Three great technological revolutions have transformed our cities and the lives of the people who inhabit them. Now a fourth revolution, powered by sensors and smartphones is underway, and it will change the way we experience urban life all over again.
This, anyway, is the bold vision put forth by the Dan Doctoroff, the CEO of Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google (GOOG) parent company Alphabet that is dedicated to urban technology.
Speaking at Fortune’s Brainstorm E conference on Tuesday in Carlsbad, Calif., Doctoroff explained how cities were remade first by the steam engine, which made it easier to supply the people and supplies to make great urban centers. Next came electrical grids, which made cities vertical and open all night. And third came the automobile, which transformed their transportation and social arteries.
So what’s the fourth phase of cities? According to Doctoroff, the towns of 2016 will be unrecognizable as unlimited broadband connectivity, coupled with sensors, social networks and big data collection, give planners unprecedented insight into how people and goods move around.
And unlike the earlier revolutions, the fourth era of cities will not involve massive construction projects like roads and subways. Instead, Doctoroff says, it will be about using our existing infrastructure more efficiently. This will happen through technology like Flow, a new data platform, unveiled today by Sidewalk and the Department of Transportation, that aims to reduce traffic congestion by flagging bottlenecks or spotting gaps in public transit.
Doctoroff also believes a new phase of connected cities will help overcome the digital divide and mass inequality that separates poor and affluent cities.
“Our view is access to Internet at high speeds is as fundamental a right as electricity or water,” he said. “Ubiquitous connectivity is fundamental to the smart city of future.”
As an example of just how connectivity will help, Doctoroff pointed to the hundreds of new Internet kiosks that are starting to dot New York City. Anyone, he says, can use them to obtain strong free Internet, or access their built-in Android tablets. Meanwhile, cities stand to gain millions of dollars in new advertising revenues from the terminals.
While all this sounds promising, revolutions have a scary habit of going astray. As Fortune‘s Dan Primack noted, urban dwellers have in the past failed to appreciate their urban amenities, including subways and phone booths, and inflicted graffiti and vandalism on them instead.
So what’s to stop all the shiny new Internet kiosks from being destroyed or stripped for parts?
Doctoroff offered an optimistic answer, noting that the terminals will become “beloved assets” in every community, and that everyone will treat them as such.
He also addressed another question that has been on some people’s minds: What’s taking so long? While connected cities have been hyped for years now, the more idyllic visions have arrived slowly or not at all.
Doctoroff said one factor is change takes time, and that the previous three urban revolutions took more than a generation to complete. He also cited cultural differences between geeks and bureaucrats.
“[We’re] bridging the divide between technologists and urbanists. Right now, they don’t speak the same language… The revolution has been a disappointment so far,” he said, adding that this is about to change.