic, waiting in a hospital, or lost to extended commutes due to a lack of affordable housing could significantly improve everyday quality of life. Accordingly, the study breaks down possible time saved from smart city solutions into four categories:

  • Mobility / Transportation: save 59.5 hours per year
  • Healthcare: save 9.7 hours per year
  • Public Safety: save 34.7 hours per year
  • Administrative Productivity: — save 21.2 hours per year

For a longer read, we recommend Harvard Law Professor Susan Crawford’s The Responsive City, which includes an introduction by former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg.


Another combination report and ranking to note is the IECE Cities in Motion Index.

Notably, in this 2018 ranking New York City topped the list for the second year in a row (London took the top spot in this year’s ranking alongside NYC and Paris as the top “smartest” cities globally).

  • As part of its smart city plan, New York’s Department of Environmental Protection is deploying a large-scale Automated Meter Reading (AMR) system to get a better snapshot of water consumption (the 8.5 million-plus residents of the city use a billion gallons of water each day) and give customers a tool to check their daily water use.
  • The city has also deployed Bigbelly solar-powered “smart” trash cans that monitor trash levels and ensure waste pick-up is scheduled regularly.

The private sector is getting involved in the creation of smart cities, too. At the beginning of November, the city of Toronto approved a plan for Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs to develop a 12-acre smart city in a disused area of the city. The project received significant pushback from community groups and advocates concerned around the lack of transparency around the project.

Accordingly, Dan Doctoroff, the CEO of Sidewalk Labs, offered the following in order to advance the project: “The best thing we can do is sit down with them and explain and we will be thoughtful and patient and listen to people’s concerns and hopefully reach a place where we have a mutually acceptable way of moving forward that doesn’t have to be what we suggested.” (source).

It’s important to note that Doctoroff served as Deputy Mayor for Economic Development under Mayor Bloomberg in NYC, and oversaw countless transformative projects for the City including PlaNYC (a cross-agency environmental sustainability plan that included a congestion pricing policy).

Subsequently, the final project plan is a scaled back version of its original 190-acre proposal (which had a 200-page “vision” section).

We think this is an important example of how to bring technology projects of a certain scale into cities.

When it comes to working with local governments, tech companies can learn from Sidewalk Labs’ approach that public review and approval processes require much more consideration than building a functional tech product. This pilot may also be a harbinger of sorts on how tech companies may become more deeply involvement in how cities are planned and work.

Some other examples of smart-city technology already in action:

  • Singapore: smart traffic cameras restrict traffic based on volume, making thousands of passengers’ commutes easier every day.
  • Kaunas, Lithuania: the cost of parking is automatically deducted from drivers’ bank accounts when they park, sparing them the hassle of dealing with parking meters.
  • Tokyo, Japan: facial recognition technology will be used to improve security at the 2020 Olympic Games, and driverless taxis will be used to transport athletes and tourists at the Games.


Understandably, with such power comes responsibility around trust and privacy. Let’s turn our attention on why not everyone is thrilled about smart cities.

Observing Toronto’s deal with Sidewalk Labs, Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff warns that the city has put itself in the “crosshairs of a uniquely 21st-century economic model that I call surveillance capitalism.”

Zuboff defines “surveillance capitalism” as a system that “claims private experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data,” treating data as something to be captured and valued “not for service improvement[,] but rather for their rich predictive signals.” In this way of thinking, data serves as the foundation for “a lucrative new surveillance economy,” and smart cities are privitizable data mines.

For more on Zuboff’s concerns about “surveillance capitalism,” watch this interview:


There are some concerns about the tools used in smart cities. For more on this, read these articles about racial bias in facial recognition and the need to balance innovation with privacy.

Some cities have responded to these concerns. Notable responses have come from the cities of San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley in California and Somerville, Massachusetts:

To better understand why some cities are banning facial recognition, watch this video:

In many ways, these concerns are not that new. In 2016, ProPublica reported on algorithmic bias and how it was grossly inaccurate in predicting rates of recidivism. The article discussed the causes and consequences of this problem.

Biology is Eating the World: A Manifesto

Humankind has finally reached the point where it can use manipulate nature’s machinery. Thanks to biological engineering, we’ve gained the ability to design, scale, and transform biology. Biology’s shift from an empirical science to an engineering discipline has implications for disease diagnosis, treatment and diagnosis. 5 min read Read More

Mars CEO breaks down the transformation of the $35 billion company

Mars CEO Grant Reid’s 30 years at Mars have seen the company undergo a massive transformation. Since Reid became CEO in 2014, he’s brought in a new era at the company. In an interview with Business Insider, Reid talks about his expansive vision for Mars’ — and the overall CPG industry’s — future. 11 min read Read More

Twitter chose to ban political ads. Could this impact Facebook to do the same?

In the wake of Twitter’s political ads ban, some are wondering what would happen if there was a domino effect. The issues at hand are not as clear-cut as it may initially appear. Should Twitter’s political ads ban lead more companies — particularly Facebook — to ban political ads, as well, it could harm candidates for political office.

9 min read Read More

The Universe Might Be a Giant Loop

According to a new paper in Nature Astronomy, the universe might be curved like a massive, inflated balloon. If true, this would have significant implications for intergalactic travel, as it would mean that moving in a straight line would eventually end to looping around and ending up where you started. This would be a break with current “flat universe” theory.

6 min read Read More This Week in Business History

November 5, 1999: Microsoft Corporation was declared a monopoly

U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson declared Microsoft a monopoly, ruling that its aggressive tactics were “stifling innovation” and hurting customers. He said, “Microsoft has demonstrated that it will use its prodigious market power to harm any firm that insists on pursuing initiatives that could intensity competition.”

Microsoft’s billionaire founder, Bill Gates, argued that the case is about American innovation. Gates said, “At the heart of this case is whether a successful American company can continue to improve its products for the benefit of consumers.”

Wall Street wasn’t worried about the ruling — the Dow Jones Industrial Average (which at that point had only included Microsoft for a week after adding it on October 26, 1999) rose slightly after the news. The NASDAQ also rose, reaching a record high for the seventh day in a row. Microsoft shares went down 1⅛, and its rival Red Hat (a leading producer of Linux software) saw its shares rise 18 1/16.

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