The climate, energy and resource challenges facing the planet are daunting. The world’s population continues to grow rapidly, and the majority of people now live in cities. While cities are projected to be home to nearly 70% of our population by 2050, this won’t happen unless society drives significant efficiency gains in all aspects of resource use. Leveraging information will lie at the heart of optimizing resource use.
While projections for city growth are common, we need ask ourselves a simple question -- how much longer will cities be able to service increasing demands for energy, transportation, water, and food without a wholesale transition in the way resources are managed? If we are going to accommodate billions of new urbanites, they will need energy for lights, for heating, for cooling; energy for transportation, housing and emergency services; energy for water systems and sanitation.
Faced with the mounting pressures of climate change, population growth, and resource depletion, only cities which use resources efficiently will lead the way, ensuring a sustainable quality of life on a global scale. Those who invest in information and data as a resource will be able to service increasing populations more efficiently and with less waste. In addition, those who can leverage data to better manage their infrastructure will be in a position to provide more services while experiencing greater cost certainty for their cities.
For Microsoft, there is a fundamental question to answer around how we will participate and contribute to creating a viable, robust future in a resource constrained world? There is little doubt that technology can drive significant efficiency gains in any and all sectors of society. As more information is required to manage increasingly large and complex cities (and even mega-cities), data will emerge as a core component in enabling sustainable cities of the future. This will require increasing dependency on large, centralized, computational infrastructure. Where will the energy for this data management and processing come from? At Microsoft, we have experience which shows that we can dramatically increase computation while driving a 30 – 90% reduction in energy use associated with cloud computing. We have seen how energy use in buildings can be reduced by leveraging data, and we know that sustainable, intelligent cities will need to think about how to make better use of technology. These are not technologies and services that we need to wait for, but rather ones which can and must be deployed now if we are to enable the ongoing migration to cities.
To achieve breakthroughs at scale, we need to change the preconceived notion that information technology companies are somehow distinct from power companies, water companies, recycling companies, etc. We have engaged with organizations across these sectors and increasingly find that these businesses are becoming information based. For instance, what does a utility company need to do in order to move from managing a handful of power creation resources, to integrating hundreds of millions of points of data which enable it to throttle both supply and demand of power? How does a water utility use information technology to pinpoint water leaks? How does a farmer dramatically reduce their water and fertilizer inputs while increasing output?
While software and cloud services have been used sporadically to address these questions, in order for us to have impact at scale society will need to rapidly deploy solutions to address the urgent challenges which will prevent us from realizing a sustainable society with more than 7 or 9 billion people. The time has come for us to recognize that the theoretical projections for both population and urban growth cannot and will not be realized unless society learns how to be significantly more efficient with the resources that we have. Data and information will be one of the key ingredients in making this transition.