Educating the city of the future

Rohit Talwar, global futurist and CEO of Fast Future, explains how smart cities will impact the education sector

Cities worldwide are competing to build highly interconnected ‘smart city’ environments. The aim is for people, government, civil society, the education sector, and business to operate in symbiosis with powerful, exponentially improving technologies. These include big data, the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous vehicles, 3D/4D printing, and renewable energy. If the pursuit of ‘smart’ becomes a key driver in the evolving future of cities as communities and economic centres, how might this affect education? 

Learn anywhere, anytime

One of the critical infrastructure planning challenges is always, how big to build a school, hospital, or other public service building for the future? The lead time through design, planning, construction, and occupancy can be significant. So firstly, AI could help in the planning by analysing demographics, local economic shifts and key infrastructure construction project data and outcomes from around the world, and the implications for service delivery. Secondly, new construction techniques such as modular construction, 3D printing, self-healing materials, embedded sensors, and new data storage technologies could help build flexibility into new buildings.

Furthermore, AI could augment reality around the smart city with educational experiences which inspire learning.  Personal AI would be able to create tailored learning opportunities anytime, anyplace. However, to get the most from portable education technology, physical spaces need to be interactive and flexible. Smart cities could achieve this with a blanket of sensors embedded in the infrastructure that could provide accurate information about public space usage. Multi-surface, experiential and outdoors learning would be encouraged in a smart city. With real-time data, local governments and citizens could decide how to use the resources available more efficiently. So, for example, schooling and classrooms could be decoupled from fixed buildings with the learning experiences taking place at a range of different geographical locations within the same neighbourhood. This might reduce the amount of physical space required for a school as a proportion of the pupils would always be out on location.

‘While AI might teach the more technical lessons, teachers could gravitate towards a life coach role that inspires those in their charge.’

When student engagement is civic engagement

The AI backbone supporting smart city life will allow deep personalisation and contextualisation of learning. For example, an engineering student could utilise smart technologies to learn about mega skyscraper construction within the context of the smart city in which she lives. The AI could take into account the details of the locality of the project, build in relevant local/cultural considerations, and even incorporate information about the methodologies and experience of the various partners on the project. This type of student engagement would raise local involvement and potentially increase civic engagement – a win-win.  

Smart cities are inherently sustainable because of intricate provisioning and monitoring of public resources, such as roadways and energy. With a built-in focus on guarding the commons, students in a smart city will naturally obtain a sense of the value of balance and responsibility for the public good. Through strategies involving rewards (and possibly punishments), smart cities will enforce policies that support the smooth flow of traffic, avoid waste and maximise energy use, among other benefits. The ability to create behavioural change will be both a risk and a benefit to education in a smart city context, treading the fine line between surveillance and data capture. When it comes to young children in particular, there may be special considerations for buildings that record one’s every move, prompts activity that might violate free will, and use facial recognition monitoring. Schools will be key settings in which to define socially accepted boundaries of observational technology.  

‘The aim is for people, government, civil society, the education sector, and business to operate in symbiosis with powerful, exponentially improving technologies.’

Teaching smarter

Even when technology has the power to make the everyday activities within smart cities more predictable, there will be no such thing as a ‘normal day’, especially regarding education. While AI might teach the more technical lessons, teachers could gravitate towards a life coach role that inspires those in their charge. One-on-one conversations would create closer relationships between mentors and mentees. Credits may be awarded for developing socialisation skills though interactions with diverse audiences online and in the local community – becoming another data point that smart cities could track. Rather than grades, or perhaps as a supplement to grades, students might be assessed by their community credits and socialisation scores.

Businesses could be involved in the training and education of the future workforce and could also play a part in developing new curricula. Artificial intelligence would be the enabling technology for schools to provide education curriculum that evolves with the expected future needs of the business world. The World Economic Forum predicts that two thirds of today’s primary school children will work in job types that don’t yet exist, implying that a world comprised of smart cities needs to create learning experiences fit for the future of work rather than the past or present. 

A well-thought out smart city vision, enabled by a robust and well-executed plan, could provide the foundation stones for the next stage of social development. This implies a world where science and technology are genuinely harnessed in service of creating a very human future. Clearly the role of education in moulding well-educated, conscientious citizens is central to the realisation of this vision of the future. 

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