It is unquestionable: modern cities stand on the brink of transformational change, a change shaped by technological innovation.  As the steam engine in the eighteenth century, the electricity in the nineteenth and the personal cars in the twentieth, Smart-City technologies are revolutionising the way we see, perceive and think the cities we live in.

The development of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), combined with the proliferation of sensors through the Internet of Things (IoT) and the actionable knowledge progressively unleashed by the data analysis are opening a new range of possibilities for the physical and socio-economic management of cities.

In this blog, based on the last Report to the President: Technology and the Future of Cities released by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), we will have a look at how the United States are making sense of these profound transformations.

Baby-boomers and Millennials are back in town

Today, more than 80% of the U.S. population lives in metropolitan areas, producing more than the 90% of the country’s GDP. From 1920 to 2010, though, U.S. cities hollowed out, with suburbs growing at a faster pace than the urban cores, generally characterised by higher levels of crime and lower levels of income and employment rate.  The process started to reverse in 2011, when millennials and baby-boomers moved back to urban neighbourhoods. Cities, then, started growing again.

A key milestone was in September 2015, when the White House launched its Smart Cities Initiative with the aim to stimulate a number of Federal agencies to support urban technology innovation. With this in mind, the White House featured the launch of the Metro-Lab Network, a private not-for profit platform which pairs city governments with local university research labs using Federal Research & Development funding.

A data-driven approach

Data, the new currency of the digital age, play a crucial role in the process. A rising number of American cities are now using data-driven approaches to solve specific problems in sectors such as health, public transport, public safety, economic development, sustainability and street maintenance.

In particular, transportation and mobility are on the verge of large-scale transformation. The continuous development of connected and fully autonomous vehicles, for example, has significant cost saving potential.  The PCAST estimates that the cost of traffic collisions is approximately $300 billion per year, whilst vehicular congestion costs the U.S. about $120 billion annually. In terms of time saving, the hours regained from not driving are estimated to be worth $1.2 billion per year. The potential economic benefits, then, are almost invaluable.

How American cities are using data?

Amongst others, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York have emerged as leading cities in the use of data analytics to solve resident’s day-to- day problems.

The City of Los Angeles, combining the efforts with app providers such as Waze, is sharing live traffic, road closure and other data in order to produce real-time crowd-sourced reports of issues encountered in the streets from more than 1.5 million users.

Heading North East, the City of Chicago is working with the Argonne Nation Laboratory and the University of Chicago in the deployment of the Array of Things, a citywide network of 500 lamppost-mounted sensors that monitor air quality.

New York, instead, is using data analytics to determine which of the city’s one million buildings are most likely to go on fire. Indeed, by examining more than 7,500 factors across 17 city-agency data streams, the New York Fire Department uses artificial intelligence to predict and prevent the eruption of major fires.

What future for American cities?

It this new era for modern cities, shaped by technological innovation and the diffusion of smart sensors, it is of paramount importance than local authorities and City Councils share their best practices. As the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology suggests, the future of a nationwide development lies in the creation of what they called the City Web, a shared platform enabling the “accumulation and replication of urban solutions and associated data and technologies in ways that benefit cities with different sizes, different technological know-how, and different financial capabilities”.


Simone Grassi, Bristol Is Open


Photo credits: mattharvey1