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Smart City, a new living organism

As you all I guess, I have heard about Smart Cities. I found it interesting and I start exploring deeper this concept last year, but it is just recently preparing a conference about Industry 4.0 and A.I. that I came up with a disturbing vision, which is both elegant and scary at the same time. Smart Cities could be considered in the future as living organisms.

Yeah I know, it might sound ridiculous at first glance but let me explain why I came up with such a catchy conclusion. Also this is not a PhD thesis, just a short publication aiming to invite you to think about it, so just take it easy and hope you enjoy reading it. : )


From Living System to living organism ?

I suppose we all agree that our modern cities are full of life, people, technology, information, etc... Therefore it can be seen as a living system, as per James Grier Miller’s definition “an open self-organizing living things that interact with their environment. These systems are maintained by flows of information, energy and matter.” Miller says the concepts of space, time, matter, energy, and information are essential to his theory because the living systems exist in space and are made of matter and energy organized by information. In a more minimalist approach we can just say that we have a living system because cities are basically born from and made of a group of people which are living organisms.

But can we go on step forward and considered the Smart City as a living organism itself ? An organism may be defined as an assembly of cells functioning as a stable whole that exhibits the properties of life. And life is considered a characteristic of something that exhibits all or most of the following traits:

- Homeostasis: regulation of the internal environment to maintain a constant state. True. Police is a good example of city homeostasis, we have some cells in charge of regulating traffic and city incidents. Also from a maintenance perspective for instance, sensors will collect data to enable Smart Cities to regulate themselves.

- Organization: being structurally composed of one or more cells. True. As presented in the visual below, cells of the Smart Cities will be people, connected devices, vehicles, etc…

- Metabolism: transformation of energy by converting chemicals and energy into cellular components (anabolism) and decomposing organic matter (catabolism). Also living things require energy to maintain internal organization (homeostasis). True. Smart Grid for instance provide and manage energy to Smart City, cells produces goods / materials and Smart Supply Chain moves it within the metabolism.

- Growth: maintenance of a higher rate of anabolism than catabolism. A growing organism increases in size in all of its parts, rather than simply accumulating matter. True. Cities are expanding their size, both with horizontal growth expanding ground area and vertical growth reaching higher cell density.

- Adaptation: the ability to change over time in response to the environment. This ability is fundamental to the process of evolution and is determined by the organism's heredity (history), diet (resources), and external factors (economy,…). True. Cities are evolving and Smart Cities will be able to manage their adaptation and evolution by themselves.

- Response to stimuli: a response can take many forms, from the contraction of a unicellular organism to external chemicals, to complex reactions involving all the senses of multicellular organisms. True. Smart Cities will be able to offer adequate response to both internal and external stimuli, collecting data, analyzing scenarios and managing real-time response.

- Reproduction: the ability to produce new individual organisms. Ok that one is tricky. However several contributions suggest that the category of "organism" may well not be applicable only in biology. From a physics perspective for instance, living beings are thermodynamic systems with an organized molecular structure that can reproduce itself and evolve as survival dictates.


Smart cities, a new living organism !

Considering that Smart Cities fulfill 6 out of the 7 properties of life mentioned above it is fair to say that we will have in the future a new kind of living organism. And following the raise of IoT, Big Data and IA, this future might be coming soonest than expected.

In the visual below we can introduce the parallel existing between the 5 levels of biological organisation and some examples of this hierarchy in Smart City, as a new living organism.

- Cell : We have here the basic unit of an organism. In this case cells of a Smart City will be the people living there, the connected devices they use, vehicles, street lights, smart clothes, etc…

- Tissue : It is a functional groups of cells, it will be made of data basically, a lot and a lot of data, everywhere, for everything, at every time. Apps, interfaces, etc… will canalize those flows of information to sustain organs. We can also consider pipes, wires, roads, etc…

- Organ : It is a functional groups of tissues. We can see here services and functions for instance. But also Smart Buildings, Smart Factories, Smart Malls, Smart Stations, Smart Administrations, etc…

- System : It is functional groups of organs. Nervous system, muscular, skeletal, cardiovascular, digestive, respiratory, etc… Smart grid will manage the energy generation, distribution and consumption. Urban Smart Transportation will manage both private and public traffic. Smart Infrastructure will manage city equipment and elements and ensure maintenance and sustainability. Smart places will be able to manage cleaning, security, availability. Smart Supply Chain will moves parts and goods. etc… Smart & Social are the common points of those systems based on IoT and hyper connected society.

- Organism : And here we go, this new organism will at the end count with a central ICT platform to ensure interoperability between systems, just as our physical body does, and an AI, that will enable Smart City to think, act and evolve by itself.

This living organism will also be comparable to a superorganism at the beginning as it will probably exhibits “distributed intelligence", a system in which many individual cells are able to pool resources to accomplish a goal beyond the capabilities of the cells it selves. However in the future it is most likely to expect Smart City to shift from distributed intelligence to central IA.

A new, smarter, and wiser organism on Earth

Who knows what the future will brings us, but for sure it will be astonishing. Today we already live in a world where telepathy is now called telephony, where cars don’t need drivers yet, where ANIs (Artificial Narrow Intelligence) are raising and running most of our day to day and where CoBots are getting reality. Supercomputers are reaching nowadays 10% of human brain computing capacity. As of 2030 we expected to have AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) able to overcome human brain and by 2050, we may probably talk about ASI (Artificial Super Intelligence) reaching higher computation capacity than the entire humanity brains.

Thus it is not a matter of will it happen or not, just a question of when will it happen. Technology is going very fast. We will need to change many more paradigms to face this Humanity 2.0 where we will have to find our place in this new hyper connected and self-steering world.

But let’s be optimistic with this new future and hope Smart Cities, as new living organisms on Earth, will be able to take wise decisions where humans fail because of their own interests. Let’s believe that Smart Cities will regulate traffic jam, air pollution, energy efficiency, citizen safety, etc… in a much more efficient and adequate way than we do in this past called present.

Berenger Briquez, Head of Digital & Big Data

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