Building the Cognitive City of the Future (Part 2 of 2)

April 9, 2018

In our previous post, we discussed that, although we don’t exactly know what a cognitive city will look like, we do, however, have a general idea of how it would behave: a cognitive city will be more resilient, adaptable, and efficient than both smart and safe cities, and would not only improve security, safety, and city operations but also to more generally improve the lives of the city’s residents.
In today’s post, we’re going to explain how the focus beyond the technology itself is key for cities to transition from being smart to becoming cognitive.

Smart cities continue to confront old challenges

One of the reasons why a firmer concept of cognitive cities remains so elusive is because the idea of smart cities hasn’t been fully realized. In the opening installment of our recent three-post series on the transition of smart cities to cognitive ones, we hinted at one of the reasons why:
“There is one major caveat to smart city solutions: the data tends to flow in one direction from what are ultimately surveillance devices to government officials… leading to tensions between personal privacy and government goals of safety and higher efficiency”.
This tension is not the only root of a lot of the pushback and criticism of smart city initiatives, including very tech-savvy media outlets.
times square
Here are two others:
Does social-media driven transition to cognitive cities serve ALL citizens? Even with wireless broadband connectivity becoming cheaper and faster, and sensor and processing technologies getting more affordable, it is likely to be limited to certain parts of the population, for at least some time. Consider this article from Wired which describes an ambitious smart city project, backed by Google, in Toronto as likely to only serve technologically-capable millennials, and ignore the other citizens such as the elderly, the disabled, and the poor.
Data doesn’t analyze itself: Another reason why smart cities have yet to widely appear is the fact that people with real data science, statistical, and programming skills are required for a city’s data to work for its people. Again, a very non-technical roadblock arises, as a recent article from the same publication points out, which is the challenge of hiring knowledgeable people who can actually “separate the data wheat from the data chaff”.
Cities trying to mature from safe to truly smart will encounter these and other constraining realities, but it’s just as important to remember that even cities which will have become cognitive will also encounter these same realities.

Moving from safe city to smart
Maturity from safe to smart is complex

How cognitive cities tackle complex challenges

The advantage of a cognitive city lies in the fact that data collection won’t be limited to electronic sensors, information sharing will occur over more than just copper wires or strands of glass fiber, and decision making will be distributed over residents, civic groups, elected officials, and other stakeholders.
All of a city’s fluid, often competing, and overlapping constituencies and systems must sense, adapt, learn, and remember together. This is a key insight from our previous post: collective and individual responses to change and challenges become ingrained habits, a key mechanism behind memory formation in a cognitive city. Those habits – namely citizens’ interaction with ICT systems and each other – can become the means by which the next challenge is met.
Objective data can provide a lot of insight into the practical ramifications of any decision a city makes. Data combined with advanced predictive analytics can help us more intelligently allocate limited resources. Big data, cloud, social, IoT, and machine learning can help make a city smart, but much more is needed to make it wise.

So where are we currently, in terms of cognitive cities moving from a conceptual stage to becoming a reality?

The technologies for enabling this transition are already here. However, the maturity of a cognitive city depends on a lot more than employing the latest tech or popular platform to improve safety, city operations, and the general well-being of the city. More time and patience are needed. They are needed for such technologies to become available and used by more sectors of society. They are needed in order for community values to be taken into account when considering how and to what extent a city should make use of the technologies for a safer and smoother city life for all.
The technologies and practices to move the cognitive city from the conceptual stage to an actual being are progressing, as are the social processes described in this article. We are sure to keep a watchful eye and share our insights.