City 2.0

Technologies such as WiMax, smart grids and social networks will transform tomorrow's urban centers.

Science fiction writers paint grand pictures of glorious cities of the future. But aside from some of the more whimsical elements of those visions -- flying cars, say, or downtown atriums protected by invisible walls -- City 2.0 isn't as far off as you might think.

Ubiquitous wireless networks are already available in Baltimore, Minneapolis and other cities; corporations such as Thomson Reuters PLC have sustainable data centers that sell power back to local utilities; the smart energy grid is well on its way; and city-provided social networks are becoming more common. Indeed, the next steps toward the city of tomorrow are all about integrating those services cohesively, making them widely available across the entire metropolis and managing the services more efficiently.

"The reality is that the city of the future will likely have many aspects of a contained and managed ecosystem," says Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst at Enderle Group.

While some visions of tomorrow's municipalities are quite grandiose, several recent technology advancements are already paving the way to City 2.0.

The Smart Grid

The smart use of energy is one of the most important goals for urban centers. The smart grid concept centers on the idea of using electricity when it's available cheaply, rather than at peak times when it's more expensive, and it calls for wind and solar and other renewable sources to be integrated into the energy grid. This requires two-way communication between utility companies and the businesses and individuals who use their power. We're nowhere near a comprehensive smart grid yet, but some cities and energy companies are taking steps in that direction.

Today, a few cities, such as Boulder, Colo., and Houston, have pilot programs in which customers can visit a Web site to see their real-time energy usage.

A good example of smart grid technology in action is at the Iowa State Capitol complex in Des Moines. City officials there have set up a smart grid that feeds to a central kiosk that shows the power usage for each building in the complex. To create the smart grid, the buildings were wired with sensors that connect a fiber backbone, feed through a central server and then report usage data in real time to the kiosk.

"Today, departments have no incentive to save power," says state CIO John Gillispie. "We are working toward billing the individual departments for how much they use."

Gillispie is planning on adding sensors for monitoring power by floor, and he envisions a day when sensors are deployed across the state -- even on roadways and in cars, office buildings, schools and homes.

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