It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself – anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime, it was called.
1984 by George Orwell

That is an extract from my favorite book "1984" by George Orwell. Obviously Orwell presents an extremely negative vision of technology in the future (or the past I guess). One in which the Party’s surveillance tactics and technology are so advanced that even the smallest twitch can betray a rebellious spirit. He presents a world in which a regime uses technology to control and to spread propaganda and fear. I love Orwell's books and the worlds that he creates but I do not see a future so pessimistic and bleak for us.

There is no doubt in my mind that the exponential explosion of technological achievement in the past century is fantastic. If you just take the last decade we have seen the rise of the internet, social networking and smartphones which are already having a dramatic effect on the way we communicate with one another, how we see the world around us and how we interact with our cities. While these advances have been used to track and analysis peoples behaviour and actions in real-time on scales never before seen; we have also experienced the democratization of information. After all the only reason you are able to read this is due to that same technological advancement.

Even though most predictions on what the world of tomorrow brings end up being hilarious quotes that highlight the fact that time is a one way mirror that you can only look back through; it is still a fun exercise and a vital one if we are going to be ready for the future cities that we as planners will have to plan for. On that note I want to talk about three future technologies that have the potential to change our world and reinvent our cities.

3D Printing

“Additive manufacturing or 3D printing is a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. 3D printing is achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes. 3D printing is considered distinct from traditional machining techniques, which mostly rely on the removal of material by methods such as cutting or drilling (subtractive processes).”

3D printing has been around for a long time now however it has always been an expensive process costing a lot and making mass production and individual ownership very unfeasible. Like any technology, 3D Printing is gradually becoming cheaper and smaller. Already there are large communities of people who own 3D Printers in their homes. The reason that small 3D printers will change our lives on a domestic scale is due to the fact we will be able to print (and design) many of the things in our home and surrounding environment. If you brake a bit of plastic off an appliance all you will have to do is go to the manufacturer's website download the 3D model of that plastic component then print it yourself. Instead of throwing the appliance out or waiting ages for a new part to be shipped to you from the other side of the world.

Look at the objects around your house that can be printed. Knifes and forks, hair combs, plates and dishes, hinges, models, plastic casings, metal elements and much more. All of which can not only be reproduced, they can also be customized and adapted for different purposes. Obviously the technology is not fully there yet but some 3D printers can even print circuit boards and extremely complex models with moving parts.

On the other side of the spectrum, large scale 3D printing may change how we build our homes and cities. Instead of building a brick wall in the traditional way (onsite and brick by brick) we could see big machines in factors printing our cities and homes in degrees of precision, speed, accuracy and customization that we can only dream of now.

Drones

“An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly known as a drone, is an aircraft without a human pilot on board. Its flight is either controlled autonomously by computers in the vehicle, or under the remote control of a pilot on the ground or in another vehicle.”

Drones have been in the news a lot recently with a lot of commentators questioning the ethics of using them in warfare. However that is not their only application. In fact it is not even their main usage. Drones are mostly used as remote senses. This includes activities such as livestock monitoring, wildfire mapping, pipeline security, home security, road patrol and anti-piracy. While industrial use is interesting it wasn't what I had in mind when I included this as a technology that could change how we interact with and view our cities.

The fact is that Drones are getting cheaper and cheaper. They are now even sold as children's toys. Cheap drones open up a whole world of personal drone usage. It is easy to imagine a world in which everyone has a personal drone following them around, detailing and recording their life and business. In fact a company already has imagined that! For $50 you can have a mini-drone follow you around taking pictures and video. The applications and privacy issues that arise from this sort of technology are huge.

We already view ourselves as a nation of watched people (a watered down version of Winston Smith) through social media and CCTV cameras. You may be asking the question, are drones a step too far? On the other hand parents may like the peace of mind it could give them being able to keep an eye on their children as they walk to school or wait for a bus. This of course would take helicopter parenting to a whole new level! Needless to say with the far reaching applications that drones have in military, industry, policing and personal usages. I doubt we have seen the peak of drones in our cities or the end to the debate over privacy vs protection.

Augmented Reality

"Augmented reality is a live, direct or indirect, view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data."

As the line between virtual and real life is beginning to blur we are starting to witness digital and dynamic content entering our lives. Out of the three technologies I have listed augmented reality has the potential to have the most profound difference on how we experience our cities. 3D printing and drone technology may become commonplace but it will be there for everyone to see and experience in a very similar way.

Augmented reality on the other hand allows us to individuality experience our cities in fundamentally different ways. Even though it is the same buildings, footpaths and roads it will add a filter to our world that will hone in on the things that we want to focus on and fade out everything else. While this can be an extremely helpful tool it also can have the effect of giving the user tunnel-vision when experiencing their city and limiting the diversity of experiences they may normally have without the technology. In the same way biased 24-hour news channels allow people to search for news that aligns with their world view, augmented reality allows people to view a version of their city that they want to see.

It is utter folly to try and predict in what form and function augmented reality will take off but it obviously has applications in a wide range of fields. Tourism, digital street art, virtual buildings, wayfinding, social networking and almost every other aspect of life will be effected by it. I can easily imagine wearing a pair of glasses with a built-in screen and camera along with a wireless internet connection. You would be able to look at someone and using face recognition and a search of social networking sites you could be presented with all the information available about that person. That is the power of mixing information from the real world with a few basic technologies and the sheer raw data of the internet.

The fact of the matter (and the really cool part) is that the future technologies that will actually alter our lives are not on this list and I doubt they are on anybodies list. That is the nature of innovation; however obvious or inevitable it may seem in hindsight it is so hard to predict or even imagine when you are looking at the future with the handicap of having to live in the past.