5G Smart Cities – A Tech Utopia?


Smart cities will be like living in a technology induced society, and it’s coming sooner than you think. 

Ever since the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, mankind has been speculating through science fiction books, movies, and TV shows about what our future might look like.

While some predictions have been glaringly wrong, or at least premature (after all, where are our flying cars? Oh wait… they’re here) others have been right on the money. 

Flip phones, smart watches, floor-cleaning robots, flat-panel televisions, and much more can all be found in media decades before their development. Whether these predictions were natural and obvious extrapolations of contemporary technology, or served as inspiration for future engineers, they always capture our imaginations.

While some of these stories lay out fairly benign futures, others are more cautionary in tone – warning us, in movies like The Terminator or in George Orwell’s novels, not to get too far ahead of ourselves. The 2002 movie Minority Report depicts the automated routing of vehicles and customized advertising via biometric surveillance, both of which could be misused by the state. Back to the Future II famously showed two contrasting versions of our technological future.

Themes in both movies have been compared to some incipient technologies of our time, at the same time exciting and perhaps a little scary, that comprise “smart cities”.

What Makes A City Smart?

Today, about half the world’s population lives in cities. By 2050 about 70% of the population is expected to live in urban areas comprising only 2% of the surface of the Earth, watch here. This density naturally puts pressure on safety, health, transportation, and infrastructure. With 5G now being implemented across the country, cities are expected to get “smarter” in hopes of managing so many people in such a small space.

The idea of a smart city is centered around data, and lots of it. Loads and loads! By densely peppering urban areas with sensors of every kind, the data collected can be fed into advanced heuristic algorithms that make near-instant decisions (infinitely faster than any given municipal bureaucrat). The more data, the better result of the algorithms. 

These algorithms can control any number of processes intended to increase the efficiency of day-to-day activities in what is called the Internet-of-Things (IoT). Routing traffic, either by automated signaling or direct control of autonomous vehicles, can (theoretically) reduce congestion, prevent accidents, shorten commutes, and limit fuel consumption. Smart electrical grids are expected to greatly reduce energy waste. Other innovations include drones to aid in rapid emergency response. 

But these advanced systems aren’t possible without a communication network that can handle the sheer volume of data.

The Role Of 5G

Thus far, what has held back the vision of the smart city is the inability to deliver the massive amount of simultaneous data necessary for the algorithms to quickly react to conditions and deliver control instructions. The IoT sensors, control devices, and any central computer servers hosting the algorithms must be in constant, and almost instant, communication for this process to work.

The massive leap in data transmission rates that comes with 5G is expected to make that happen. At its fastest level of operation, 5G is a hundredfold faster than the current 4G network. To achieve these speeds, 5G must use high-frequency millimeter wave transmissions across a dense array of antennas. The antennas use beamforming processes to direct signals at 5G devices and maintain persistent connectivity. 

As idyllic as the 5G smart city life may sound, though, it’s not without its drawbacks – or controversy.

Progress… with vigilance

By nature, a smart city must be essentially blanketed in 5G transmissions in order for its algorithms to do their job. Some opponents of the current rollout of 5G infrastructure have pointed out that the potential health effects of such constant exposure to the high frequency millimeter waves need further study. Others have philosophical concerns with how data is collected and used – concerns we can all relate to.

Movies like Minority Report show the dichotomy of a utopian/dystopian future full of the trade-offs that come with a technologically-enhanced lifestyle. Often, what holds back innovations is not the lack of ideas, but just the technological ability to put those ideas into action. When that technology finally becomes available, it’s up to us as a society to make sure it’s used for good.

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