Any planner worth his or her salt will tell you that they have no idea how a city really works. This is because there is little hard data about how any city, or the collection of systems that aggregate to create it, works at steady state over an extended period of time. To date, the capability to measure and sense what is really going on has been very coarse, at best. Yet, the emergence of ambient intelligence is now providing unprecedented means to understand the city at the unit scale; its impact on the way we understand how the city and its components actually work represents a fundamental shift.

Few trends are having or will have as profound an impact on the built environment, and by extension on every citizen of the urbanized world, as ambient intelligence. This term was coined in the late 1990s to describe electronic environments that are sensitive and responsive to the presence of people. The implications of the notion that an environment is not only aware of “me”, but also what “I” want and need, is quite horrifying to many, but thrilling to others. All that is required for this vision to become a reality is a mesh of sensors and information; ready or not, the fundamental components of ambient intelligence are already being built in many parts of the world.

Today, for example, we can make a window that “knows” where it is, i.e. what city it exists in, what street it is on and which houses are around it. It can know what is good for it: whether it needs a frame or needs cleaning, whether at a given moment it should be clear or opaque. The owners of the building such a window is in can, through monitoring similar “smart” appliances featuring this kind of imbedded intelligence, have access to data that allow them to understand virtually all of the elements affecting the entire structure. And to make and act upon decisions based on information aggregated into knowledge.

So, can you imagine if your home could vote? Think about what this would mean. It would mean that your home could communicate with the outside world. It would mean that it could aggregate the news, parse it and understand the issues of the day. It would mean that your home would need a secure digital identity. It would mean that it would need to know where it was geographically so that it could identify what issues were important to the structure itself and those who occupy it. Within the next three to five years, we can anticipate that buildings will “talk” to each other and the outside world in just such a manner, facilitating the kinds of data collection and systematic interaction that will revolutionize whole cities.

Taken to the city level, these developments in ambient intelligence have far-reaching implications for tomorrow’s resource-constrained societies.

In a future world of perhaps as many as 13 billion people, where megacities have become the norm, a deep understanding of how a city functions at a granular level can make it all work. When do people actually go to work? What routes do they take? What are their energy usage tendencies? We will be able to see and understand heat flows, cash flows, inhabitation trends, etc., that can then all be coordinated to eliminate inefficiencies and allow large metropolises to thrive.

If all goes well then the information provided by society will become the driver of a profound new asset for designers and urban planners. Ambient intelligence has the potential to invert the process so that design becomes performance-based rather than form-based. This change, along with infinite computing power and infinite memory, will enable tools that are easily accessible to all that have embedded parametric models within them to be accessed by just about anyone. This metamorphosis will democratize design in the same way that digital tools have democratized accounting.

These new tools will be able to reflect the real-time and/or actual behaviour of the elements. They will be able to update their performance parameters to adjust to the demands which climate change is bringing to the built environment. And citizen designers will be empowered to respond.

Pure fantasy? Well, if you think about it, comparable achievements are already here and happening on smartphones. Thus it is not a matter of if, but when ambiently intelligent systems will begin to coalesce.

There is a potential dark side to all of this, too: if all of the information aggregated by these systems is widely accessible, then it is also both potentially corruptible and susceptible to malfeasance. We must protect ourselves by thoroughly understanding the systematic interactions in the networks we configure, thereby allowing us to make them more resilient.

Through what we might call “google-ization”, as a society we have ready access to information. When information can be challenged and parsed to find patterns, then we have knowledge. Making sense of the knowledge is what gives us understanding. The revolutionary shift currently taking place is that toolmakers are now making tools with knowledge imbedded. In the very near future, such understanding stands to revolutionize our collective wisdom.

This piece is one of a number of individual perspectives from the Global Strategic Foresight Community of the World Economic Forum for the Annual Meeting 2015. To read more access the full collection.

Author: Chris Luebkeman Global Director, Foresight, Research and Innovation at Arup Group Limited.