Published on Sustainable Cities

Top 7 disruptive technologies for cities

This page in:
Top 7 disruptive technologies for cities (Photos via Shutterstock)

Imagine you were working in development and poverty reduction in the early 1990s (I was!).  Only one website existed in all the world in August 1991 (today there are over 1.5 billion). Mobile phones were expensive, rare, and clunky. Very few would anticipate a situation in which  India would have more mobile phones than toilets.

To paraphrase Bill Gates: we tend to overestimate the changes that will happen in the short term and underestimate those in the long term.  Technology is quietly but radically disrupting and transforming how cities deliver services to their citizens. It does that in a way that fundamentally alters not just the mode of delivery but its underlying economics and financing. 

Here are the top 7 disruptive technologies revolutionizing service delivery in cities (in no particular order): 

1. 5G mobile networks

5G stands for “fifth generation.” This will be the version of mobile network technology that is expected to roll out by 2020. It will be 40–60 times faster than current mobile technology.

The World Bank calculates that with “a 10% increase in high-speed Internet connections, economic growth increases by 1.3%” and leads to “democratization of innovation.” According to the World Economic Forum, “in a world where only 40% of the population have access to the internet; we could boost the global GDP by $1 trillion by connecting another 327 million people.” 5G will enable low-cost, low-power sensors to be embedded in building, appliances, and vehicles. It will be a key enabler of the “internet of things.”

The World Bank supports a large number of projects in which service delivery is done through mobile networks.  The World Bank’s BridgeIT project in Tanzania, for example, provides access to digital video content in classrooms “on demand” via mobile phone technology. 5G networks will be transformative for these applications.

2. Blockchain

The technology underlying the cryptocurrency bitcoin, blockchain will do for trust what the internet did for information. At its core, blockchain is an algorithm and distributed data structure that enables decentralized verification of any transaction, so that it is “hacker-proof.” This allows transactions to do away with intermediaries — such as a stock exchange — that currently function as guarantors of a transaction.

Blockchain is being used for a variety of purposes ranging from improving land registries in Georgia to promoting food safety in China. Urban planners use blockchain to make zoning more inclusive by setting up a new system of incentives to expand the focus of developers and other urban players from just profit to whatever parameters planners want to emphasize — for example, preventing gentrification, promoting diversity, etc. The World Bank Group has published its first fintech note that looks at Distributed Ledger Technology and Blockchain and analyzes its potential relevance for international development.

3. Artificial intelligence / Machine learning / Big data

Great minds ranging from Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk have warned against the dangers of artificial intelligence (AI). Others like Fei-Fei Li, a professor of computer science at Stanford University, think “we are closer to a washing machine than a Terminator.”

That said, AI and big data are radically transforming service delivery in so-called “data-driven cities” such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, Sydney, and New York in areas like smart parking, monitoring air quality, and increasing the energy efficiency in buildings. In Ho Chi Minh City, mobile apps with geospatial data are used to enforce zoning governanceCredit scoring using big data will potentially unlock affordable finance to millions of people like informal workers. This blog post by my colleague Maria Jones gives an excellent overview of the state of the art in using AI for development.

4. Autonomous vehicles

The recent death of a pedestrian at the hands of an autonomous vehicle (AV) notwithstanding, AVs or self-driving vehicles are going to have a profound impact on our cities. 

The Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore estimates that a city serviced by TaxiBots and a rapid inter-urban rail system removed 90% of cars in the city over the course of a 24-hour day. The same combination of rail and TaxiBots removed 65% of cars overall during peak hours. In 2016 Lyft co-founder and president John Zimmer published a lengthy essay on Medium, arguing that self-driving cars “will account for the majority of Lyft rides within five years” and that “by 2025, private car ownership will all but end in major U.S. cities.”

5. Low-cost space exploration, micro-satellites

Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy reusable rocket can put a pound of anything into space orbit for about $1000. With the space shuttle this used to cost $10,000. This could have profound impacts on human life. One of Musk’s ideas is city-to-city travel via space — that theoretically would make it possible to go anywhere on earth within an hour.

According to the research firm Gartner, more than 20 billion connected things will be in use worldwide by 2020. A startup called OneWeb is deploying “micro-satellites” to form a “constellation” that will solve a huge challenge: providing Internet access to the 4 billion people across the globe who still have no reliable means of getting on the Web, and will be able to handle potentially 20 billion connections that the Internet of Things (IoT) will bring.

6. Biometrics, digital ID, and digital payments

The World Bank’s Identification for Development (ID4D) program estimates that 1.1 billion people around the world are unable to prove their identity (that is 1 in every 7 persons). This is rapidly changing. India’s Aadhar program has enrolled an estimated 1.1 billion people. By allowing Aadhaar as an accepted form of ID, according to one study, the rate of financial inclusion in India subsequently rose by 24% among women between 2014 and 2015. Altogether, approximately 220 million accounts were opened by April 2016.

Linking the payments of subsidies and benefits to biometric IDs helps eliminate fraud, waste, and corruption — for example, by identifying “ghost” workers in Nigeria. Digital ID systems including card and/or mobile-based programs were launched or initiated in AlgeriaCameroonJordanItaly, Senegal, and Thailand, with major announcements of similar programs made in the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Norway, Liberia, Poland, Jamaica, and Sri Lanka, and a pilot program in Myanmar. Most of these programs now include biometrics, mainly in the form of fingerprints.

7. Drones

I recall my first approval for payment to a drone company (for a damage assessment in Samoa a few years ago) and not knowing what it was for! If you want to witness firsthand how rapidly drone technology is evolving, just take a look at the entire TED playlist on drones. Drones are being used for everything from flood risk mapping in Dar es Salaam slums to rapid damage assessments in Tonga.

But a fundamental and exciting shift underway is that drones are being paired by artificial intelligence that does away with the need for skilled pilots. Remote maintenance checks of wind turbines or rooftops is an example of the hazardous and tedious work that drones can do very well. But until now, such tasks have required pilots to keep the drones away from power lines, trees and to stabilize them in the event of sudden wind blasts. Not anymore.

Together these technologies offer great promise for cities facing issues such as explosive growth and a huge backlog of infrastructure and service delivery, leapfrogging generations of older models. 

The World Bank can play a key role in this regard, especially in ensuring the gains from these technologies are shared equitably and that the poor are not left behind. To that end, the World Development Report 2016 on digital dividends offers three key lessons:

  1. Use data to target the most vulnerable, as São Paulo did by developing a comprehensive geographic database to prioritize housing and slum upgrading investments;
  2. Open up data to promote accountability, including the mapping of facilities, pollution, and community needs in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest informal settlement; and
  3. Tap mobile connectivity to expand civic participation, as cities in the Philippines have done for participatory budgeting.

Do you know any other ways of using disruptive technologies to build inclusive, resilient, and sustainable cities and communities? Leave a comment.

This blog post is also published on Medium.



Abhas Jha

Practice Manager, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management, South Asia Region

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000