Emerging and evolving technology trends are significantly influencing where and how people live, work, and play. Planners may want to use these trends as input for their long-range and current planning processes, to practice strategic foresight during community visioning processes, for scenario planning, or simply to inform future decision-making.
The trends are structured in three timeframes, which indicate the urgency of planners' action:
As digitalization of government functions continues, there is an increasing need for cybersecurity solutions tailored to the public sector. Digital trust describes the relationship between users (those who give trust, like consumers and residents) and providers (those who guarantee to uphold protection, like businesses and governments). Digital technologies and digitalization have been characterized as increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (in short, "VUCA"), and a 2022 global survey by Statista found that only 14 percent of respondents trusted digital services from the government sector.
Meanwhile, governments are investing more than ever in internet connection technologies (like sensors) to improve parking, streetlights, and other public services. But installation of city-owned surveillance tools in public spaces — and more private access to surveillance tools — is problematic within the context of low digital trust. Planners are simultaneously being charged with restoring community trust, experiencing the effects of low public trust in local government, and responding to digitalization. To improve planning, these disparate efforts need to be merged.
With COVID-19, many aspects of life have transitioned to online formats, and internet access has become even more important. This has resulted in a widening digital divide — as of 2022, 24 million Americans did not have access to high-speed internet. This can affect quality-of-life factors from educationto health care. Increased awareness of the impacts of the digital divide has led to an increase in funding for digital equity and inclusion, much of which is coming from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law's allocation of $65 billion towards this effort. The expansion of broadband internet and cybersecurity measures to reduce digital vulnerability are currently among the top priorities for governments. PAS Report 569, Planning and Broadband: Infrastructure, Policy, and Sustainability, explains how planners can address this challenge in their communities. This dynamic is further explored in the APA podcast, "How COVID-19 Has Underscored the Digital Divide."
Digitalization has been a trend for the last two decades and was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital frailty, on the other hand, describes our collective vulnerability to losing stored digital information. Threats to digital archives include technical glitches and switching between file systems. But digital frailty can also be purposeful: ephemeral formats are appealing in the new generation of social media with Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook stories. Planners and local government officials need to make decisions about what planning work should be preserved — such as data to evaluate and monitor programs or to measure plan performance — in addition to the ethical storage and maintenance of this data. For more on the role of digitalization in driving change in communities today, check out the APA report, "Digitalization and Implications for Planning."
Fifth-generation wireless (5G) was first deployed in 2018 and was widespread by the end of 2020. It brought enhanced connectivity to consumers and helped to advance the development of smart cities. The next iteration of broadband, 6G, is expected to begin distribution by 2030. It will expand the accessibility of internet devices and advance the capabilities of technologies such as AI. This could lead to more accelerated development of products that use AI, including self-driving cars and virtual reality (VR). Planners should be prepared for the ripple effects that a more integrated broadband system could bring to cities.
The incorporation of AI into governmental services, as highlighted by organizations like the OECD andthe World Economic Forum, isn't a new concept. However, the upcoming years are certain to witness a significant surge in the application of these technologies across various governmental tiers. This will range from AI-driven chat assistants and virtual public service agents to sophisticated tools for planning simulations and digitalizing policy formulation. Such advancements promise to transform the public sector, optimizing efficiency, precision, and engagement and potentially reshaping the way public services are both rendered and perceived.
But as AI's role in public planning and services expands, there's a concurrent need for transparency and safety. The goal isn't solely about gathering data and pursuing efficiency but also about building trust within communities. As for safety concerns, the Department of Homeland Security is proactively aiming to be at the forefront of adopting AI tools within the U.S. federal administration. Concurrently, they're also implementing measures to shield vital systems from AI-driven cyber threats.
The installation of smart city projects is increasing, often with the involvement of private-sector organizations and through public-private partnerships. According to the UN, 70 percent of the global population will live in a smart city by 2050. The growing popularity of smart city projects will require planners to upskill to keep up with this development and continue spearheading planning activities. PAS Report 599, Smart Cities: Integrating Technology, Community, and Nature, is a deep dive into the concept of smart cities and the potential they may have to resolve challenges in communities today and into the future.
Data centers make cloud computing possible, and to maximize the speed of data transfer, data centers need to move closer to end users. Post-COVID, some cities have started to repurpose abandoned office buildings into data centers or colocation centers (facilities owned by companies that rent out the space and equipment to host data centers). Planners should not let the invisibility of these land uses prevent their integration into our existing urban ecosystems. For example, waste heat from data centers can be used to generate energy for district heating systems. "Data Centers Evolved: A Primer for Planners" from the July 2021 issue of Planning discusses the rapid growth of data centers nationwide and what it means for communities today and into the future. The zoning implications of data centers are explored in depth in "Zoning for Data Centers and Cryptocurrency Mining," the June 2022 issue of Zoning Practice.
Countries worldwide are working to craft AI guidelines. The EU is crafting a novel legal framework with an emphasis on striking a balance between promoting AI innovation and ensuring ethical AI development and use, as evidenced in the AI Act. Meanwhile, China has adopted regulations for strict banning of deep fakes, but enforcement can pose some challenges. There is a certain enthusiasm for AI in the corporate sector, however, with numerous Chinese firms avidly creating AI avatars for e-commerce applications and selling mobile apps that potentially can be used to create deep fakes.
The US has also begun to take on AI regulation, with cities pioneering the establishment of rules for AI use, they are effectively becoming trendsetters in this field. For instance, Boston and Seattle have recently formulated AI policies that foster AI adoption and responsible use among public servants. NYC rolled out landmark regulations overseeing AI-enabled hiring tools and released a plan to embrace AI that launches a process of AI adoption within city agencies. At the state level, California's governor issued an executive order emphasizing both proactive AI regulation and the promotion of trustworthy AI practices through state procurement. Meanwhile, Kansas is standardizing Gen AI use across executive agencies, while Texas has inaugurated an advisory body to analyze AI's implications and report to its legislative assembly.
The progress of AI regulation at the federal level also appears to be accelerating. At the end of October 2023, President Biden issued an executive order focused on ensuring the safe and secure usage of AI which builds on the previously released Blueprint for the AI Bill of Rights and a voluntary agreement amongst leading tech companies to follow eight measures from the U.S. government to encourage responsible practices of AI deployment. The AI bill proposes measures to establish safety measures for AI, especially in areas related to national security and data privacy. It also highlights the importance of advancing AI research, protecting Americans' privacy, and addressing issues related to algorithmic discrimination. In light of these considerations, public-sector planners will encounter fresh avenues for community involvement and co-creation, while also facing the challenge of keeping up with new regulations for using AI products, protecting privacy, and reducing the risk of potential discrimination while deploying AI-driven technology solutions.
Digital emissions are responsiblefor up to 3.7 percent of global CO2 emissions. To help lower this, a focus has been placed on creating net-zero-energy data centers through innovative cooling techniques and AI-enabled energy optimization. Green data centers are at the heart of this transformation. These facilities leverage energy-efficient technologies to house, manage, and transmit data. Valued at $52.1 billion in 2022, the global green data center market is projected to grow at a rate of 16.5 percent from 2023 to 2033. Notable examples of green data centers include BMW's facility in Iceland, which harnesses the region's chilly Nordic air and traditional water-cooling methods to maintain optimal operating temperatures. Similarly, Kao Data is renowned for powering its entire data center operations with 100 percent renewable energy. Some major corporations are committed to achieving 100 percent carbon-free energy consumption in their data centers in the coming years. Google has demonstrated the potential of AI-driven data center cooling improvements, resulting in a significant in energy consumption.
This green data center trend not only reflects an environmental imperative but also reshapes decisions about where to locate these facilities. Tech companies are now looking for suitable regions with abundant access to renewable energy sources, environmentally friendly cooling options, and incentives to support sustainable data center development. Planners play an important role in identifying these locations. For more on the potential impacts of increasing digital emissions, check out the recent APA report, "Digitalization and Implications for Planning."
The deployment of AI systems for urban infrastructure systems is growing. AI offers the potential to save a lot of money in infrastructure projects, and Pennsylvania already has several underway that use AI for a range of purposes — from creating lighter cement to developing highway walls that absorb sound and GHG emissions. There are concerns, though, that this technology is not yet reliable enough for such endeavors. Planners need to understand these applications and know how and where to implement them. APA's PAS Report 599, Smart Cities: Integrating Technology, Community, and Nature, explains how planners can handle some of these technological developments in their communities in sustainable and equitable ways.
Generative AI is the most rapidly expanding AI-driven technology globally. Unlike traditional AI, Gen AI can produce unique content seemingly crafted by humans in six modalities: text, code, audio, image, video, and 3D. Though the growth of Gen AI has been rapid, a July 2023 Pew Research Center survey found that many Americans have still yet to regularly use ChatGPT. Only a minority believe AI-enabled chatbots will significantly impact their jobs, and even fewer see them as beneficial to their work. Another growing trend in Gen AI is the emergence of image-generation platforms. Given the integration of DALL-E 3 into ChatGPT 4 and other platforms, a surge in AI-generated visual content is anticipated soon.
AI is impacting nearly every sector. The initial ban of ChatGPT in major school districts highlighted concerns over the implications of LLMs in the education space. An increasing number of educators recognize AI's inevitable presence in the classroom, but the challenge lies in ensuring its implementation is beneficial. Gen AI can be a game-changer for individuals with disabilities, offering them tools and solutions to navigate challenges more autonomously. Politically, the technology could revolutionize how campaigns engage with the electorate. However, the inherent biases within different LLMs, coupled with the proliferation of deepfake technologies, make AI-fueled disinformation a major threat to the integrity of democratic processes and fair elections. Planners can also take advantage of AI developments, including project renderings and the use of digital twins.
Blockchain has many potential use cases in cities, but these applications are not yet widespread. Records management and community engagement are two core planning activities that can use blockchain, but many blockchain experts and urban planners are finding additional cases where blockchain could help improve planning practices, including transportation and governance. For each blockchain application, there are risks and concerns: the economic viability of this technology is still underexplored, blockchain operations consume high levels of energy, it's unclear whether blockchain can be scaled in ways that suit community needs, and security risks are not completely known. Further uses of blockchain in planning are outlined in PAS QuickNotes 99, "Blockchain for Planners," and the 2022 Planning article "Your Guide to NFTs, Cryptocurrency, and the Blockchain.
Following a period of "crypto winter" from 2022 to 2023, a time when Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies were valued much lower than previously, investments in cryptocurrency funds are again growing. This has prompted a renewed focus on crypto regulations, with one report showing that as of 2023, jurisdictions representing 70 percent of global crypto exposure have tightened regulations on the industry, largely those surrounding consumer protections.
Another remaining concern of crypto is its environmental impact. Crypto mining, or the creation and validation of new crypto coins through solving complex mathematical equations, uses enormous amounts of energy and water (for cooling). Mining one bitcoin takes an estimated 1,449 kWh — about two months' worth of energy use for an average U.S. household. In July 2022, global Bitcoin mining energy use equaled that of the entire country of Argentina. There are also implications for local economies. Minimal labor requirements in crypto mining mean it doesn't generate new jobs for the region. Residents further lose out on cheap energy prices and must turn to more expensive options to avoid grid overload. Planners should be aware of what role, if any, crypto plays or could play in their community, and how to best mitigate its negative effects.
The metaverse, another tool offering a deeper level of engagement, is far from obsolete, contrary to what some might believe. While the metaverse's initial hype cycle peaked by the beginning of 2023, its development continues at a steady pace. Cities and countries are also recognizing this tool's potential. Astudy by ThoughtLab revealed that out of 200 cities globally, 44 are investing to ensure their infrastructure is compatible with the metaverse.
By 2030, approximately 700 cities are expected to implement various types of metaverse infrastructure, as projected by ABI Research. This can be seen already in cities from New York to Santa Monica to Miami. In a significant move, the European Commission introduced a strategy in the summer of 2023 focusing on Web 4.0 and virtual worlds. This strategy is designed to guide the upcoming technological shift, ensuring a digital environment that is open, secure, trustworthy, equitable, and inclusive for EU citizens, businesses, and the public sector.
VR glasses are the primary tool by which people engage with the metaverse, and the global smart glasses market value is expected to reach $15.1 billion by 2030. The 2024 release of Apple's Vision Pro signals the extent of development in this field and the idea that glasses will be used as a daily tool. Immersive technologies provide planners with tools to enhance community participation, making it more inclusive and equitable. Yet, these tech-intensive tools often demand broader interdisciplinary expertise and collaboration with diverse teams to achieve optimal results. Interdisciplinary expertise and advanced empathy skills are becoming ever more important in the planning profession.
Robots of all shapes and sizes are entering our cities. Seoul has recently developed plans for a robot-friendly city, proactively envisioning the wide-ranging integration of robots into everyday life. While personal delivery devices that deliver products in the air and on the ground are already coming, trends point to the potential for robots to fulfill a variety of other functions within society, including taking care of the very young and the elderly. In nations grappling with the challenge of low birth rates, especially in Europe and Asia, the burden of care and the fulfillment of critical functions within cities may increasingly fall upon robots and other autonomous technologies. This includes mundane but vital services, such as street cleaning, public safety, and transit services.
With the potential widespread adoption of these recent innovations looming, cities will need to be prepared to effectively integrate and consider them in their plans and ensure they won't disrupt the accessibility of public spaces. The Urban Robotics Foundation, founded in 2021, brings urban stakeholders together to create solutions on how this new technology can be integrated into cities and communities.
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Quantum computing is an emerging method of computing intended to solve extremely complex problems beyond the processing expertise of "classical computers." Potential applications for quantum computers include cryptography and codebreaking (useful for system and network security); more efficient searching and problem solving; systems simulation; and machine learning, AI, and algorithm development.
The use of quantum computers in the realm of systems and simulations could be extremely useful in the context of smart cities, planning systems, and human behavior within these systems. The utility of quantum computing in AI, another area with major potential applications in planning practice and for the dynamics of complex systems, also may hold significant potential. Still, practical quantum computing is in its infancy, with many applications currently unknown without further development, research, and use.
APA's foresight research is made possible in part through our partnership with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.