Saving Our Cities



"The world is undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history." That statement is from "Linking Population, Poverty and Development," a report produced by the United Nations Population Fund. By 2008, more than half of the world's population was living in towns and cities, according to the report, which predicts that the number will grow to almost 5 billion people by 2030. (The current world population is about 6.8 billion, according to the Population Reference Bureau's "World Population Data Sheet.")

These statistics should be a wake-up call to all of us, especially in these tough economic times when cities are struggling to deal with an ever-growing demand for services and infrastructure improvements, while their revenues are decreasing as people lose their jobs and cut back on their spending.

So what can be done to make our cities economically, socially and technologically healthy--and keep them that way? IBM offers some suggestions in its "Next 5 in 5" report (www.ibm.com/smartercities), which details five innovations that it says will change cities over the next five years. Here they are (www.youtube.com/watch?v=2m7ticc7jnE):

1. Improving public health. By standardizing methods for sharing health information and analyzing disease outbreaks, public health officials will know precisely when, where and how diseases are spreading. Scientists will provide tools to help detect, track, prepare for and prevent infections. And there will be a health Internet, which will include anonymous medical information from electronic health records.

2. Developing smart buildings. The technology that manages building facilities "will operate like a living organism that can sense and respond quickly." These smart buildings will enable repairs to be made before something breaks, will help emergency units respond quickly, and will let people and companies monitor their energy consumption and carbon emission in real-time.

3. Running on batteries. IBM scientists and partners are working to design batteries that will enable electric vehicles--cars and buses--to travel 300 to 500 miles on a single charge. Plus, smart grids in cities could let people charge their cars in public places, using renewable energy.

4. Saving water and energy. Cities will recycle and reuse water locally with advanced water purification technologies. This will reduce the energy needed to transport water by up to 20 percent. Plus, interactive meters and sensors will provide people with real time, accurate information about their water consumption.

5. Managing emergencies. IBM is helping law enforcement agencies analyze information so they can head off crime. The company is also building a system for the Fire Department of the City of New York to collect and share data in real-time to potentially prevent fires and protect rescuers. In addition, it is designing smart levee systems to protect cities from floods.

The U.N. report states, "The challenge for the next few decades is learning how to exploit the possibilities urbanization offers. The future of humanity depends on it." Clearly, saving our cities is a goal we all should strive for.

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