These 'Civic Hackers' Are Secretly Making Your Commute Better And Your Air Cleaner

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Anthony Townsend

Photo: WOBI

Imagine living in a city with no traffic jams, cleaner air and water, tons of friends, where the buildings talk and if you lose something, someone will return it.That’s what’s in store for you as cities get “smarter,” explains futurist Anthony Townsend, Research Director for the Institute for the Future.

Townsend has spent his career showing cities how smart technology can transform them. He recently talked with Business Insider about several trends he sees.

One of them is something he calls “civic hackers.” Civic hackers are “people who are taking all the cheap, democratized open source technology and data and building their own smart city applications,” he says.

He says Foursquare is one example. “They hacked together a social network for the city.”

Another example is a New York group called the Public Laboratory. They are using “cheap sensor devices that people can use to measure air quality,” he says. After the tsunami last year people in Japan turned to Public Laboratory to create homemade Geiger counters to measure radiation.

More examples include crowdsourced traffic app Waze, personal organiser app Google Now, and lost and found app Found in Town.

A second big trend is that cities are investing in smart tech to put computers and sensors everywhere. By 2020, touch- and voice-activated displays will be used in buildings to access information and call for services, Townsend predicts. You’ll hail a cab by asking your smart building to fetch one for you and your smart building might even talk back to you to tell you it’s arrived.

Traffic lights are getting a high-tech makeover, too, with sensors and software, to help prevent traffic jams and to prevent situations that create traffic problems.

“Let’s say the President comes to the UN, they can turn First Avenue green and let the motorcade go through,” Townsend describes. “It allows the city to control the city infrastructure like someone who’s playing SimCity controls what happens inside SimCity.”

Things get even smarter from there.

Smart lights will talk to smart cabs, smart patrol cars, smart public transit vehicles, giving city planners realtime eyes on everything going on. This will help everything from public transit planning to faster response times for ambulances.

Citizen apps and smart cities will eventually connect, too, giving rise to a whole new level of intelligence. Combined, all of this will you relevant instant information based on your location and schedule.

“The smart city is going to be very transformative,” Townsend says.

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