Could a protocol developed in the 1970's to connect computer networks provide the key to more sustainable urban development in the future? A group of experts who gathered in Barcelona, Spain, earlier this month certainly thinks so.
And if they are right, their creation—the ‘City Protocol', a new urban model inspired by the Internet Protocol (IP)—could be fundamental to our development as a species.
For the first time in humanity's history, more people live in urban environments than rural ones,and the balance is shifting more towards city dwellers all the time.
There are several advantages to this shift: cities allow more efficient use of resources, for example, and the concentrations of talent they represent allow for the more rapid development of cultures and societies.
But there are also significant challenges in urban areas ranging from poverty and healthcare to education and transportation.
"To live better in the city is a challenge to us all," states Carlos Moreno, a scientific adviser to the French utility GDF Suez, which hosted the workshop alongside Cisco and the city council of Barcelona.
But what is interesting is that even though cities around the world are vastly different, the majority of these challenges are essentially the same from one to another. They are also rapidly evolving.
Most cities are coming to grips with infrastructure needed to create digital societies, for example.
However, today's infrastructure might not work tomorrow. Within the next three years, 90 percent of all internet traffic will be video based, greatly increasing the amount of data networks have to cope with.
According to Anil Menon, President, Globalisation and Smart+Connected Communities at Cisco, for example, in 2020 a single family will be able to upload as much data onto the ‘net as all the information that existed online in 2008.
Dealing with such major shifts "is like taking a drink out of a fire hydrant," he says.
Right now city planners and urban developers struggle to cope with these evolving challenges without any outside help. But there are concerns that as cities, and the problems they face, increase in size, this go-it-alone approach will not be enough.
That has led the City Protocol founders to decide that the world needs a common language for urban development.
"If you ask an architect in London, New York, or Mumbai to describe a city, everyone will give you a different answer," says Vicente Guallart, director of urbanism for the City of Barcelona. "Everyone is dealing with the parts of a city in a different way. That is why we need a common language of cities."
In its inaugural workshop in Barcelona, the City Protocol founders, which include 20 companies, 33 cities, 20 development organizations, and 15 universities, agreed to set up a society that would pursue five fundamental goals.
These are to facilitate and foster a new science of cities, to establish a cooperation framework among city stakeholders, to lead and pave cities' futures, to understand the driving forces of urban evolution and find common solutions, and to deliver value-added products and services.
If that list seems rather wide-ranging, then using IP as a starting point might be a sensible decision, Vint Cerf, one of the two fathers of the Internet, told City Protocol workshop attendees in a video message.
"If your objective is to create a set of standards you will probably experience a very similar kind of situation to the one that I did years ago when the Internet was created," he said. "We were careful not to define the applications. Part of the success was about not being too specific."
He added, "In the case of the City Protocol what is important is to create a set of scenarios. By no means do I think you want to list all applications."
Over two days in Barcelona, the workshop attendees made significant progress, establishing an open community dedicated to the development of the City Protocol and commissioning an interim steering committee to lead the constitution of a formal society within six months.
"Cities need a new way of learning, at a pace that is commensurate with the change that is occurring in our world," states the workshop program. "It is only through far deeper collaboration and joint action, involving all actors in a trusted network, that we can do this."
The tentative first steps in developing this network and this new way of learning have now been made. If the success of the Internet Protocol is anything to go by, it is a project that could truly change the world.
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