By Tracy Collins Ortlieb
Imagine a city where residents — wearing virtual reality glasses — can repair their electronics, redecorate their living spaces, or self-administer healthcare, all with the help of a remote expert. Where commuters sporting wearable tech can transition seamlessly from an e-scooter to the Hyperloop. A city whose leaders can formulate “digital twins” to test municipal operations, infrastructure investments or police reforms prior to implementing them.
In the handful of years since they became commonplace in the United States, 4G LTE networks quickly came to underpin everyday life for city dwellers. Whether scrolling the headlines on a commuter train, mobile banking, or navigating destinations using digital maps, urbanites have come to rely on these networks. From Uber to Airbnb, 4G connectivity sparked an explosion of mobile apps that have transformed the way we live, as well as ushering in the sharing and gig economies.
But where 4G marked a leap in communications technology, 5G networks represent a quantum change. With a projected transmission speed of around 20Gbps — multiple times faster than 4G — and latency rates under a millisecond, 5G will connect people and communities in unforeseen and limitless ways. And as 5G mobile networks rolls out, cities will become laboratories for experimentation and innovation — and experts say the possibilities represent unlimited opportunities in everything from reversing climate change to greater economic equality to a narrowing of the achievement gap.
“My cautiously optimistic view is that people are saying these are issues that have to be dealt with that we're now seeing how profoundly unacceptable some of these conditions were,” says Ken Greenberg, former director of urban design and architecture for the City of Toronto and principal of Greenberg Consultants. “And technology is enabling a different way of life, but it's really driven by a consciousness of vulnerability and inequities. Income disparities are really at the heart of a lot of problems in our cities and have resulted in people being impacted very differently.
“So the first thing I see with 5G networks is an evolution of where we are now, one that gives these vulnerable communities more access than they've had in the past and perhaps reduces some of those economic disparities.”
These changes will take place in an increasingly urban world. According to a report by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, nearly 70% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050 — people in need of housing, jobs, infrastructure and services for their burgeoning (and aging) populations.
What Defines a “Smart City”
5G is projected to reach half the world’s population by 2024. By 2030, as many as 125 billion IoT sensors and devices in our homes, cars, offices and streets will be networked together, becoming one of the foundational components of smart city infrastructure.
The vision of a smart city meshes sociological planning with mobile technology that ensures nearly everything — a device, a building, a public park — is connectible to the Internet of Things (IoT). This approach to urban planning and oversight acknowledges the symbiotic relationship between a city, its residents and their shared ecosystem. A smart city should have a fully integrated infrastructure with advanced communication networks, automated transportation systems, water services, and power grids that are all connected and unified.
The Future of Urban Transportation
Powering the sensors and devices that support cities’ mobility networks, 5G will birth connected autonomous vehicles and intelligent transportation networks — the advent of which will reduce the number of vehicles on the road.
“If we take automated vehicles, a personal-ownership model would be an extraordinary disaster,” says Greenberg. “We would end up with much more sprawl than we have now we would be undermining all the efforts to deal with finding a more sustainable way of life and dealing with climate change, we potentially could be socially isolating ourselves even more than we do now. And we could be filling the roads with even more vehicles because you would have people now who are unable to drive: kids, seniors who don't have driver's licenses, everybody would be in their automated vehicle.
“On the other hand, if the automated vehicles became an adjunct to public transit, this could have tremendous positive implications. In terms of giving more people more mobility, people who are currently isolated and do so in a way that reinforces sustainable development as opposed to undermining it.”
It’s already happening: In Shanghai, the first Chinese city to build a 5G-connected intelligent vehicle network, one projected to cover 62 square miles (100 square km) by year’s end.
The low- or no-car city is becoming more popular worldwide. Last year, Waymo launched the world’s first self-driving taxi fleet in Phoenix, AZ. In downtown Oslo, street parking has been removed and replaced with bike lanes, parks and benches — effectively making the area car-free. Following suit, Mexico City, Madrid and Berlin, have redesigned their busiest streets not for driving, but for walkability.
Narrowing the Digital Divide
While 97 percent of urban residents have access to high-speed broadband internet, nearly half of those lacking at-home internet are Black and Brown households, according to a 2016 Free Press report. The reason? America’s broadband rates are some of the world’s most expensive.
With rapid urbanization comes the responsibility to ensure all city-dwellers have access to the same opportunities and to services like broadband, health care, and education.
“As we can see from COVID, the concentrations of large office buildings as major places to work certainly is going to be challenged,” he says. “And in terms of income polarization and affordability. COVID has shined a very harsh light on all the vulnerabilities in society and how we as cities can respond to that.
The expansion of 5G, Greenberg adds, means a further blurring of the distinctions between home life and work life, necessitating the adaptation of office buildings and public spaces, freeing commercial real estate to expand affordable housing, morphing parking into parks.
“We're going to see more flexible working hours, and an absence of morning and evening rush hours with everybody going to nine-to-five jobs in office buildings,” he says. “People will live in neighborhoods where they also work, access local shopping, schools and recreation — all the things they need in daily life without getting into a car or necessarily even using transit. So building types become much less distinct and separate as a kind of fusion is going on.
“In March, we were given a truly forced beta test of what it would be like to go into a full court press in embracing digital technology, because we had to. And what it revealed was some pretty positive things. It showed us the things truly essential for our survival: the ability to continue to communicate, to work, to do things like the online provision of health services, online education, dealing with safety issues. It has opened our eyes to possibilities in our lives that we hadn't imagined before, and 5G will only further level the urban playing field.”